Indigenous Culture, Oaxaca life

A Fusion of Past and Present

By Lindsey Shilleh

Telling people back home that I was moving to Mexico, usually led to glares, suggesting that I must be nuts for moving there, of all places! Of course, this is a reflection of how the US views Mexico nowadays. A perception dictated by the “War on Drugs”, and the narcotrafficking that is present in the North of Mexico, and the stigma this has placed on all of Mexico. 

Take away the few vacation hot-spots that line the Mexican coast, and are largely isolated from Mexican culture, and much of Mexico is left unexplored. How sad to think that so many will miss out on the rich culture, delicious food, and incredible biodiversity that Mexico really has to offer travelers.

My first days in Oaxaca quickly reminded me of why I was always interested in coming to Oaxaca: this is a city of great juxtaposition; a city that somehow manages to keep one foot in the past, and one foot in the present.

Intriguing is this notion of holding onto one’s history without actively resisting the inevitable change of tomorrow. I’ve visited places that manage maintain the their culture.  Take Amizmiz, a small city in the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco; the stillness of the city transports you backwards in time. Modern cities are plentiful, of course; but finding a delicate balance between the history of the past and the change of tomorrow is no easy feat.

There is something magical and unique about Oaxaca. With 16 different indigenous groups, deep-rooted traditions and culture abounds wherever you turn; yet, Oaxaca is still very actively a part of our globalized, connected, forward-thinking world. There is balance here. That balance hangs in the air like thick fog that on any given day hurtles you back in time 2000 years and then forward again to present day.

I love how I can visit the Rufino Tamayo Musuem of Pre-Columbian Art to marvel in awe of Mexico’s major ancient civilizations only to then find my way to the Museum of Contemporary Art of Oaxaca and catch the newest minimalist exhibit. As I wander the city streets and chat with the people, I can feel it; amidst the energy in the air, there is something that signals a natural fusion of past and present, and a refusal to let bygones be bygones.

 As I sit drinking café in the Zocalo, on a Sunday afternoon, I sit back and listen to the Oaxacan State band play or simply cross the square and launch myself into the modern political day with the never ceasing array of political demonstrations on display. The diversity of Oaxaca is at its finest in the many markets that scatter the city streets, where the pulse of the city is effervescent and there is no shortage of vibrant stimulation.


A couple Sundays back, I ventured out to Tlacolula, a nearby Zapotec village, which hosts the oldest and according to some, largest market in Central America. I was immediately submerged in the markets frenzied movement, where there is nothing you can’t find as the stalls of the bustling market overflow with crafts, goods and basic necessities. Roosters for sale, next to a collection of old cell phone chargers; Pirated DVD’s alongside Tejate, a traditional Oaxacan drink. Women from the same village dress alike, in traditionally embroidered outfits and with hair of a particular style. All the while, Converse sneakers and cheesy bedazzled t-shirts are sold directly behind a stall selling freshly shelled cacao.



“Market and religion. These alone bring men, unarmed, together since time began. . . . to buy, to sell, to barter, to exchange. to exchange, above all things, human contact”. In Mornings in Mexico, D.H. Lawrence captures Oaxacan culture without even knowing it.  The markets are a place of excitement, bubbling over with exchanges- both material and the intangible.  


Old and new converge here in Oaxaca; and the people continue to merge the tradition and ideals of their past, with the technological progress and global interconnectedness of the future. Everything is rooted in tradition, and all that is new seems to be a variation of the past.  Family heirlooms, rich in sentimentality are passed down from generation to generation. Artisanal techniques from that of mezcal to the fine-tuned skill of making traditional Mexican instruments by hand, longstanding recipes, “disenos de la casa” (designs of the house) are all symbols of pride and identity. Here in Oaxaca, that generational history is ever-present. Here people’s refusal to let the past dissolve, has formed a collective memory that lingers and persists so that even to the traveler or outsider, Oaxaca makes herself known. 


1 thought on “A Fusion of Past and Present”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s