Noche de rábanos: Digging to the root of Oaxaca's Christmas radish festival

Ever heard of radishes the weight and size of a watermelon? In one Mexican city, carving them is a holiday tradition.

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Although the conquistadores were renowned for their widespread violence – and colonization is, by nature, violent – the Dominican monks of Oaxaca attempted to attract Indigenous peoples to their market with a simple tool: radishes carved into elaborate scenes and shapes.
 
Apparently, their hope was that locals would come to identify with the strange imports brought by the Spanish but carving them into cute and interesting shapes.
 
In fact, radishes – known by botanists as Raphanus sativus L – originated in China. But with global trade expanding around the 15th century, the Spanish soon brought it to Mexico.
 
No one knows who, exactly, imagined that the vegetables would make a good medium for fine art. But for hundreds of years, local farmers have bred radishes to be larger and larger, feeding a growing demand from artisans for bigger carving blocks.
 
Today, the festival features a wide array of subject matter – from historic kings and deities, to modern Catholic iconography, animals, and even modern abstract sculpture. Farmers deliver the radishes – tied into bundles by their stems – up to three days before the festival.
 
Artists apply for tables in the central square, and on December 23 set up their sculptures. Children are invited to watch and learn how to carve radishes themselves. By late afternoon yesterday, the plaza was totally packed with people, most of them locals who flock to the Night of the Radishes year after year – among them tourists from across Mexico and around the world.
 
A local newspaper reported that 70 children participated in carving workshops hosted by Oaxaca's ministry of arts and culture.
 
It got so busy yesterday that police were forced to close off streets surrounding the Plaza Zócalo and asked people to line up to enter. Onlookers queued for hours, waiting to climb onto raised platforms designed to provide the best close-up viewing.
 
In the afternoon, sculptors – ranging from teenagers to elderly veterans of the festival – had to stand by their artwork, spraying it down with water spritzers to keep the radishes bright red and fresh-looking.
 
In recent years, new additions to the contest include sculptures made of corn husks (flor inmortal) and dried flowers (totomoxtle). Some displays were inspired by Oaxaca's history – referencing the dozens of Indigenous cultures which make of the majority of the state's population, as well as a 2006 street uprising which occupied the Zócalo for months on end as well as state buildings and media.
 
This year's festival – in which 120 artists competed for the cash prize and their photo in local newspapers – culminated after dark with live music and a long fireworks display.
 
Although there were several entry categories, the festival's traditional radish-carving winner was Hermenegildo Contreras Cruz, who beat out his competitors with amazing his radish sculpture depicting altars honouring the dead common in Oaxacan households – titled “Tradicional Altar de Muertos en las Casas Oaxaqueñas, Imaginación de los Oaxaqueños.”

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