By Frances Lopez
The word ‘guelaguetza’ comes from the Zapotec meaning to “help each other in the constraints that the individual alone cannot cope with”. Most indigenous communities maintain solidarity and mutual support as one of their most important values. More than a habit, it is an attitude for life.
The guelaguetza, also known as Lunes del Cerro, has come to be a festival full of color and culture in the heart of Oaxaca, Oaxaca City. The origin of these festivities goes back to the Zapotec tribute to the corn god Ceneteotl and the goddess of the ‘elote’ (tender corn), Xilonen. To honor these gods, the Zapotecs performed ritual dances and meals.
Each year they would travel to the ‘Cerro Tutelar’ (or the ‘Cerro Guardián’, the Hill of the Guardian Protector) to offer human sacrifice, dances, songs and meals to the corn gods. In Oaxaca, originally Huaxyacac meaning ‘the hill in the nose of the huajes’, the celebrations and rituals took place in what is known today as ‘Cerro del Fortín’. The Aztecs settled at the top of this hill in 1486, giving origin to what is Oaxaca City today.
During the Spanish conquest and evangelization, these festivities changed. The Spanish colonizers saw how the indigenous would travel each year to visit el Cerro de Fortín and decided to combine the pre-Hispanic festival with their celebration of the Virgin of Carmen. It was established that the party would be held the first Monday after July 16, it would continue the first Monday after that date, eight days later. Because of this, the festival was called Lunes del Cerro.
With Oaxaca’s large indigenous population (over 50%), the culture remains strong, with more than 300,000 people speaking a native language. Today the festival is still very much alive, this year taking place on July 17th and 24th, with many side events in between.
In this celebration, folk groups of the eight regions of the state participate:
- The Coast
- Sierra Sur
- Sierra Norte
- Central Valleys
Each region presents a sample of its cultural heritage through dances performed to the sound of music and songs that are their own, wearing gala dress from their respective villages. At the end, each group distributes its offering, comprising things characteristic of the region, to the public.
The Guelaguetza has become a notable tourist attraction, but because of its deep cultural meaning and importance to the native peoples of Oaxaca, tourism has taken on an important role in the continuing survival of the culture and its customs.