I awoke just before dawn to the sound of explosions. They were close and loud and were repeated over and over again. Aircraft bombs? Mortars? Suicide belts? The army? Guerrillas? Cartels fighting each other? We had heard and read so much about Mexico that was horrific that anything seemed possible.

It was our first night during a recent trip to Oaxaca in southern Mexico. We were renting a room in a private house high on a hill in the center of town. The densely packed centuries-old streets of the 16th-century city spread out all around us.

Later we asked our hostess Mariana what was going on.

“Fireworks, she said.

“At 6 in the morning?”

“It never stops,” she said with a shrug of resignation. “They never stop celebrating. You get used to it.”

We never really got used to it, but after a few days what had initially seemed annoying if not alarming became engaging, a part of this strange city’s unique charm.

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Photo by Thelma Bowles.

While we were touring the Jardín Etnobotánico, the diverse and beautifully laid out botanic gardens in the center of Oaxaca, our guide Dina told us a story about the old convent next door that looms over the gardens like a forbidding fortress. Back in the 19th century, the Mexican government converted the 16th-century Convento de Santo Domingo into a barracks and its military headquarters for the State of Oaxaca. Neither the army nor the central government were popular in the state, but things did not come to a head until 1994.

That is when the Zapatista Army of National Liberation guerrillas in neighboring Chiapas declared war on the national government and seized much of the state. The government feared Oaxaca, with its huge indigenous population and its traditions of independence, might join the revolt.

It was so afraid, in fact, that the president came to Oaxaca to confer with local leaders, especially the leading artist of the time. “We follow our intellectuals, not our politicians,” Dina explained.

The result was an agreement that Oaxaca would not revolt but that the army would withdraw. It did, and today the old monastery is the fascinating Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, and its surrounding landholding became the botanic gardens.

While Oaxaca has remained free of insurgency, Chiapas didn’t. The state still seethes with indigenous grievances, and a tourist I met who had just come from Chiapas said guerrilla roadblocks prevented him from going from San Cristóbal de las Casas to the Maya ruins at Palenque, the state’s foremost tourist attraction.

Free of insurgency does not mean entirely peaceful, however. Only three weeks before we arrived in Oaxaca, the city’s roads and public transit had been largely blockaded by members of a union protesting the arrest of their leader on five-year-old murder charges. The overwritten story out of Mexico City began, “Oaxaca is in chaos.” It seemed to me that at least a smidgeon of chaos was a permanent attribute of Oaxaca.

We did see soldiers and marines on the coast of Oaxaca, where the Marines have a large base adjacent to what may be Mexico’s single officially recognized nude beach. But the only security forces we saw elsewhere in the state were the local and regional police.

Oaxaca has a reputation for demonstrations, many of them large and occasionally violent. We did see police lined up one afternoon on a side street in the city with heavy riot shields. But we saw no soldiers. And we witnessed no violence. At least while we were in Oaxaca, the province was peaceful.

The great exception to the “we-don’t-follow-politicians” rule is Benito Juárez, a Zapotec Indian from a village in the mountains of northern Oaxaca who rose to be president of the country in the 19th century. He evicted the French, reformed the judicial system and administration, and was the country’s one shining example of a leader of brilliance and integrity. His greatest slogan and finest epitaph is his statement, “Respect for the rights of others is peace.” Today he is honored in the state of Oaxaca with dozens of buildings, monuments, streets, towns, a national park and even an entire mountain range named after him.

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Photo by Thelma Bowles.

The Zócalo, a vast open space with shade trees and benches, is the physical and cultural heart of the city of Oaxaca. Day and night, it is also a three-ring circus. Especially in the evening, all of the city seems to be there. Thousands just sit, stroll and chat. Others buy ice cream, corn and snacks from wagons. Music, sometimes stately indigenous rhythms, sometimes raucous hip hop, occupies corners of the plaza. A giant movie screen is set up in another area. A couple of stages with sound systems provide arenas for bands and dance troops.

Religious, civic and private celebrations rub against each other, cheek by jowl, at any time of the day or the year. Innumerable saint’s days are celebrated as are festivals honoring topics ranging from the lowly radish to the high-minded International Migration Day. Streets adjacent to the Zócalo are closed, one of them always, others to permit hundreds of celebrants with their bands and giant puppets to parade in their personal festivals. Charmingly, the city uses giant poinsettia plantings to barricade pedestrian ways.

Some of the celebrations were quite touching. I have a vivid memory of a couple leading a parade of hundreds of musicians, friends and relatives down a street. The beautiful young woman wore a full, immaculately white dress and he a black suit. They danced down the street with a wild and contagious abandon, bending their knees deeply, twirling their bodies, grasping and releasing each other, and smiling and laughing and smiling and laughing. The joy of the moment was indelible. During a half dozen trips to every part of Mexico, I’ve never seen seen a scene of so much joy.