Oaxaca Journal, V. 15

By Peter Kuper   Tuesday April 7, 2020

Editor’s note: Alternative comics artist and illustrator Peter Kuper, a longtime contributor to  DART, emailed me last week after cutting short his visit to Oaxaca, Mexico. Following is his report from the time he recently spent there.—PR 

Once again my wife Betty and I returned to Oaxaca for an extended stay and this visit we rented a place right in the center of town. Our front door opened to a hotel, a bakery and a church that had regular wedding processions, with rockets exploding overhead and music trumpeting along the cobblestone streets. 

We arrived February 1st and the notion of a pandemic upending our lives wasn’t part of any aspect of that idyll. My focus shifted to things like raising a Monarch caterpillar that had appeared on a milkweed plant in our yard, reading, practicing ukulele and sketching my surroundings. I continued pitching cartoons and Betty also continued working remotely as she had for years. We expected this to be the shape of our lives until May 1st

We’d been aware of the developing news with the coronavirus, but remained removed from the reality. Then Wednesday night March 11th, I streamed President Trump giving his unreassuring Oval Office address and a new panic began to set in.

This turned to dread as the US economy tanked, restaurants, schools, NBA—everything shuttered and all my favorite nightly talk shows signed offCould it be, one of my many dystopian nightmares was actually taking place?

I checked the Monarch caterpillar in our backyard,  now preparing its metamorphosis into a chrysalis, smelled the empanadas in the warm breeze, picked up my sketchbook and calmed down. 

As it happened, my friend, the cartoonist Ken Fisher (aka Ruben Bolling), had a long-planned visit to Mexico with his family and arrived Saturday, March 14th. I met him at his hotel and went to greet him with an enthusiastic handshake, but his reaction was to recoil—my first experience of a new “safe distancing.” I’ve since completely embraced this, but in Mexico the idea of not having some kind of physical contact was incomprehensible.

The speed our perspective shift was a daily, if not hourly transformation. Monday night (March 16th) a friend told us she’d heard that some stores were starting to sell out of food and we did a panic-shop to get stocked up. The following day, museums closed down, but everything else remained open and the streets were bustling. 

We saw the writing on the wall though, and that Thursday, March 19th, we began self-isolating for what we thought might be a month. Within days we suddenly reconsidered—was Oaxaca a safe haven or as this escalated, would it become a prison? The healthcare system here is hard pressed on a normal day, what would it be like in a pandemic? Water availability, which was already uncertain, might disappear entirely in a state of chaos. What if Mexico or the US closed the border and were stuck there indefinitely? Having our 23-year old daughter living in Manhattan closed the deal. We booked our flight that same morning with trepidation, yet certitude that this was the correct choice. 

On the Tuesday March 24th, as we prepared to depart, I checked in one last time on the Monarch chrysalis that I’d nurtured our entire visit. There hung a wilted butterfly, just emerged, and before our eyes its wings took glorious shape. I avoid superstition, but this certainly felt like a good omen for our successful migration home. 

I’m still carrying the warmth and colors of Oaxaca as I look out my window at the chilly, grey skyline. Regardless of this being the virus epicenter, I’m deeply relieved to be back in New York, yet hold my breath for what will happen to everyone living in Mexico. 

Every night at 7 pm, Betty and I ritually stick our heads out the window and clap and shout a cheer to first-responders along with thousands of our neighbors. We’ve all been thrust into a sci-fi nightmare that forces us to adjust at the speed of dark. It reminds us to do what we should be doing regardless of a pandemic threat; treat each healthy day as a precious gift. 

Peter Kuper is a regular contributor to The New Yorker, The Nation and MAD magazine where he has written and illustrated SPY vs. SPY every issue since 1997. 

He has produced over two dozen books including The System, Diario de Oaxaca, Ruins (winner of the 2016 Eisner Award) and adaptations of many of Franz Kafka's works into comics including The Metamorphosis and Kafkaesque.

His latest graphic novel is an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

He has lectured around the world and has taught comics courses at The School of Visual Arts in NYC and Harvard University.
Twitter @PKuperArt