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Oaxaca Rooftop

Poetry & Prose | March 23, 2015

The rain plummets down in drops that are practically the size of the limes I’m frantically picking from the tree. I shove as many as I can into my hands, and hurry back under the overhang. I notice that the water is seeping on the tile floor towards the house, so I jog inside and shut the door. The sounds of trumpets and beating drums echo from the distance, and I know that’s my cue. Forgetting all about gardening and the rain, I drop the limes on the kitchen table so quickly that half of them roll onto the tile floor, but I don’t care. I spring up the flights of steps and without glancing at my disheveled desk or my unkempt bed, and push my bedroom window open. I notice our neighbors shutting their windows, but the rain spattering in my face doesn’t bother me. I manage to grip the tiny brick ledge and clamber up onto the roof. It’s no paradise up here, no garden of Eden. The roof is a cement pancake, and as I run across it, little stones dig into the soles of my feet. Once I reach the front part of the house, I realize that only several beads of rain are now falling, although many more beads of sweat are dripping from my forehead.

I sit just far enough from the edge so that I don’t go toppling down three stories onto the sidewalk to my death, but close enough that my heart jumps a little every time I lean a couple inches to squint down the street. The music grows louder, and the constant drone of busses, cars, and taxis sputtering and wheezing is gone. The air is now clean and crisp, and as I inhale, my entire body becomes rejuvenated while my lungs are cleansed from the toxic fumes.

The sun wrestles free from the clouds, shooting out orange sherbet rays, making me wish I could scoop it out from the sky itself. To my left, I turn to admire the hundreds of ornate carvings that wrap around the front walls of the church into the shape of el Árbol de la Vida, the Tree of Life. Hundreds of scintillating leaves and branches made of gold, silver, and obsidian weave and stretch across the church’s walls. The bell rings, sending the birds that were perched on its colossal cross haphazardly in all directions. Gong, gong, the bell continues to ring. Just behind the houses in front of mine, pecan and chicle trees expand across the great mountainside, basking in the sun’s glow, glittering a sea of green. The mountain stretches up towards the heavens; the peak isn’t even visible beyond the layer of wispy clouds surrounding it.

The last few cars honk and zoom down the street, and I finally see the grand procession approaching me. The cobblestone street, previously plastered with dirt and grime, has been washed clean and shines silver. The walls of the houses lining the street are all assembled of brick—but not the machine-made, perfectly rectangular, blood-colored ones that make you cringe. These structures are built of adobe, each brick formed using the clay and materials from the heart of the Sierra Madre valley and set by hand. My attention soon shifts to my right as the spectacle has at last reached my street corner. Thirty women dressed in identical skirts of yellow, red, and orange carry baskets on their heads. Their skirts have intricate floral patterns on them with white ruffles underneath. They wear their hair in long braids, dazzling ribbons laced in and out. They swish and twirl their way past my house as they become blurs of color. The last of the women in the high skirts fling gardenia petals into the air, their fragrance filling it with heavenly sweetness.

The next group turns the street corner, and men dressed in all white leap up and down on bamboo stilts that are at least five feet tall, while others beat drums fiercely and rhythmically. There are six lines of men, four in each line, and as the drums pick up the pace, they begin to perform a synchronized routine. The bottoms of their bamboo stilts smash into the pavement, sending shining sparks flying in every direction. The men toss their sombreros up and above the rooftops in an arc, catching them on their heads as they fall back to the earth once more. Another set of women follow behind the drummers, each dressed in a traditional huipil dress. The vibrant embroidery on their dresses complements the pineapples and giant baskets filled with papayas, mangoes, guayabas, and kiwis the women carry on top of their heads.

The sun began to sneak behind the mountains and the last rays of light illuminate the banner a new set of performers has carried down the street. They read Guelaguetza on them, the ancient Zapotec word that refers to the procession, which beseeches the gods for rain and the rich harvest. The men clutching the signs also grip ribbons that flutter in the breeze on long poles, each of which is marked with a distinctive saying of the Zapotec gods. More trumpets and drums sound and in pairs of two, women and men begin to dance to a significantly more upbeat tune. I get goose bumps and shiver; the sun’s warmth is long gone. The dance partners begin to spin and the men boost the women up on to their shoulders, rapidly racing down the street and out of sight. The street is soon filled with light, and I become aware of the hundreds of people who have assembled onto the sidewalk. They crane their necks, trying to catch a glimpse of the procession. I smile: I know I have the best view in the entire city. Huge globes made of transparent red and green plastic individually take up half the street, and are filled with three-foot candles in the shape of crosses. The men carry them on rigid wooden poles and are accompanied by women tossing sweets to the crowd. But hardly anyone notices the sugary treats, because fireworks begin to spew out from a large float that is gliding down the street. Bang, bang—the fireworks nearly burst my eardrums and sizzle as they hit the sidewalk. The crowd cheers, and men in all red begin to do back flips and cartwheels off of the massive float as it passes by. The cluster of people on the sidewalk begins to swarm behind the float, and as quickly as the performance arrived, it is gone.

My body continues to radiate with excitement, and I swing my legs back up onto the roof and pace across it to reach my window. I clutch onto the brick overhang, and for several terrorizing seconds I dangle in the dark until my foot makes contact with my window. I slide through, landing with a thud, and steady myself against my dresser. I rush downstairs to the kitchen, where the lingering smell of freshly ground corn tortillas floods my nostrils and makes my stomach growl. I cross the patio and the garden, making my way towards the front doors. I swing them open, and gaze up and down the silent street looking for evidence of what I’ve just seen. Several fluorescent streetlights flicker, and I spot a tattered ribbon draped over the street curb. I stride across the road to pick it up. It reads: Ometeotl, God of Duality, spoke that paradise has been granted to the human race, but to attain it, personal effort is needed.

Art by Griffin Quasebarth.