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Night of the Radishes: Playing with Food in Oaxaca

OAXACA DE JUAREZ, OAXACA - In the 16th Century, the Spanish brought many new food staples to recently conquered Mexico. One of these staples was the radish, originally from China. In subsequent years, Mexican farmers grew and harvested the vegetable in the valley of Oaxaca. When taking their food to market in the city, the farmers began making statuesque carvings from the root to help differentiate their produce stands from those of the competition.

Night of the Radishes, Oaxaca, Mexico An artisan applies touches to his radish sculpture of the symbolic Eagle of Mexico.

Carvings were typically of a folkloric nature, depicting muertos, folk dancers, government figures, nativity scenes, saints and other delightful dioramas. Eventually, the carvings became more intricate and the competition between the vendors to outdo each other more intense, especially on Christmas Eve, one of their busiest nights of the year. Housewives began collecting the objets d’art and the craft grew in popularity.

Night of the Radishes, Oaxaca, Mexico

These radishes adorned with dried flowers depict a religious procession.

In 1897, the mayor of Oaxaca started the first exhibition of radish art, and the Noche de rábanos, or Night of the Radishes took root.

Night of the Radishes, Oaxaca, Mexico

This artisan carefully applies dried flowers to her radish dancers.

Fast forward to present day. The Night of the Radishes occurs every December 23rd and has become a MAJOR event in Oaxaca. Thousands of people bus or drive in from all over Oaxaca state, Mexico and other countries to check out the resplendent radish creations, which only last for a few hours due to the unrefrigerated shelf life of the medium.

Night of the Radishes, Oaxaca, Mexico

A nativity scene with spice…made of radishes and dried flowers.

Dozens of artisans create and then display their masterpieces on tables that circumnavigate the city’s main zocola, the Plaza de Armas, as locals and tourists alike line up for hours to view the varying scenes. The winner of the competition receives approximately $1,300 US and their photo is published on the front page of Oaxaca’s main newspaper.

Night of the Radishes, Oaxaca, Mexico

A “Tree of Life” altar made from radishes.

These are not your typical, round grocery store variety radishes. Radishes for the event can measure up to 20 inches and are grown on a single farm just outside of Oaxaca’s airport. The radishes are treated with fertilizer and other chemicals to attain their great size. And are definitely not to be consumed.

Night of the Radishes, Oaxaca, Mexico

Religious relics are built from radishes and dried flowers.

El Gringo and his family are in Oaxaca for the Holidays, and we had the privilege of watching the busy artists assemble and display their carefully constructed creations. Adverse to long lines, we observed during the afternoon, later to find out that we made a good decision. Another family in our hotel (the excellent and economical Hotel Trebol, housed in a Spanish Colonial building) reported that they waited in line for three hours, only to be turned away as the line was cut off by the police toward the end of the night.

Night of the Radishes, Oaxaca, Mexico

This artisan applies finishing touches to his diorama of the crucifixion of Saint Sebastian.

In addition to radishes, artisans also incorporate dried flowers and cornhusks to craft extremely detailed folkloric scenes, architecture and other amazing pieces. El Gringo’s favorites were a cornhusk sculpture of the Government Palace in Oaxaca, the Mexican eagle symbol and a group of drunken muertos dancing around their tombstones.

Night of the Radishes, Oaxaca, Mexico

A cornhusk creation depicting the Government Palace on Oaxaca’s Plaza de Armas.

Night of the Radishes, Oaxaca, Mexico

An artisan applies touches to his radish sculpture of the symbolic Eagle of Mexico.

Night of the Radishes, Oaxaca, Mexico

These radical radishes show drunken muertos dancing in a graveyard.

At the end of the festival, a massive fireworks display happens at the Cathedral of Oaxaca…the likes of which El Gringo has not seen before. Towers adorned with spinning pyrotechnic wheels and flying saucers are lit, sending sparks into the air and the crowd. Cannons BOOM and colorful fiery flowers explode just 30 feet over our heads. El Gringo’s hijo reacted as if in a war zone, but the display was amazing indeed.

Night of the Radishes, Oaxaca, Mexico

The Night of the Radishes climaxes with an impressive display of fireworks at the Oaxaca Cathedral.

The Night of the Radishes is a great tradition in Oaxaca. And given the size of the crowd we navigated at the end of the night, should continue to take root in the imaginations of both artists and observers for many years to come.

Your Gringo in Mexico,
Scott

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