Festivals, Indigenous Culture, Oaxaca life

Color and Culture: Guelaguetza in Oaxaca.

It’s that time of year again! The city of Oaxaca is alive with music as indigenous groups take to the streets wearing clothing representative of their region and showcasing vibrant traditional dances. During the Guelaguetza, a Oaxacan festival held every July, groups from the seven different regions of the state gather together in the capital and in nearby villages. Also known locally as los lunes del cerro (Mondays on the hill), the Guelaguetza features a series of parades. Wearing colorful ribbons, jiggling bells or sporting impossibly large headdresses, women and men dance and spin through the city. You can’t walk five minutes without happening upon a vivid scene of movement and color.

It’s a wonderful time of year to be in the city and tourists and locals alike flood the town, enjoying the traditional food on offer. Walk down García Vigil or head to Parque Llano and you can find a series of markets set up especially for the festival. You can feast on tamales, a corn-based dough wrapped up in a corn husk or atole, a popular drink made from corn hominy flour, cane sugar, cinnamon and vanilla and sometimes chocolate. And of course there is the famous local marinade, mole, of which there are seven different kinds.

The Guelaguetza is a pre-Hispanic tradition, finding its origins in religious celebrations based on the rituals of corn harvests and the corn deities. The word Guelaguetza comes from the Zapotec language and, highlighting the importance of community and reciprocity in Oaxacan indigenous cultures, can be defined as the “reciprocal exchanges of gifts and services.”[1] Following the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, the Guelaguetza reformed into a celebration honoring the Virgen del Carmel (Our Lady of Mount Carmel), which emphasized worship of the Virgin Mary whilst retaining elements of indigenous beliefs.

A brass band
A brass band plays popular folk songs

The city of Oaxaca suffered enormously from an earthquake in the 1920s, and the Guelaguetza was redefined as a state-wide event to raise the moral of the local people. Dances became less spontaneous as indigenous groups from around Oaxaca started to prepare for the festival months in advance. National and international tourists began to visit the beautiful city after Oaxaca was designated a UNESCO World Heritage city in 1987. Today, it’s hard to miss the white stadium up on Fortin hill in the city center that was built especially for the huge Guelaguetza show which takes place on two consecutive Mondays during the celebration. The music from the show floats down into the city. If you manage to find a spot on a bar terrace, you can enjoy the sight of the fireworks exploding up on the hill. It’s perhaps not the best time of year to get a good night’s sleep as firecrackers go off all night during the festival!

IMG_7370
A beautiful dancer smiles for the camera

Here at En Vía, we are celebrating the Guelaguetza with a festival of our own: En Vía Fest! We are hosting a live music event in the lovely gardens of the Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca, featuring four local bands playing music styles as diverse as cumbia, cabaret and hip hop. Some of the women in our program are coming into the city from Teotitlán del Valle to sell delicious tacos, esquites (a corn snack) and other goodies. There will also be mescal and beer available for purchase. Events like these are a great opportunity to spread the word about En Vía in Oaxaca and further afield. You’ll make new friends and see some familiar faces. The event information can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/events/268811899928742/. We hope to see you there. Enjoy Guelaguetza!

By Helen Lyttelton

Photos by Kim Groves


[1] Cohen, Jeffrey H. (1999). Cooperation and Community: Economy and Society in Oaxaca. University of Texas Press.

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