Inside the Radish-Carving Competition at the Center of Oaxaca's Most Frantic Festival
A humble root vegetable takes center stage.
It’s a full 40 days out before the big event, but José Eduardo “Lalo” Rosario Vázquez is rushing to a friend’s place. This is an appointment he can’t miss—one that involves dreaming up new ways to turn the lowly radish into an enchanting and life-like sculpture. On December 23 of each year, Oaxaca City’s main square comes alive for a competition that comes with bragging rights and cash. The former champion is now working as part of a five-person carving crew, but apparently still takes the event very seriously. “I first came to Noche de Rábanos (Night of the Radishes) when I was 10 years old,” he says. “It is a time that makes me very happy to be from Oaxaca.”
Think of it as Día de Muertos’ less-famous cousin. But just because it’s more obscure to outsiders, doesn’t mean it’s less important to the locals. Night of the Radishes, which is sandwiched between the Day of the Dead and Christmas Day, has taken place every year since 1897—with the exception of a pandemic pause. And it’s truly something to behold: Whimsical scenes depict everything from mariachis and Mexican luchadores to mythical creatures and muertos.
Rosario Vázquez has netted thousands of pesos from the city-sponsored competition, but winning is also about local pride. And that feeling of pride is reflected in the artwork. Walking around the main square on the night of the festival, a visitor might spot everything from Aztec warriors brandishing perishable shields, to Frida Kahlo using makeshift radish paint, to farmers pushing ruby-red wheelbarrows. And with such proximity to Christmas, many displays have religious themes. Think gargantuan Noah’s Arks, depictions of The Last Supper, or elaborate nativity scenes. It’s an unmissable invitation on Oaxaca’s riveting annual calendar, but I wanted to know: How did something so spectacular come to be?
“Oaxaca is literally what some people would call a bread basket,” says Dr. Ramona Pérez, who’s the director of the Center for Latin American Studies at San Diego State University. “It’s a very fertile valley area.” She explains that even though radishes are native to China, they were introduced to Oaxaca by the Spanish. And that they grew like crazy. In fact, they were so plentiful that market vendors would carve up into rosettes to attract people to buy them. Soon these vendors were competing with each other. Spotting a ruby-skinned opportunity, Oaxaca’s then-municipal president, Francisco Vasconcelos, declared in 1897 that a radish-carving contest would take place each year on December 23. The Night of the Radishes was born. “This date didn't conflict with Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, but it still drew people in who were shopping,” Dr. Pérez adds.
Now a fully fledged festival blending creativity, agriculture, and community spirit, The Night of the Radishes has expanded to include corn husk figurines known as totomoxtle and dried bright flowers called flor inmortal. Dr. Pérez says the radishes are still the most prolific displays, but that all these spin-offs have adherents who compete for prizes as well.
Akin to a county fair, Noche de Rábanos has become a significant source of pride for Oaxaca City residents like Andrea Hagan. The tour guide, who teaches people about mezcal and gastronomy through her company Mezcouting, remembers how devastating it was when the traditional event couldn’t take place due to COVID-19. Though a smaller iteration was still organized in the town of Ocótlan to give radish revelers a much-wanted hit that year, it simply wasn’t the same. “Noche de Rábanos is as significant to us as Christmas is,” she says.
An exclusively Oaxacan affair
Around 4 pm on December 23, Oaxaqueños—and thousands of visitors—form orderly queues to get up close and personal with the short-lived pink, purple, red, and white displays that cannot be found anywhere else in Mexico. Sometimes the wait can be up to five hours, though the open-air gallery in Zócalo (also known as Plaza de la Constitución) is well worth the wait. These are no run-of-the-mill radishes. According to the Mexican government, they weigh as much as three kilograms. Consumption is not recommended.
“Oaxaca’s municipal government actually grows them because they take so much water and so much fertilizer to get them big enough to do the carvings”, says Dr. Pérez, the anthropologist. This also helps to keep things fair and square for every competitor, as the radishes all come from the same dedicated space in El Tequio Park. As part of the Oaxaca Forestal Program, prominent individuals from the municipality, the State Forestry Commission, and the Secretary of Tourism Development congregate there to sow the seeds at the end of September. Last year, 18 tons of the tuber were harvested and given to participants free of charge around December 19.
To take part in Noche de Rábanos, applicants must actually be from the state of Oaxaca. The adult competition has two categories, an anything-goes “free” category and a “traditional” category with a mandate for everything to thematically relate Oaxaca State and its culture. Younger carvers are also invited to create fleeting masterpieces during a smaller contest that happens simultaneously. Despite months of preparation and toil—think of Rosario Vázquez rushing to a radish-related meeting 40 days out—the event boils down to just one day and a firework-filled evening.
The rotating, esteemed panel of judges overseeing Night of the Radishes is composed of prominent people in the city, who are picked by the Secretary of Tourism, according to Dr. Pérez of SDSU’s Center for Latin American Studies. This includes previous champions such as Juan Manuel García Esperanza, who won the grand prize 18 years in a row, earning him the title “Lord of the Radishes.” The hand-picked judges scrutinize aesthetic appeal, creativity, and technical brilliance—and make sure nothing synthetic has been used. That means no metals, no plastics, or anything apart from toothpicks can hold the carvings together. Carvers continuously spray their radish kingdoms with water to avoid them looking parched.
Some of the radishes have entire narratives carved into their flesh, which is no easy feat for the artists. When Rosario Vázquez competes, he’s exhausted by the time the jury delivers its verdict. He remains on the edge of his seat from 5 am until around 7 pm, when the results are announced. Still, he’s humble regardless of what happens. “The best prize is people recognizing the work,” he says.
Long after winners are declared and the radishes begin to wilt, the feverish excitement persists. Fireworks displays, concerts, light shows, and culinary delights are still on offer for hours more. Shelley Marmor, the founder of Travel To Oaxaca and a Mexico travel expert who first attended Noche de Rábanos in the early aughts, suggests not going straight home after the top honors are announced. “Sure, start with the main action, but don’t skip on side streets afterwards,” she advises. ”They’ve got hidden treasures, too.” Stroll the piñata-peppered calles and squeeze every last drop of Night of the Radishes until the stalls are fully dismantled the next morning. Then wait for it to begin again the following year.