The smell of fresh tamales mingled with whiffs of sweet atole and my stomach grumbled. Throngs of people of all ages were crammed into the dark plaza with lighted brujas (lamps) as the only source of light. Someone came onto the stage: a roadie setting up a mike. An excited murmur moved the crowd.
It was the Martes de Brujas gathering in Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan (Xoxo to locals, pronounced ‘ho ho’), a municipality of Oaxaca, Mexico. Every Tuesday night for a month, starting in late February, the small central square is set up with stalls selling traditional tamales: a corn-dough mass filled with a variety of sauces and then roasted in banana leaves or corn husks. You can buy all kinds: mole (a slightly sweet sauce served with chicken), beef, bean, pork, and even sweet ones like pineapple and chocolate. They sell for an average of 50 cents and it doesn’t take many to fill you.
Atole, a hot, sweet drink also made from corn is served along with the tamales. Both tamales and atole are pre-Hispanic foods that were often used as offerings to the Aztec gods.
The word bruja translates from Spanish as ‘witch’ but it’s also the name of an old fashioned wick-style lamp, made from tin. In the colonial days when the first cathedrals in this area were being built, the workers often toiled long into the night, and the lamps, lit by the women were the signal of a shift change. The men were given tamales and atole as their meal. They all ate together as if they were one big family.
Now the lit brujas draw in neighbors and visitors looking for a delicious and cheap meal…and to pay tribute to the hard working men and women who helped construct the town. The recipes have been passed down for generations and the mood is friendly and social. The entertainment is nothing to sneeze at either!
I stood among the crowd, peering for a look at the stage to see when the popular singer, Lila Downs, would emerge. Well known and loved within Mexico, and in particular her home area of Oaxaca, Lila might be best known internationally for her role in the movie Frida (although she holds many projects to her credit and three Grammys.) Her songs, often remakes, are tailored to take on a distinctively Oaxacan sound and encourage the preservation of the indigenous heritage of Mexico.
So there I was, full of tamales and atole and about to watch a free concert of a world class artist. The large crowd was excited and the atmosphere electric.
Because I am an English-as-a-foreign-language teacher, events like this one are easily accessible. In fact, this particular festival and concert took place 10 minutes away from my house.
Teaching English is a great way to break free from being location dependent and to experience local customs, food, and festivals. And teachers are in demand in most parts of the world.
Apart from the opportunities available with language schools, universities, and private classes, giving lessons online is another option that makes for even more flexibility.
Teaching English to students from all around the world by Internet, while based in Oaxaca, allows me to receive good pay in a city with a low cost of living. I don’t have to work much to cover my expenses. A few hours of conversation classes in the morning and I have the rest of the day (and weekends) to explore Oaxaca and the surrounding villages—and to attend local events like this one.
As Lila Downs burst onto stage and the crowd went wild, I smiled, feeling grateful once again for my career choice.
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