By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
With pageantry unrivalled in all of Mexico, the Guelaguetza is the most colorful and exhilarating of the multitude of festivals in Oaxaca. And in a state with 16 different indigenous cultures, each with its own unique traditions including language, food, music, dress and dance, the annual July extravaganza draws both Mexican nationals and tourists from all corners of the globe.
The official Guelaguetza celebrations, commonly referred to as the Lunes del Cerro (Monday on the Hill), take place in an open-air auditorium on a hill overlooking the city of Oaxaca, the state capital. The festivities typically occur the last two Mondays of July.
Folkloric dance troupes come to Oaxaca, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, from the farthest reaches of the eight regions of the state, to perform their distinctly unique dances to the tune of traditional native music. It’s all carried out live in the amphitheater. The 15 or more performances are designed to convey the nature and richness of day-to-day life in their particular part of Oaxaca, ranging from representations of rites associated with marriage to coastal net fishing. Some have humorous sexual subtext manifest in both dance and the recounting of local tales. Imagery and movement are sufficiently universal so as to ensure that knowledge of Spanish is not a pre-requisite for enjoying and becoming thoroughly enthralled in what is being expressed through dance, music, and at times light dialogue.
Guelaguetza has been translated from the Zapotec both as “offering” and the “reciprocal exchange of gifts or services.” The pre-Hispanic origins of the Guelaguetza assist in unraveling the relationship between its literal meaning and its current format, including why, where and when regional delegations descend upon Oaxaca to reenact indigenous rituals.
More than three thousand years ago the hunters and gatherers of the region began to develop a more sedentary lifestyle, in large part due to the cultivation of corn, then other foodstuffs such as tomatoes, squash, beans and chiles. Corn remained the key staple, and the rains that traditionally began during the summer months assured its growth and an abundant supply throughout the year. It thus became usual practice to pay tribute to the gods responsible for bountiful yields during mid-summer to ensure that the rains continued and thus produced the healthiest of fall harvests.
This manifests in the offering and trading of initially foodstuffs, and then locally handcrafted products such as clay pots and other wares. The feast of Xilonen, goddess of young and tender corn, fell on the Christian calendar date of July 16.
The Spanish, upon their arrival in Oaxaca in 1521, on the one hand attempted to impose their beliefs on the indigenous peoples through conversion to Catholicism, while on the other sought to maintain at least some relevance for tribe members, through reinterpreting their longstanding traditions. One way was to incorporate the Guelaguetza into the celebration of the July 16 feast of the Virgin of Carmen, beginning at the downtown Oaxaca church of Carmen Alto, once a Zapotec site.
Eventually the Guelaguetza began to focus on the two Mondays following July 16, and its location changed to the Cerro del (Hill of) Fortín, which had been the location of Aztec garrisons during the 15th century. The ridge was, and thereafter remained, a place for gathering – and for celebrating the Guelaguetza.
In 1932, as part of the city’s 400th anniversary festivities and its designation as a royal city by King Carlos V of Spain, the forerunner of the modern Guelaguetza was born, with representatives of ethnic groups from the different parts of the state invited to participate.
La Temporada de la Guelaguetza (The Season of the Guelaguetza) is a time for every Oaxacan to set aside political differences and concerns over inequalities and struggles, and pay tribute to the state’s multiplicity of rich cultural traditions. The festivities also serve as a reminder that both government and the people must, for generations to come, strive to preserve indigenous heritage through promoting the maintenance of each culture’s precious customs.
Just as Super Bowl Sunday draws TV audiences unprecedented throughout the rest of the year, so too does Lunes del Cerro in Oaxaca. From morning until evening on those two Mondays, every year, television stations broadcast the Guelaguetza. Virtually every restaurant, hotel, craft store, jewelry shop, and even market stall, in the state, is tuned in to the live performances.
Watching a Cerro del Fortín Guelaguetza performance is awe inspiring. It adds to our respect for and greater appreciation of the different mores and traditions which have endured centuries, and in some cases millennia. It reminds us of the state’s rich array of rituals.
At the end of each troupe’s performance, members toss gifts (i.e., offerings) to those in the stands: products brought down from their particular sub-region, ranging from palm leaf hats; to coffee, fruits, vegetables and nuts; to souvenirs created specifically to distribute. One cannot help but leave the Guelaguetza exhausted from cultural overload, but with a special understanding of the magic of Oaxaca. For the vast majority of Oaxacans, the Guelaguetza instills a renewed gratitude for their native legacy.
Ancillary events include the downtown parade of delegates on the Saturday evenings, and the performance of the legend of Donají (the last Zapotec princess) on the Sunday evenings at 8:30 p.m. at the same auditorium. Some years on the Sunday evenings, a performance entitled Las Tradiciones del Istmo (The Traditions of the Isthmus) takes place at a much smaller open-air venue downtown, La Plaza de la Danza. There is frequently a children’s Guelaguetza performed in the Alameda de León, adjoining Oaxaca’s zócalo. When you arrive in Oaxaca, check for posters in the centro histórico for details of events.
The 2019 Guelaguetzas take place on July 22 & 29, at 10 a.m. & 5 p.m. Tickets are available through tourism offices, Ticketmaster and select travel agencies. It’s worth the money to buy seats as close to the stage as possible. Each performance lasts about three hours.
Many towns and villages hold free Peoples’ Guelaguetzas during the two-week period. Ask for dates, times and locations at your lodging. They, too, are very entertaining, but nothing compares to the state-sponsored Guelaguetzas on the Cerro del Fortín, experiencing all the color and pageantry on a grandiose scale while sitting in the stands, the stage in front, the spectacular valley of Oaxaca and distant mountains as backdrop.
Alvin Starkman attended his first Guelaguetza in 1991. He operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).