If you have heard of the city or state of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, it is probably thanks to a growing interest in the area’s primary export: mezcal. But on this rich soil, a deep cultural history has grown up right alongside this delicious spirit. And a tragic story of lost love and national sacrifice has its roots firmly in the spirit’s past.
Oaxaca is where the Zapotec civilization flourished. This pre-Columbian society and culture dates back at least 2,500 years. One of the central figures in the mythology of the region is Princess Donaji. Born in the Zapotec city of Zaachila, just south of what is now the state capitol, Donaji, pronounced doh-NAH-shi, means “great soul.” The princess was the last in a long line of royal leaders of the Zapotec people, and today, thousands of years later, she is still celebrated in performances at the crowd-drawing Guelaguetza in Oaxaca City.
The Zapotec people aren’t the only ancient civilization of the Oaxaca Valley. At the time of Donaji, long before the Spanish conquest, the Zapotec people shared the land with the Mixteca, who had settled themselves in the abandoned Zapotec city of Monte Alban. The two groups were united in their fight against the Aztecs, but they also fought a lot among themselves.
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When Donaji was born, the priest Tiboot from the sacred city of Mitla pronounced that her life would end in great tragedy; he prophesied that the princess would sacrifice herself for her people. Self-fulfilling prophecy or lucky guess? While no two versions of her legend are entirely alike, it seems Donaji’s story was written before it even came to pass.
In one fateful battle between the two groups, the Mixteca Prince Nucano was taken captive. Donaji found him, wounded and suffering as her father’s prisoner and, feeling great sympathy for him, she took him under her care and nursed him back to health. In the time he took to heal, the two fell deeply in love.
Motivated by his daughter’s fondness for the prince, the king sent Zapotec Princess Donaji and Mixteca Prince Nucano to Monte Alban together to negotiate a peace treaty. But it didn’t go as planned. Zapotec warriors attacked the settlement and drove the Mixteca people from their homes, the Princess Donaji along with them. She was beheaded near the river Apoyac. Devastated by the loss, Prince Nucano dedicated the rest of his life to maintaining a peaceful accord.
Donaji’s body was buried in Zaachila, now surrounded by the walls of an abandoned convent, but it wasn’t until many years later that her head was discovered. According to legend, a young shepherd was walking near the river when he came upon a beautiful lily. Coveting the gorgeous flower but not wanting to destroy it, he decided to pull it up by its roots. When he was finally able to free it from the earth, he found the roots clutching a human head, perfectly preserved. The shepherd knew at once that he had found the remains of the lost princess.
Her name has become synonymous with loving sacrifice, eternal life, and the image of the lily, which now represents all Zapotec culture. The legendary princess’s name graces businesses from restaurants and bakeries to jewelry stores and dance schools, but her most famous namesake here in the fertile valley is the Donaji cocktail, which you might know by its more common name, the Tequila Sunrise, just with mezcal.
As the first alcoholic beverage I ever tasted, a favorite among my parents and their friends, this drink holds a special place in my heart. It is ubiquitous at the annual Oaxaca mezcal fair, as well as mezcal-themed events around town. Master mezcal maker Carlos Mendez Blass of Mezcal Palomo told me they “almost always” prepare the Donaji for events and festivals. “It’s a very classic cocktail made with nothing more than orange juice and grenadine,” he says. People love its simplicity, made entirely with local ingredients.
Many versions of the Donaji cocktail are served with a little extra kick, perhaps a squirt of juice from a limon, and a pinch of spicy ground piquín chili. And rather than with its industrialized cousin tequila, here it is made with a white mezcal. Served ice cold in a chilled glass, the sweet, smoky, sour, and spicy flavors create a refreshing contrast.
Mezcal is a revered spirit in Oaxaca and the few surrounding states where it is also made, used for ritual and celebration as much as everyday drinking. It is generally considered at its best when sipped slowly, savored for its unique and complex flavors, but the powerful elixir isn’t for everyone. If what you’re looking for instead is a little taste of the familiar along with a bit of Oaxacan cultural history, quench your thirst with a taste of Donaji’s tragic tale.