Second Prize Winner of the 2015-16 Writing Contest

Stephanie Bi, Class of 2016, participated in the Oaxaca Program in Winter 2016.


It is a rare morning when I am not awoken by an orchestra: the disembodied tamale vendor’s pitch – Tamales! Tamalestamalestamales! Tamaaaales! –, a rooster’s urgent crow that persists well past daybreak, and domestic and alley dogs greeting each other across the fence of the funeral home next door. The rooster’s supposed cock-a-doodle-doo had been imprinted in my mind a la Old MacDonald, but this was my first time hearing the fabled cry in its unadulterated, non-stylized form. A childhood dream that I did not know I had – come true.

The unmistakable sizzle of huevos con chorizo from the kitchen drifts through my ajar bedroom door, and I need no reminder from my host mother, my madre mexicana, to hurry down for breakfast. Silverware scrapes punctuate the fragmented Spanish of the adopted daughters of the house. “Satisfecha?” My mother invariably asks, without needing to hear the answer. Clinking my dishes down by the sink with a “Sí. Muchas gracias,” I am met, as always, with a flurry of pleasantries to have myself a wonderful day. I try to keep my promise to do so.

 A moving parade celebrating a weddingA row of booths hugging the curves on Oaxaca’s main street, Calzada Porfirio Díaz, sell fried, steamed, chilled, grilled, and toasted edibles. I can tell without turning my head to look because the hawkers sing their wares to me as I pass by, in paparazzi bursts. Before you see them, you will smell them. And before you smell them, you will hear them. Their words settle on the sidewalk, and are pecked at by softly cooing pigeons.

The ubiquitous motorcycles weave through the honking Volkswagens and taxicabs, buzzing assertively like giant cicadas. Some transport Domino’s pizza, sushi, or pharmaceutical goods, but just as many carry daring young couples, at times sans helmets. Men dangle nearly their entire bodies out of the front window of buses to holler a string of destinations at potential passengers. The policia estatal, who stand in the back of their trucks with machine guns slung across their backs, however, always roll by slowly in silence.

¡Estefany! ¡Buenos días, pásele!” The owner of the much adored Breve Café, sombrero seemingly glued to his head, beckons me in. “Diego, verdad?” I shake his outstretched hand, remembering his name well from my last visit. The café fills with music from his 20-something year old daughter’s iPad: Amy Winehouse’s “Sober,” Kygo’s remix of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” and Oasis’ “Wonderwall.” I wonder: are they playing this music specially to intrigue the foreigner in the house, or is this the usual fare?

Admittedly, I am only half-working on my laptop, the other half of my attention absorbing the banter that the five apparently young old friends are sharing at a table nearby. I don’t listen with intention, but the lively camaraderie is tangible. Mexican slang phrases are easily swapped about, and some float my way: “No manches, guey!” and “En serio?” Diego’s wife, Irma, leans against the counter and interjects with jokes, often teasing one of the men good-heartedly. Her comments are welcomed with a round of belly laughter that pulsates through the hardwood floor and into my toes.

Diego joins me at my petite table and tries to teach me a few phrases in Zapoteco, but they fly by my untrained ear. I am grateful for the effort and am not quite sure why I am surprised to encounter an indigenous speaker – Zapoteco is just one of the at least sixteen indigenous languages spoken in Oaxaca. Humbled, I thank Diego and Irma and exit the café.

I head south to the tianquis in Parque Llano, which occurs every Friday. The word tianquis is immediately more mellifluous to me than its English translation, “flea market.” “Tian” also can mean “sky” in Mandarin Chinese – and the market is little short of a cacophonous, shopping and tasting heaven. Away from the roasting meat and animated bartering, young children can be heard squealing mirthfully. They race each other in their roaring, battery-powered cars, in circles around the park’s quietly bubbling central fountain. At the far southeast corner of the park, a ring of teenagers battle one another in a freestyle rap cypher. I catch, “…como eres en la secundaria,” – “…like you are in middle school,” – apparently, a well-delivered insult that receives cheering and guffawing from the group.

The parks and streets start to fill with families and couples eating elotes, corn-on-the-cob smothered with mayonnaise, dusted with cheese crumbles and chili powder, and showered with lime juice. Every evening, the disembodied tamale vendor is replaced by the disembodied elote vendor. The tamale vendor’s pitch has a spry cadence, but the elote vendor’s drawn-out “eloteeeeeees!” is a veritable monastic chant. It is a cue for me to start heading home, as the sun is beginning to set. Along my way back, juice shops and bakeries clang their pull-down metal doors shut for the day, while bars and McCarthy’s Irish Pub gradually enliven with clamor. I pass by the two-pot food cart near my home, which serves a small nighttime crowd sitting on mismatched barstools or on the sidewalk’s curb. Without fail, an old-fashioned radio leans against the cart and plays crackled music to guide me back to the house.

 Children on the staircase to El Cerro del FortínTo my surprise, I am welcomed home by a post-dinner, pre-bedtime cup of hot chocolate and sweet Mexican breads (pan dulce). Lingering at the kitchen table with my host family, I chatter about soccer with my host mom’s five-year-old grandson, before heading up to my room. Back in Chicago, I had found it nearly impossible to sleep through creaking floorboards or whoops of glee from the fraternity house across the street. Here, the nighttime Mexican cumbia and American pop from the bar across the street, occasionally accompanied by off-key, slurred scream-singing, curiously puts me right to sleep.