Oaxaca Journal, V. 15

By Peter Kuper   Thursday June 6, 2024

Four years ago on Wednesday, March 11th I was sitting in Oaxaca, Mexico watching the State of The Union address, in which President Trump UN-reassured us about dealing with an exploding global pandemic. Though the world had suddenly tilted off its axis, Oaxaca showed no sign of this calamity. That would come months later.

Visiting Oaxaca has always felt like stepping into the past, with its cobblestone streets, 16th century architecture, traditionally dressed Mixtec locals and remarkable ancient ruins, a hilltop away. 


On my most recent visit last February, though the ancient world abounded, I felt like I had taken a time machine trip into the future. I know this “future” has already been here for millions of people, but as a denizen of New York City, I haven’t had so much direct experience with the threat of water shortages or watched as smoke from forest fires regularly issued from one neighborhood or another, and have the stench burn my lungs and eyes.


This paints a far grimmer picture than my experience had provided. Oaxaca remains a beautiful dream—almost unbelievable—with salsa music drifting through the soundscape, overlaid with the mournful whistle of the camote (sweet potato) salesman pushing his cart by my door, the squawk of wild green parrots flying overhead, the ring of church bells, punctuated by a short tweet and a window shutting, and shaking explosion of fireworks, announcing another holiday or wedding. 


The magic of Oaxaca and the tremendous inspiration it provides hasn’t diminished one bit since my wife, daughter and I landed here for a two-year ‘sabbatical’ from 2006 to 2008. Since then I’ve created two books that are a direct result of our experience (Diario, de Oaxaca and Ruins) and it is in the DNA of my latest graphic novel, INSECTOPOLIS, a history of insects, and the people who study them. In INSECTOPOLIS I devote a chapter to the cochineal, a tiny bug found only in Oaxaca that produced the royal red dye that made Spain a superpower and helped build Oaxaca city into the pearl of Mexico.

At this dark point in history, Oaxaca has remained a haven. It’s also a reminder, as the planet is threatened by innumerable global catastrophes, how fragile are the systems that we depend upon, and how much there is in this world that is worth preserving.

Peter Kuper is a cartoonist, illustrator and educator. He teaches graphic novel courses at Harvard University and is the recipient of the 2024 RFK Human Rights Award for Cartooning. His graphic novel Ruins has just been reissued in paperback and his next book INSECTOPOLIS will be published by W.W. Norton May 2025. He is also a longtime contributor to DART