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Covid blamed for Oaxaca’s radish-carving festival cancellation. Striking city workers cite protest over bonuses

Waist-high garbage piles and unswept streets may be what really spurred officials in Oaxaca to cancel "Night of the Radishes."

OAXACA, Mexico (CN) — Locals and visitors alike were looking forward to Oaxaca’s pre-Christmas radish carving competition, but the Noche de Rábanos (Night of the Radishes) was canceled for the second straight year amid fears of the new omicron variant of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, according to official sources. 

Authorities had maintained through December that the event would go ahead as planned, but it was abruptly called off at the last minute. Governor Alejandro Murat took to Twitter late the night before the festival, which has taken place almost annually on Dec. 23 since 1897, to announce that the event would be canceled out of an abundance of caution in response to spikes in Covid cases in countries like the United States, England, and the Netherlands. 

“Due to the omicron variant and the appeal by the World Health Organization to countries and states to cancel heavily attended events due to the high level of transmission generated by this strain, I’ve decided … to cancel the radish event, based on a scientific decision,” said Murat.

Oaxaca is not experiencing high levels of Covid transmission. The state is currently classified as green on the country's traffic light rating system.

But members of a coalition of municipal maintenance workers unions, who used buses and garbage trucks to block streets in the city’s historic center since Tuesday, said the move was a response to their protest. Counting among their ranks trash collectors, street sweepers, and other workers who keep public spaces tidy, the union members say they have not received their Christmas bonuses, on which their families’ Christmas celebrations depend. 

Union member Sergio Pérez Luna said they were supposed to have received their bonuses by Dec. 20. They launched their protest the day after the city government failed to pay them on time, refusing to clean the streets until they were paid. Waist-high piles of garbage littered the sidewalks and spilled into the streets as a result. 

“The Night of the Radishes was canceled because the government didn’t want to pay us, not because of Covid,” he said. “This about Covid is just meant to hide the fact that the government doesn’t want to give us what we're owed. They don’t want the bad publicity.”

While the Night of the Radishes is not a huge draw for international tourists, many were still disappointed at not being able to experience the unique festival.

Terry K. Crowe, a former professor from the University of New Mexico, has been coming to Oaxaca for both fun and work for 20 years. She said that while the cancelation was a letdown for her and her family, others were more direly affected by the decision to nix the festival.

“The competitors not only grew the radishes, but they’ve been preparing and working on it for weeks. Yes, for tourists, it’s unfortunate, but to me, it’s most unfortunate for the artists who have been preparing since growing season,” said Crowe, who also pointed to the dozens of street vendors near the plaza where the event was to be held. Ice cream stalls, sellers of religious relics, and other vendors lost their chance at what would have been a significant income boost before the Christmas holiday.

Trash piles up near a market selling candies and religious relics in Oaxaca City three days into a strike by unionized maintenance workers that they claimed canceled the city’s radish carving competition. City and state officials blamed Covid-19 for the cancellation. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

“We were hoping for an influx of tourists, but the conflict with the unions canceled that,” said Javier Martínez, who owns the El Niagara ice cream and sorbet stand near the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad (Our Lady of Solitude), where the event was scheduled to take place. 

Despite the loss of potential income, however, Martínez did not blame the unionized workers for taking action. “They have the right [to demand] their money,” he said. “The government is bad and didn’t pay them. I don’t blame them. This one’s on the municipal government. They have to pay. As workers, we fulfill our obligation by paying taxes, so they have to hold up their end of the bargain.”

Candy seller María de la Luz Díaz Caballero likewise did not blame the workers for taking action. She set up her stall selling a local delicacy called jamoncillo — made of brown sugar, coconuts, pineapple juice, and almonds — as part of a temporary market during the festival to honor the church's patroness, Our Lady of Solitude, but was looking forward to the boost the festival would have brought. 

“We were hoping for more sales, but with this and the drop in visitors due to the pandemic, we’re not earning as much as in previous years,” she said. 

The practice of carving radishes dates back to the Colonial Period, when vendors at the overnight Christmas market would etch the tubers into fun figures and nativity scenes to attract attention to their stalls. The competition began in 1897, when Mayor Francisco Vasconcelos Flores turned the fun local tradition into an organized event, complete with fanfare, prize money, and a panel of judges made up of — as the local official newspaper put it — “distinguished and lovely ladies.”

On its surface, the Night of the Radishes is a quirky pre-Christmas attraction that adds another fun layer to the inventiveness and penchant — one might go so far as to say obsession — for celebration in Oaxacan culture. 

But a deeper look into its history reveals its constitution of all those qualities by which the people of these valleys define themselves, everything from land disputes and debated history to the place’s unique cuisine, to the sanctity of small talk and fellowship. The innovation and revelry of Oaxaca are apparent, of course, but this night also represents the contradictory elements of strict observance of religious ritual and the incorrigible sense of humor that mocks established customs just as faithfully.

This year's cancellation adds another element of the Oaxacan people to the festival's history: the almost constant necessity to demand their rights from a government that perennially refuses to grant them.

Governor Murat said that other Christmas season events in the state would go on as planned, but fans of zany radish figurines will have to wait another year to see the Noche de Rábanos in all its tuberous glory. 

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Categories / Entertainment, Health, International

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