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An Inside Look at the Real Oaxaca

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The Zapotec people have lived in Oaxaca for centuries. Here, a woman dressed in traditional Zapotec attire takes part in a street procession. 

Photo by Andy Richter

The Zapotec people have lived in Oaxaca for centuries. Here, a woman dressed in traditional Zapotec attire takes part in a street procession. 

A photographer shares his vision of central Mexico’s captivating colonial city.

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Minneapolis-based photographer Andy Richter—who turned his lens on Oaxaca for AFAR’s March/April 2017 feature story “Time Traveling in Oaxaca”— has a long history with the Mexican state. Since his first visit nine years ago, Richter has only become more enamored with the place and its people. Here, he shares his Oaxacan dream and a selection of photos from throughout the years.

“The first time I ever visited Oaxaca was for a photography workshop in 2008. I’d studied Spanish in university, and I’d lived abroad in Venezuela while I was in school, but I didn’t really know Mexico that well. I met my wife, Selma, in that class—she’s from Oaxaca, and much of her family still lives there.”

Elaborate hats and slick boots are typical attire of los charros, Oaxaca’s traditional Mexican horsemen.
“I knew immediately that there was something special about this part of Mexico. I loved the intensity of the colors and the quality of light. I’ve gone back almost every year since 2008—sometimes twice a year, especially after Selma and I got married in 2013 and she moved to the States.”
A boy plays around in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, which was originally constructed in 1535.
“There are a lot of great places to visit in Oaxaca, but one of my favorites is the Zócalo [public square]—that’s where you get the pulse of the city. When people are angry and protesting, they’re in the Zócalo. During peaceful times, people congregate to dance there.”
Every week, locals take to the Zócalo for the danzón, a gathering where people dance and listen to live music.
“I also like getting out of Oaxaca City and into the smaller towns surrounding it. Teotitlán del Valle is famous for its embroidery and textiles, and besides that it’s stunning, sitting right at the edge of the Sierra Juárez Mountains.”
Charros and horses go for a ride at the Lienzo Charro of Tlalixtac de Cabrera, Oaxaca.
“I don’t know in the end what this body of work exploring Oaxaca will become, but it’s interesting seeing it grow. Every time I go back, I see the place with fresh eyes. In the time between visits, my point of view has changed; I’ve grown as a person and as a photographer.”
A dance music fan wears a Deadmau5 head in Atzompa, Mexico.
“Now, Selma and I are working on teaching photography workshops together in Oaxaca. We had our first one in November, where we brought students to Juchitán to photograph the lives of Muxes—the Zapotec word for third-gender people. Selma used to work with a legendary photographer, Mary Ellen Mark, who made sure that her photography students were contributing to society in Oaxaca, not just taking photos of it. She always made sure students offered prints to those they were working with. So when we were in Juchitán with our students, we wanted to encourage understanding and connection between our students and the Muxes. We didn’t want to just stay on the outside looking in—we wanted to enter their world with them. That’s the greatest appeal of Oaxaca to me: It’s a place where it’s easy to explore the lives of the people living there.”

>>Next: The Rise of Mezcal: Great for Cocktails, Better for Oaxaca