Las Joyas de Mexico
Museo Rodolfo Morales, Ocotlan, Oaxaca
by Lynne Doyle
Lynne Doyle is a longtime Mexico File subscriber and contributing editor from Maine. The object of the Las Joyas de Mexico feature is to highlight for MF readers some of the lesser-known but most rewarding of Mexico’s geographic, human and artistic treasures. Lynne can be contacted at LinfordD@aol.com
About half an hour south of Ciudad Oaxaca (or maybe forty-five minutes, depending on your driver), on Highway 175 is the market town of Ocotlan. Primarily known as the home of the Aguilar sisters (potters famous for their small red clay figures), Ocotlan was also the home of noted Oaxaqueno painter Rodolfo Morales, who passed away in 2001. Morales was a remarkable artist, but is remembered most in his home town for his very proactive activities in the economic improvement of Ocotlan.
Just past the workshops of the Aguilars on the right side of the highway is Morales’ home. As he prospered as an artist, Morales sank most of his money into the town he lived in, but his home is nothing to sneeze at. As he was unmarried, the home was left to his family members jointly, and in his spirit, they have opened it to the public. I was there during Day of the Dead (a great time to be anywhere in Oaxaca), so the house was decorated accordingly and there was a great deal of cooking going on in the originally-equipped kitchen. Our driver dropped us at the door, telling us to “just go in” – one big problem in Ocotlan is finding some place to park – so we entered the open door and found ourselves in a very large, jungle-like courtyard. Constructed in a traditional Mexican manner, this home – while understated in furnishings – is extremely large and filled to overflowing with both fine and folk art. It is built in a square with the courtyard in the center surrounded by a portico, off of which are all of the home’s rooms. Fronting the street are the public salons; down the right side are various private bedrooms and studios; and down the left side are the dining areas (indoors and outdoors), kitchen, and laundries. The back side opens onto a lovely patio and gardens. The second floor is not open to the public.
One wonderful little aside to Morales’s personal home is a large cage containing his parrots, one of which appears to be fluent in Spanish. When we first entered, we thought a human was speaking to us, as Pepe asked us questions and responded to our answers. However, we never saw anyone outside of the kitchen, and eventually found the cage in one of the back corners of the courtyard. While talking to the parrot was entertaining, to say the least, I felt sad for him. It is well-known that parrots often outlive their owners, and this guy in particular seemed lonely and starved for company, yelling after us long after we were out of sight.
As well as being a rewarding glimpse into the personal life of one of Oaxaca’s favorite sons, this house is also a great example of typical Mexican architecture. It is not, however, out of a magazine. It does have lovely art and there are fresh flowers all over the place all the time (or so I was told), but this is a lived-in home – which, to me, made this an all the more valuable experience.
A little further down the highway is Ocotlan’s zocalo, surrounded by government buildings, shops and market stalls. On the opposite side and corner from where the highway enters is the one-time convent connected to Ocotlan’s parish church. As it had not been in use for many years, shortly before his death Rodolfo Morales set about converting this convent into a regional museum without eliminating the remains of its original Dominican décor. He cleaned up the grounds, repaired the basic structure (the majority of which remains in its original state) and added lighting, bathrooms and a small lunchroom. He then proceeded to gather an outstanding collection of religious, historic and fine art, as well as some older folk art items from famous local artists. He also donated some of his own work, as well as creating several murals. It was during this acquisition period that Morales unexpectedly passed away, so the people working with him on the museum named it after him and added a room in tribute to him. This room contains some of his work and personal possessions, as well as a wonderful series of black and white photographs depicting his life.
To the grounds of the museum that honors him, Morales added specimen palms and other notable Oaxacan plant life, as well as stone and iron benches. A mere fifty feet from the chaos and bustle of Ocotlan’s markets, this spot is a tranquil, quiet oasis – warm, peaceful and a beautiful tribute to the man whose art was magnificent, and whose generous heart was even more so. The museum is not well-known (we were unaware of its existence until the driver taking us to shop at the Aguilars told us we should not miss seeing it), and therefore is not crowded, and when we were there, we were charged no admission fee (although I understand there is a minimal donation requested now). While Ocotlan is not one of my favorite places – mostly because of the crowds and noise – a trip to this museum is well worth the trouble of getting to it. It is almost impossible to park anywhere around the zocalo, especially on market days, so either a taxi or a private driver is suggested. No vehicles can get anywhere near the museum – a walk across the zocalo is necessary to reach the entrance – but to spend an hour or so walking around enjoying its history and spectacular art is, in my view, one of the high points of any trip to Oaxaca.