Oaxaca: Guelaguetza

Posted from Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Con Los Brazos Abiertos

[There is a video at the end of this post and click here to see the separate post with my photos.]

When Erik and I first arrived in Oaxaca at the end of March, in was Party Central – Semana Santa (the week before Easter) followed by a celebration of Oaxaca’s 480th anniversary.  When I arrived by myself in mid-July… even bigger and more parties.  Why?  The Guelaguetza.

From the Guelaguetza performance

The Guelaguetza (the word itself is Zapotec – one of Oaxaca’s major indigenous cultures – for “offering”) is Oaxaca’s several-week celebration paying tribute to the varying communities and cultures in Oaxaca.  More than a dozen delegations come and present costumes, music, dancing, traditions, food, art… it’s incredible on so many levels.  The diversity is wonderful but also the pride that each group has in its own culture – and the pride that all Oaxaqueños feel in their state for having and preserving these living histories.

Mi amigo Fernando shows our empties from our mezcal sampling.

Simultaneously occurring with the Guelaguetza itself was a Mezcal Festival (mezcal is a distilled alcoholic spirit made from the agave plant, and I attended the festival three times – free samples! – and maybe bought a little too much, but I bought it mostly for Erik since he couldn’t be there…right?), a small Tejate (an indigenous non-alcoholic beverage made from cacao and maize) and Tamale festival that I accidentally stumbled upon and enjoyed a couple of very cheap and delicious meals, a restaurant-sponsored festival of the seven moles, a mushroom festival and a cheese festival in neighboring towns, and really much more than one person could possibly attend without either a time machine or a clone.  I have neither of those things with me.

A very memorable evening listening to wonderful music from around Oaxaca

There were concerts of all types of music all the time and in various locations. I went to all sorts of musical events.  One of my favorite performances was a gentleman somewhat advanced in years who sang native songs accompanied by two incredible guitarists.  There were about 50 of us in the audience in this intimate room.  The people around me quietly sang along, some people demonstrated some native dance steps, and then – my favorite part – shots of mezcal started getting passed around the audience.  I don’t know if it was the sincerity and beauty of the gentlemen’s voice, the palpable comradery of those around me, or the two shots of mezcal I had, but my heart was overwhelmed and a tissue needed to be procured more than once.

Pyrotechnic towers getting readied in the zocalo

In addition to the musical events, parades kept happening everywhere.  Fireworks were everywhere and at all times.  There was even a church festival happening at the same time with games and lots of food.  And more fireworks.  (Mexico really does love its fireworks.)  I was everywhere I could be and usually always with the camera, just in case.  By the end, though, I was ready for it to be over.  Sensory overload.  And so, so many tourists.

Incredible view of the city behind the stage

But the highlight of the whole shebang are the Guelaguetza performances at the auditorium on the hill, overlooking the great city of Oaxaca.  There are two performances on each of the two final Mondays in July.  You can pay between 600 and 1000 pesos for a ticket or you can wait in line for free tickets on the day of the performance.  Since I blew all my pesos on mezcal, I chose to get in the freebie line for the final performance that was offered.  The show began at 5:00 p.m.  I was in line by 11:30 a.m. and far from alone.  I feel lucky that I got there when I did, because thousands and thousands of people found their way into that free ticket line for that performance.

My two friends for the day and my sombrero

I was very fortunate to have been able to spend my several hours in line with two very lovely señoras who adopted me for the day.  We chatted (as best I could) and they kept filling me with food and candy, saying I was too thin.  (Then they would grab their own bellies and we would all laugh.)  When we finally got through the mad house that was Guelaguetza security, they waited for me and we all sat together.  They explained things about the dances and the lyrics of some of the songs.  And at the end of the night, they let me keep the sombrero they had loaned me that day.  I love it!

To be in that place and that time was a feeling I will never forget.  There were copious amounts of tourists from outside of Oaxaca those weeks, to be sure; but the Oaxaqueños had such uncompetitive pride in their cultures and their people.  More than 10,000 (SOBER!) people screamed and cheered and clapped along with the dances, laughed at the jokes, and sang along with the songs.  And they do it every year and they love it.

¡Mi sombrero me encanta!

I couldn’t even begin to count the number of times an event was introduced and the host would use the phrase “con los brazos abiertos” – “with open arms.”  They made sure at all times that everyone knew that they were welcomed and that even the visitors were considered Oaxaqueños for sharing in the displays of their culture.  As a foreigner alone in another country, it had a surprisingly touching affect on me.  And as I said earlier, there was no competitive nature to their patriotism; they were just proud and happy, and they wanted everyone else to be happy and feel included.  Nothing more.  It was warm and endearing.

Please take a moment to check out my photos from around Oaxaca during that time.  It’s really incredible how beautiful, colorful, and complex these costumes are.  As well, it’s very inspiring that Oaxaca, with these annual celebrations – which are immensely popular – is adamant that their indigenous traditions will never die.

A few words and hints about the video below.  First, all footage was taken with my camera so the quality isn’t too impressive.  Add on top of that the fact that usually there were big crowds and I was never near the front.  Plus, truthfully, sometimes I just didn’t understand what the camera thought it was doing.  The video is only about 10 minutes long but really worth sticking it through to the end (in my opinion).  The clips are fairly short, but the end – the crowd’s reaction to the pineapple dance – is so awesome.  (If for some reason you can’t see the video, just try refreshing your page; it should appear.)

Brief descriptions:

  • 0:03   Tribal dance with costumes
  • 0:22   Musical group performing Basque music with dancing
  • 1:05    One of the many parades with costumes, dancing, and lots of fun from the  delegations participating in the Guelaguetza
  • 2:35    Performance of some of the delegations at the Plaza de la Danza
  • 3:36    Giant woman loses arm and goes crazy (I could not stop laughing!)

Now to the actual Guelaguetza performance:

  • 3:58   One of the most unfortunate musical instruments I have ever heard
  • 4:17    Fun dancing and music clips
  • 5:52    I love the way they wave with their sombreros as they depart and the entire crowd waves with their sombreros in return
  • 7:04    At the conclusion of every group, they throw prizes (like apples, bread, hats, and even pineapples) into the crowd.  This group added a pyrotechnic element.
  • 7:41   The whole crowd waits and waits for this: La Danza de la Flor de Piña.  The crowd goes berzerk for the Rockette stuff.  It’s charming and lovely on so many levels.

This entry was posted in Mexico, Pause - Summer/Fall 2012. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Oaxaca: Guelaguetza

  1. Keith says:

    That final dance is great!!! If it were just a line of ladies kicking at the same time, i wouldn’t understand all the cheering (though i do love the Rockettes). The moves and how quickly they get across that stage is amazing!!! What a fun time!

  2. ron says:

    We were watching your video as dad was making some choc chip oatmeal cookies. Reminds me of Mardi Gras, with all the costumes and music. Never got there either. Thanks for sharing your time with the rest of us. It’s a good thing you take after your dad by being a people person. I always had fun just watching the people at the different events. Take Care xoxoxoxo

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