Guelaguetza: Celebrating Oaxacan Culture

Living in Oaxaca I have had the opportunity to witness many of Oaxaca’s cultural expressions and the Guelaguetza is one of the liveliest and most joyful of them. The Guelaguetza is a festival which is celebrated in Oaxaca in the month of July, but the meaning of “Guelaguetza” goes far beyond the actual festival. The true meaning of Guelaguetza has to do with the members of a community coming together and sharing their cultural heritage and all the things that make them unique.

GuelaguetzaThe word Guelaguetza means “offering” in Zapotec, and implies a reciprocal exchange between parties. In the Guelaguetza festival, also known as “Los Lunes del Cerro” (Mondays on the Hill), representatives of the different regions of Oaxaca come together wearing their traditional clothing, and they perform the dances which are particular to their region. After they dance, they distribute gifts to the crowd: fruit, baskets, candy, mezcal, tamales and other local goods. This festival is a grand celebration of the cooperative sharing that takes place in every day life in Oaxaca.

The word “guelaguetza” is used in other contexts besides the festival. For family occasions such as baptisms and weddings, or community celebrations like the feast day of the patron saint of a town, members of the community contribute the items which are needed for the celebration. These contributions are the guelaguetza which each member brings that allow the celebration to take place, this could range from a simple carton of beer to paying for a musical group to perform, whatever is within each person’s or family’s means. Since these contributions are understood to be reciprocal, guelaguetza creates and reinforces the social ties within the community.

The state-sponsored Guelaguetza performances take place in an auditorium on a hill overlooking the city. Tickets are sold for the first two sections of the auditorium, and the remaining two sections have free admittance. For the 2011 Guelaguetza, the auditorium has a new roof made up of a metal structure with a tent-like covering to protect the participants and audience from the elements. Previously there was no roof and those who attended the Guelaguetza were exposed to the strong sun in the morning and rain in the afternoon (since the dates of the festival fall in the middle of rainy season, rain is nearly a certainty). Now the view of the city is obscured, but those who attend the Guelaguetza may comfortably enjoy the presentation. Several other events take place throughout Oaxaca City during the Guelaguetza. This year there was a mole festival and a mezcal fair, as well as nightly presentations of a laser light show projected on the facade of the cathedral.

Besides the events taking place in Oaxaca City, there are other Guelaguetzas held in various villages throughout the valley. These more informal celebrations of the Guelaguetza probably bear more resemblance to the way the festival was originally celebrated. This is not so much a show, but a time for people to come together and enjoy one another’s presence, their culture and food. The Guelaguetza lasts for several hours and here people come and go throughout the presentation.

This year I attended the Guelaguetza festival in Zaachila, a town located about 6 km outside of Oaxaca city. The Guelaguetza in Zaachila is held by a hill in the town’s archaeological zone.

In the video you’ll see just one of the many groups who performed at the Guelaguetza. This is the delegation from Santa Catarina Juquila, a village situated in the Sierra Madre mountains which is home to the Virgin of Juquila, a venerated image of the Virgin Mary. They perform a dance, and then later a “torito” (little bull) comes on stage (a guy holding a frame built to look like a bull, with firecrackers attached) and chases the dancers around the stage, after which the dancers throw fruit and candy to the crowd. Their guelaguetza, the offering they bring, consists of their presence at the festival, the dances they present, as well as the items they give to the crowd.

The Guelaguetza is a festival of music, costumes, dances, and food, but it’s also a celebration of the mutual interdependence of people within a community. It’s a moment when Oaxacan culture can be appreciated at its best. The Guelaguetza participants and all who attend demonstrate great pride in their cultural heritage and show a sincere joy in sharing it with others.

If your visit to Oaxaca does not coincide with the Guelaguetza celebration in July, you can still see the traditional dances and costumes of the Guelaguetza in the presentation of the Guelaguetza on Friday nights at the Camino Real hotel or nightly at the Casa de Cantera.

Learn more about the Guelaguetza Festival in Oaxaca.

Oaxaca's Guelaguetza

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