A Zapotec Wedding

This weekend I got to attend the wedding of a dear artisan family and good friends to MZ, in Teotitlan del Valle. Like many of the cultural celebrations in this Zapotec village, the traditions hail both from the Catholic influence and from pre-hispanic indigenous practices.

The wedding day starts with an intimate mass at 8 AM, attended by the immediate families of the bride and groom, as well as close friends. The church, which is built from the stones of the Zapotec temple that once stood there, is cool and thick with the scent of lillies. The bride, Rafaela, looks like a princess, in a shimmering white gown, with plastic pearl applique, a large skirt, long lace train, jeweled headpiece and classic veil. Her husband-to-be, Espiridion, matches her in elegance, if in a somewhat more toned-down ensemble. The Catholic mass locks them in holy matrimony, and the crowd showers them with petals as they exit the church, while a brass band plays on.

From there, the families of the bride and groom split and each host a breakfast for their guests. Breakfast begins with hand-ground hot chocolate, and pan de yema, a slightly sweet roll made with egg yolks. This appetizer is swiftly followed by a meal of chicken with mole, the pre-hispanic chile-chocolate sauce, which is served with large crispy tortillas called tlayudas, but with no cutlery to speak of, since “the ancestors didn’t have forks and knives.” Beautiful reasoning in theory but the messy sauce is quite hard to eat for those unskilled in using only tortillas.

The honored guests here are the madrinas and padrinos (a loose translation of Godmother and Godfather). In this case, this title signifies they have been asked to participate in the wedding by funding a certain aspect of it, such as the floral adornments, the cake, or sparkling wine for the toast. In addition to this sort of crowd-funding for the wedding, all of the guests (but most especially all of the female guests) contribute to the wedding with their effort and energy.

For example, many of the older women have spent days slaughtering and preparing the chicken, and making the most enormous vat of mole I’ve ever seen in my life. So now, they sit back and relax, while the men serve them breakfast and take turns blessing their food. While that meal is being enjoyed, the younger generation of women are busy preparing for the next one. They chop jalapeños and onions, slice cabbage and stir the huge vats of barbacoa de res (a slow-cooked beef barbecue) that have been simmering over a wood-burning fire for countless hours. This meal is to be our comida, the main meal of the day, which is served around 3 PM.

While we are enjoying a seriously delicious comida, another group of women is hard at work making tamales, assembly-line style, for our dinner. It’s truly amazing to see so many deft hands making this large task go so fast. One women stuffs the corn masa (dough) into the corn husks, the next adds the green chile salsa (sauce), another adds shredded chicken and wraps it up tight. The last women in the chain carries the hundreds of the tamales over to the fire, where they are lowered into a huge steaming pot to cook over an open flame for hours.

In addition to the food traditions, there are lots of sweet symbols happening, many of which I’m sure I missed. Men have strung bugambilia blossoms into necklaces, which they offer to the honored madrinas, a practice that reminds me of the Hawaiian tradition of wearing leis during celebrations. Little bouquets of poleo (wild pennyroyal mint) are passed around to guests, which indicates to others that that person is celebrating something special, a practice that hasn’t changed in centuries.

In the mid afternoon, the band leaves to go pick up the family of the groom, and serenades them back to the home of the bride. Family members take turns greeting their new in-laws one-by-one, a beautiful act that honors the blending of the two families.

The band plays into the evening, and now that the entire wedding party is together, the dancing begins. They dance exclusively a local traditional dance called the Jarabe del Valle, which consists of men and women lining up facing each other, and sort of shuffling their feet backwards and forwards. When it was my turn to dance I was told to just pretend I was stomping out ants on the ground. I think I accomplished this.

When the dancing begins, the booze starts flowing. The alcoholic offerings consist of Coronitas (pint-sized bottles of Corona), mezcal, and tepache, an ancient Zapotec beverage which is made from liquid from the agave plant and piloncillo (a local natural sugar). This mixture is then fermented for two weeks underground, resulting in a slightly sweet, slightly effervescent drink, served in a jicara (dried and hollowed out gourd cup).

Just when you’re feeling the effects of the alcohol, which is being served all of a sudden at a pretty rapid rate, the tamales are passed around, along with cafe de olla, or sugary coffee heated in a big pot. I have never in my life enjoyed such fresh, delicious tamales, the masa was so fresh and fluffy, none of the solidity or rubbery-ness I sometimes associate with tamales.

While I felt that the celebrations lasted an impressive amount of time, really this day was just a snippet on the weeklong affair. Preparations had been happening for weeks and days before, and the days following have further traditions of visiting family members and cooking and eating a lot more food. It was truly an honor to get to be a part of this day, and learn about the Zapotec wedding tradition.

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