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OAXACA: FADED PAST, COLORFUL PRESENT Founded in 1529, the city gives truer picture of a land and people than the high-rises of Acapulco

MEXICO — knew Mexico long before I ever visited it -- knew it from novels, and while that may be a strange way to know a place, it is not an uncommon one.

I suppose I ought to tell you, too, that nearly all of my images of Mexico were from fiction by non-Mexicans: the whiskey priest in Graham Greene's "The Power and the Glory," the drunken consul in Malcolm Lowry's "Under the Volcano," the prospectors in B. Traven's "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," which John Huston filmed with Humphrey Bogart. Or the Mexico of the satirist Ambrose Bierce, who vanished across the border into Chihuahua in 1913 and last was heard from en route to visit Pancho Villa's troops. The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes wrote "The Old Gringo" about Bierce's disappearance.

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Tired of life, the 71-year-old Bierce sent this letter to a relative shortly before his trip south:

"If you should hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think it is a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico -- ah, that is euthanasia."

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There were other Mexicos, too -- the Mexico of D. H. Lawrence or the Mexico of the Beats in the 1950s: William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac or Neal Cassady, that prince of disorder who died on the railroad tracks outside of San Miguel de Allende. Or the lovers in Harriet Doerr's "Stones for Ibarra."

These writers created a world populated by lost souls, dissolutes.

Alas, they are only illusions, and the travelers whose appetites have been fed on fiction eventually must acknowledge that the Mexico of novels exists only between bound pages.

But traces of the Mexico that inspired those novels still may be found in the province of Oaxaca, particularly in the capital city of the same name. The tourism boom of the last 25 years mostly bypassed the country's southernmost state. So in Oaxaca it is possible to find an older, grander, if slightly seedy Mexico without the high-rise beachfront hotels of Cancun or Acapulco, or the smog and mayhem of Mexico City. And there are fewer foreigners in Oaxaca than in the coastal resorts.The visitors are mostly Mexicans, businessmen or Indian villagers up to the capital for the day.

If Oaxaca is not quite as bizarre as Graham Greene or Malcolm Lowry would have it in fiction, it's still a long way from the sanitized holiday of Club Med. Here you still can see the Third World and the Old World conjoined in a wonderful, vulgar and sad spectacle.

Nowhere is this more visible than in the zocalo, or Plaza de Armas (Plaza Central), which sits at the heart of Oaxaca. You can sit on one of the ornate wrought-iron benches or sip coffee at a cafe and watch a continuous pageant, a never-ending procession of protesters demanding land reforms, underpaid school teachers, angry farmers and regiments of young soldiers, sometimes complete with a military brass band. Men with raised, clenched fists and a flurry of leaflets are followed by two dozen little girls dressed in costumes of sombreros and serapes, singing traditional music.

The zocalo is a place of rich street theater, too, and among the most diverting players on this stage are the hustlers, vendors and shoeshine men and boys who stalk the great plaza.

Because of the heat in Oaxaca, the rays of the strong sun intensified by the altitude, the zocalo really comes alive after dark. In the evening, musicians perform impromptu in front of the genteel, shabby Monte Alban or Marques de Valle hotels. A group of middle-aged men accompanied by an accordionist stops to serenade some friends drinking coffee. A small crowd intently studies a pair of chess players. Many of these are the characters out of all of the fiction that fed my imagination's Mexico, sprung to life.

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The extraordinary and concentrated day- and nightlong spectacle gives Oaxaca's zocalo the deserved reputation of the best plaza in Mexico.

The zocalo, actually two squares, is part tree-shaded park with an enormous and elaborate old bandstand that hosts nightly concerts, part central meeting area bordered by arcades of shops and outdoor cafes. The baroque-style cathedral, which dates from the 16th century, and the Palacio de Gobierno, stand on opposite sides of the zocalo.

There is a lot of pain and misery in Mexico, and you will see that in the zocalo, too. The posters on the main streets in Oaxaca promote the campaign against polio. Cripples drag themselves along the streets or beg. Blind Indians play their little wooden flutes on street corners at the same spot every day. The families of the afflicted gather in the shade under the porticos that surround the zocalo. Every blind or crippled man in Mexico travels with an entourage.

The edges of the zocalo are crammed with vendors selling ice cream, roast corn, chunks of pineapple on a stick, slices of dripping watermelon, chorizo (sausage), brightly painted carved wooden animals, serapes, little hand-carved toys for children, tiny tin skeletons dancing on the end of a stick, and day-old copies of The News, Mexico's English-language daily.

Along with the zocalo, the provincial capital is famous for its Saturday public market on the outskirts of the city, a sprawling array of produce that covers several blocks. Indians from the villages crowd the market, carrying tiny cages full of brightly colored tropical birds stacked ladderlike on their backs, enormous baskets of fruit and vegetables, leather goods, serapes and shawls, and folk medicines for man and beast.

