The carved homily to the Mexican revolution is an ornate monument. Pancho Villia and Emilio Zapata reside majestically in front of an epic tableau that describes the pivotal period in Mexican history with a grandesque flourish. It is all carved from giant radishes.
Such is the unique nature of Oaxacas “Night of the Radishes”, a festival so absurd in conception that to the idle bystander it seems that it could only possibly encapsulate “whacky” shaped vegetables and perhaps a cheerfully moronic drink fest. But it is taken in deadly seriousness in this South West state of Mexico where it has been practiced for over a century.
In the alternate reality of this red and white night, the central plaza of Oaxaca heaves with expectant crowds and lovingly carved vegetables. Radish Frida Kahlos sharing their radish kidneys, radishes courting one another in radish village dances and perhaps inevitably in this most Catholic of countries, a queen sized radish virgin Mary all share the main plaza. The owner of each one anxiously tends their creation with droplets sprayed water lest the radishes grow weary before the night is out.
The peculiar magic of the evening brings an astoundingly large crowd who queue round the blocks surrounding the plaza waiting for their chance to see the vegetable art on offer. As the governor cuts the tape to let in the lucky first voyeurs those at the back can only sigh in weary resignation. Since the tradition of the night is that viewers grab whichever figures take their fancy from the displays, the last in can only gaze wistfully at some slightly threadbare tableaus.
Art Student Gary Vargas has radish sculpturing in the family, This year he is feeling the heat of family competition, with his revolution “piece” to the side of his fathers more mature (read less interesting) work. A member of the family has presented their offerings for 5 generations now, and he describes the night as a mystic union of man, earth and raddish.
“As a person it’s having contact with the earth and with the products it gives us to present them. And what better way to do that then to sculpt them, shape them, using our imagination to express how we feel.”
In between handing out prizes to the best pieces, Margarita Consuelo, event organizer and president of the Oaxacan folkloric Institute, elaborates on the history of the night.
“It all started when the indigenous people were given lands and began growing all sorts of vegetables. They took them to the great Christmas market in Oaxaca to sell, and someone had the bright idea to start carving figures from their vegetables. The housewives loved it and starting buying the figures to ornament their Christmas table.”
From these humble beginnings grew the fairytale behemoth that is the Night of the radishes, in which competitors can choose from two categories; traditional themes, which must be linked to Christmas, and the wild and woolly “Free style category” in which they can follow their imagination wherever the radishes lead it.
Even the Governor of the State refuses to acknowledge the slightly (to the illinformed) bizarre air to proceedings in his opening speech, leaping headlong into an improbably link between the creation of radish sculptures and his hopes for peace and unity in the state in this poverty ridden state. He receives a thunderous applause at the end of his momentous speech, solemnly standing to acknowledge it as if he was Lincoln at Gettysburg rather than a man at a giant vegetable art ceremony.
But the strangest aspect of the night is that, after straining in vain to see a slight mischevious twinkle in the eye of the participants or spectators, the uninitiated observer is gradually sucked into the otherwordly spectacle. The carvings are truly monumental pieces of detail and imagination, especially considering that they have been pieced together in the twenty four hours prior to the evening.
The fact that by morning there will be no trace of them or the festival lends its a slightly elven, supernatural air, as do the flame red nochebuena plants carpeting the plaza in a carpet of colour and the softly illuminating lamps hanging over the humming spectacle. This montage of reds and golds, the smell of Oaxacan street food and the sounds of fireworks as the event progresses gradually dazes the observer into unquestioning submission.
As a grubby fingered child makes a lunge across the Gary Vargas’s revolutionary scene to grab Emiliano Zapata and toddles off with the legendary raddish General in her clutches, the proprieter of the scene smiles in wry satisfaction. The night may be growing old but reality itself for a few hours at least, has melted in the fiery red glow of battalions of the mighty radish.