Strange Soups and Brass Bands
Portside Date:
Author: David Bacon
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The Reality Check: Stories and Photographs by David Bacon

A maze of constricted alleys spreads out at the bottom an old stone staircase that doubles back on itself, so convoluted that Zacatecanos call this place "El Labarinto", or "The Labyrinth."  Here Primitivo Romo sits in front of a wall of herbs packed into tiny bags, in a botanica stall he inherited from his mother when she died a few years ago.  He inherited her knowledge as well, and now his nephew runs another stall down a nearby alleyway with the knowledge passed on in the Romo family.

The stalls are half hidden in the lowest level of the Mercado del Arroyo de la Plata, or the Silver Canyon Market.  Two more levels are above.  Stalls on one sell Zacatecan mole, either picoso or dulce, hot or sweet, from big plastic buckets in front of the candy display.  On another workers and women shopping for their families sit on plain stools at the comedores economicos, or affordable eateries, where cooks spoon the famous goat mole, cabrera, into bowls.  

Unless you know the cook well, there's no point in asking for two other famous dishes, caldo de rata (rat soup) or caldo de vivora (snake soup).  These are soups from the traditions of people from the countryside, used to eating the animals that live there (the rat is a country creature, not the urban variety), and some think of them even as a kind of medicine.  Says Guadalupe Flores, a member of the state legislature, “Anybody that tries it once is going to love it and it will become their favorite dish. It is very similar to rabbit – only much more flavorful.”

Nevertheless, some laugh at these country traditions.  But once in a while a campesino will come in from the farm, and from his pack at the back entrance will pull the skinned bodies, along with those of rabbits and chickens. The meat counters in the market sell the meat from larger animals - the cows, the goats and the pigs.  For them, a truck pulls up at the same back entrance.  The driver climbs into the rear, and up a mountain of meat, to fetch a beef quarter ordered by a market stall.  Ernesto Serna lifts a several hundred pound piece onto his shoulders, and walks unsteadily beneath it into the labyrinth.  

Other farmers come into the city with fruit.  Francisco Cordero sells piles of strawberries, guavas and figs from his Campo Real farm in an impromptu stall on the sidewalk.  Another country seller comes with his donkey.  In the wooden saddle on its back it carries the big jars of pulque and colonche, agave and tuna (nopal) drinks with a little kick, under leaves to keep off the sun.

The streets of Zacatecas fill with people, selling and buying, walking or sitting.  Workers paint the buildings next to the Alameda Park.  A brass band and speeches celebrate the birthday of Benito Juarez, Mexico's first indigenous president.  Soldiers in the local contingent of the National Guard, the new police created by President Lopez Obrador, stand in the hot sun, submachine guns at the ready.

Like most Mexican cities, popular protest is part of Zacatecas' culture as well.  The women's movement is strong, and a recent march was met and prohibited by police protecting a government that somehow fears its own mothers, sisters and daughters.  Activists then went to the former cathedral of San Agustin, now repurposed as a municipal gallery.  At the inauguration of a show of paintings of peaceful landscapes, they confronted the government representatives there to open the exhibition.  Each held a card with two letters.  Standing together they read "Estado Terrorista" or Terrorist State.

And tucked away in this city filled with artists is the extraordinary project of the Fototeca Pedro Valtierra.  Here Carlos gives lessons in ways to create extraordinary prints from negatives, in a process invented 150 years ago.  In a vault behind a heavy metal door, aided by high tech climate controls, Karina Garcia protects the fototeca's archive of prints and negatives.  The most prized come from Pedro Valtierra himself, Mexico's renowned radical photojournalist and native son of Zacatecas, for whom the institution is named.

Today people joke that there are more Zacatecanos in Los Angeles than in Zacatecas, but this is still a city that remembers its working class history.  Aldo Alejandro Zapata Villa recalls on Facebook, looking at a photo of the market, "Memories of my childhood, of hard-working and entrepreneurial people, offering their merchandise, in those times when we learned all work has dignity."

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