Normally in July, Oaxaca fills up with tourists and natives alike who come from all over to revel in the Guelaguetza festival that celebrates the unique folkloric dance, dress and music of distinct indigenous groups of Oaxaca. This year, however, celebrations have been canceled to slow the spread of Covid-19 and the streets remain largely empty, a stark contrast to the typical swirl colors and sounds of parades winding through packed streets.
We checked in with the artisans to see how they were feeling about missing out on the festivities. Typically in the Teotitlan del Valle, they would be enjoying the "Danza de Pluma," - or feather dance - in which male dancers perform steps while wearing massive feather headdresses and bells on their ankles. The artisans expressed feeling the loss of not being able to practice this tradition, but also explained the the concept of Guelaguetza runs much deeper than the festivities.
The word Guelaguetza means “offering” in Zapotec, and its meaning runs much deeper than the modern day event. In traditional Oaxacan villages, when there is an occasion for celebration, such as a baptism or wedding, the people attending the party will bring an offering known as guelaguetza, in the form of food, beverages, flowers, or other goods. These contributions allow the party to take place, since one single family would be hard-pressed to provide everything necessary for a large-scale celebration. The guelaguezta offering becomes part of a reciprocal exchange that is still very much practiced today, and is one of the ways social ties are reinforced and maintained through time.
Paco, the MZ Production Manager, shared his thoughts:
In our town, like in many others in Oaxaca, the significance of 'Guelaguetza" means "mutual help" or "offerings." The festival where people dance on the Cerro de Fortín (in Oaxaca City) is a relatively new thing. That festival only started about 100 years ago. In our culture, the Guelaguetza has pre-colonial elements.
The idea of "mutual help" has been lost somewhat because the conditions of life have changed, but it is still practiced. For example, helping out when a family has an event like a wedding, baptism or funeral. The help could come in the form of tortillas, corn, a turkey, a pig etc. And the person or family that receives the help is obliged to return the favor at some point in the future.
The modern Guelaguetza festival that is normally celebrated this month in the capitol city, is a blend of the pre-hispanic celebration of the corn goddess Centeotl, and the Catholic feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which was offered/enforced by the Spanish in the colonial era as a counter celebration to the indigenous tradition. It is not uncommon to see this mix of Catholic and pre-hispanic traditions practiced in Oaxaca.
Visitors and locals alike can enjoy Lunes en el Cerro, or “Mondays on the Hill,” where a special auditorium overlooking Oaxaca City has been built for the occasion. They can enjoy the swirl of dancers, music and colors, with the gorgeous backdrop of Oaxaca behind it. Leading up to the first Monday and throughout the week, there are lots of parades and other events throughout the city, making this a great time to visit Oaxaca. One of the things that makes Oaxaca so special is the rich indigenous culture still practiced today, and the Guelaguetza festival is one of the best ways to learn about and enjoy the unique traditions.
Hopefully, next year Oaxacans and tourists alike will be able to enjoy the cultural celebration once again. For now, we hope you have enjoyed this virtual glimpse into the Guelaguetza festival. It's good to know that the spirit of Guelaguetza, the concept of mutual support through offerings, is still alive and well within indigenous communities across the state. This concept can inspire all of us during these trying times; it's a reminder that above all else, we have each other.