Noche de rábanos: Digging to the root of Oaxaca’s Christmas radish festival

Published in the Vancouver Observer news site  |  December 24, 2011  |  Circulation: 100,000 average monthly readers.

Radish carvings were joined by dried flower and corn husk art at Oaxaca’s Night of the Radishes. Photos by David P. Ball.

The wee radish is often belittled as a mere side dish, or confined to a supporting role as garnish on salads.

But in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, the spicy red root vegetable is awarded high status on one night of the year – December 23 – as tens of thousands cram into the city centre of Oaxaca de Juarez for the unique “Noche de rábanos” (Night of the Radishes) festival.

 Yesterday, Oaxaca’s Plaza Zócalo (city centre square) was occupied by a teeming crowd eager to glimpse exquisitely carved radishes which local farmers grow to monumental sizes – monumental for radishes, that is: up to three kilograms and 50 centimetres long. The radishes are left in the ground long after normal harvesting – attaining extreme sizes and bizarre shapes.

“Starting early in the morning, Oaxacans and tourists formed long line-ups to admire the sculptures,” reported a local newspaper, NSS Oaxaca. “Everyone recognized the effort and dedication of the ‘magic hands’ which created the works of true art.”

Artisans have competed for a cash prize for the past 113 years, ever since an enterprising mayor, Francisco Vasconcelos Flores, attempted to lift spirits before Christmas in 1897. The prize yesterday’s was 15,000 pesos, or roughly CAD $1,100. Needless to say, that buys a lot in Mexico, and the competition between carvers was fierce.

Some sculpted giant radishes into images of the Virgin Mary, while others amalgamated dozens of smaller radishes into historic scenes, building models, and abstract art.

The story of Oaxaca’s Night of the Radishes reportedly goes back well before 1897, however. One version of its history suggests that, following the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 16th century, the colonizing Catholic priests found it difficult to convince local peasants to shop at a market in a new town they had established in the Atoyac River lowlands. Having convinced locals to farm their imported vegetables, they needed to find them some customers.

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Although the conquistadores were renowned for their widespread violence – and colonization is, by nature, violent – the Dominican monks of Oaxaca attempted to attract Indigenous peoples to their market with a simple tool: radishes carved into elaborate scenes and shapes.

Apparently, their hope was that locals would come to identify with the strange imports brought by the Spanish but carving them into cute and interesting shapes.

In fact, radishes – known by botanists as Raphanus sativus L – originated in China. But with global trade expanding around the 15th century, the Spanish soon brought it to Mexico.

No one knows who, exactly, imagined that the vegetables would make a good medium for fine art. But for hundreds of years, local farmers have bred radishes to be larger and larger, feeding a growing demand from artisans for bigger carving blocks.

Today, the festival features a wide array of subject matter – from historic kings and deities, to modern Catholic iconography, animals, and even modern abstract sculpture. Farmers deliver the radishes – tied into bundles by their stems – up to three days before the festival.

Artists apply for tables in the central square, and on December 23 set up their sculptures. Children are invited to watch and learn how to carve radishes themselves. By late afternoon yesterday, the plaza was totally packed with people, most of them locals who flock to the Night of the Radishes year after year – among them tourists from across Mexico and around the world.

A local newspaper reported that 70 children participated in carving workshops hosted by Oaxaca’s ministry of arts and culture.

It got so busy yesterday that police were forced to close off streets surrounding the Plaza Zócalo and asked people to line up to enter. Onlookers queued for hours, waiting to climb onto raised platforms designed to provide the best close-up viewing.

In the afternoon, sculptors – ranging from teenagers to elderly veterans of the festival – had to stand by their artwork, spraying it down with water spritzers to keep the radishes bright red and fresh-looking.

In recent years, new additions to the contest include sculptures made of corn husks (flor inmortal) and dried flowers (totomoxtle). Some displays were inspired by Oaxaca’s history – referencing the dozens of Indigenous cultures which make of the majority of the state’s population, as well as a 2006 street uprising which occupied the Zócalo for months on end as well as state buildings and media.

This year’s festival – in which 120 artists competed for the cash prize and their photo in local newspapers – culminated after dark with live music and a long fireworks display.

Although there were several entry categories, the festival’s traditional radish-carving winner was Hermenegildo Contreras Cruz, who beat out his competitors with amazing his radish sculpture depicting altars honouring the dead common in Oaxacan households – titled “Tradicional Altar de Muertos en las Casas Oaxaqueñas, Imaginación de los Oaxaqueños.”

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