The Old World charm of the great public square and the simple Indian village life that trickles down into the city from the mountain villages is much of what sets Oaxaca apart from much of modern Mexico.

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Oaxaca is an old city, founded by Cortes in 1529. The most colonial city in Mexico, it retains much of its rich past of Spanish conquistadors and pre-Columbian Indian cultures. The narrow streets are rich in architecture from "la epoca colonial." Industrialization did not stop here. Except for cars, much of the city seems still in the 19th or even 18th century -- and many of the buildings date to even earlier times. It is the city of two of Mexico's most famous national heroes -- the presidents Benito Juarez and Porfirio Diaz.

Many of the buildings and walls are a sun-bleached brown, faded soft suedelike colors, with a splash of pastel trim or painted shutters. Others are painted bright pastel colors, sharp turquoises and pinks. Some are trimmed with wrought-iron grillwork. Great swatches of bright bougainvilleas and roses hang over the little walls that ensure privacy from the street. Enormous terra-cotta pots overflow with geraniums. The sky over this valley most often is a sharp azure blue.

Because Oaxaca has the soul of an old colonial town, it is ideal for walking, a warren of tiny squares full of great towering old trees shading skinny dogs and built around ornate and garish old fountains and crumbling churches.

The churches remind me that we are never far from God in Mexico. He is with us always there -- in the 29 churches from la epoca colonial in the capital and in the enormous, grotesque and completely out of proportion cathedral-like edifices that rise magnificent and decaying from the dry, brown plains in tiny poor villages such as San Pedro and San Pablo Etla.

The walls of these churches are hung with Christs. Christ on the cross. Christ crowned with thorns. Christ scourged. Christ with stigmata. Christ in a coffin. Christ resurrected. Weeping Christs and bleeding Christs and Christ naked and Christ adorned. The barn swallows and other small birds swoop and dive in and out of the naves. Many of these churches are half-abandoned, rarely or little used, the hopeless efforts at restoration simply unable to keep up with centuries of neglect and disrepair, earthquakes, the heat and the rain, and Mexico's periodic and virulent bouts of anti-Catholicism -- and the terrible poverty. Rich and elaborate // wall murals, now peeling and flaking, adorn the church walls.

When the sun beats down on the city, the churches are the best refuge. They are almost always open, shady, cool, nearly empty but for an occasional supplicant, weeping and lighting candles or praying fervently before the statue of some patron saint. This is an older Roman Catholicism. The battered metal poor box for offerings. The crude little candles that can be bought for a few pesos to implore the virgin or San Felipe or Nuestra Senora de Consolacion. It is pleasant to sit in these churches absorbing the beauty and the quiet. There is a wonderfully damp and holy smell of incense and wax burning, the darkened vaulted interiors of these decaying ruins lighted only by the unsteady flicker of tiny votive candles.

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An elderly American who has lived in Oaxaca for many years tells me that as he gets older he spends more and more time in these old churches.

"It's better than the theater," he says, adding, "of course, it's also the only place in Mexico I've ever had my pocket picked."

Perhaps like the cynic Ambrose Bierce, he has come down to Mexico to lose a bit of himself and spend his last days in a country where death is less forbidding. He is a latter-day old gringo who has traded the bureaucracy of old age in modern America for a crumbling colonial-era house complete with a shaded courtyard and ancient fountain in a narrow lane off the zocalo.

The old gringo, sufficiently evasive about his own past and deeply involved with the old Mexico, was precisely the kind of character who fascinated me long ago from the distance of fiction.

And on hot afternoons when the sun beats down on the provincial capital and the dry mountain land around it, he sits in the shade in one of the city's old churches like San Felipe Neri or San Juan de Dios where the old Indian women say the rosary amid the damp, holy smell of tiny votive candles flickering in the dark.

This old man in a crumbling baroque church is part of a Mexico D. H. Lawrence and Malcolm Lowry might have known.

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If you go

March through May perhaps is the best tinme to visit Oaxaca, when the jacaranda trees sprout purple flowers and the vegetation in this often brown, parched land is a soft, fresh green.

In addition to the richest display of colonial-era architecture in Mexico, Oaxaca is home to several of the finest pre-Columbian ruins in the country. Monte Alban, on a hillside overlooking the provincial capital, is about a 30-minute drive. Mitla and Yagul, also in the province of Oaxaca, are slightly farther from the capital. These sites reflect the elaborate cultures of the Zapotec and Mixtec who thrived here before the arrival of the Spanish.

The province of Oaxaca is famed for the rich variety of Indian markets featuring folk arts, particularly black pottery. In addition to the great Saturday market in Oaxaca city, outlying mountain villages have markets each day of the week. The tourist office in the provincial capital has English-speaking staff that can advise visitors on the schedule of regional markets.

The Mexican government has tourist offices in New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, Washington, Chicago, Montreal and Toronto. Information: (800)262-8900, or Mexico-by-Rail (800)228-3225.


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