Oaxaca Journal, V. 16

By    Wednesday January 18, 2017

With a new president only days away from assuming power, Oaxaca, Mexico, where I spent two years living between 2006 and 2008, has been on my mind. Given the perspective the president-elect has put forward that Mexicans are mostly rapist and murders, it seemed like a good time to counter that fearful black and white snapshot with a palette of color.

Oaxaca isn’t only a state in southern Mexico, it’s also a state of mind, as I was reminded yet again on a visit just a few weeks ago.

Days seem to be made up not of minutes and hours, but of a string of moments. Metaphorically and actually, there’s both light and shadow in every experience. It falls across brightly painted walls, highlights cactus, illuminates weather beaten faces and exposes a world of both beauty and suffering. A radiant Monarch butterfly flits around an orange and yellow Milkweed flower. Across the street sunlight dances on the pale turquoise stone of a 16th century edifice. In the shadows, a wheat-pasted poster declares: “We won’t forgive and we won’t forget!” with the stenciled image of a masked protester holding a Molotov cocktail. (It refers to the ongoing teachers’ strikes, and bloody clashes with government police forces.) Below the poster sits a man playing accordion, next to his little girl in a tattered t-shirt holding out a cup for spare change.

Down the cobblestone street is a Jacaranda tree and on its exposed roots lies a dead scorpion shuttering slightly as it’s slowly devoured by ants. The perfect warm air is filled with the smell of roasting corn, interrupted by a hint of burning plastic. There’s the distant sound of xylophone music, then an abrupt explosion of fireworks followed by packs of street dogs barking their response. 

With this swirl of visual and auditory inspiration,I stroll towards the zócalo (town square) and drop by the Museo de los Pintores Oaxaqueños to see the luminous paintings of Rufino Tamayo. On a roll, I then run by the textile museum followed by the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca a few blocks up the street, where I stumble upon a retrospective of astounding political graphics by Leopoldo Mendez. 

My mental camera could run out of film trying to capture it all. My iPhone notifies me, once again, that I’ve taken too many pictures, the storage is full and it freezes. Fortunately, my sketchbook, watercolors, colored pencils and pen are always handy.

The idea that we'd literally wall ourselves off from the rest of the world, isolate ourselves and embraces fear, drains the colors and so much more from our experience. 

I'll be returning to Mexico in February for a literary festival and again and again, well into the future.


Peter Kuper’s illustrations and comics have appeared in magazines around the world including The New Yorker and MAD where he has written and illustrated SPY vs. SPY every issue since 1997.He is the co-founder of World War 3 Illustrated, a political comix magazine and has produced over two dozen books including and adaptation of Kafka's The Metamorphosis and Ruins which won the 2016 Eisner award for best graphic novel.

He has been teaching comics courses at The School of Visual Arts for 25 years and is a visiting professor at Harvard University.
Peter Kuper in DART