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20 July-6 Aug 2013. I hardly know where to begin with sharing the Guelaguetza Festival. Honestly I’ve felt a bit overwhelmed by it all – how to organize it in a way that best conveys what it was for us, what it is for the thousands of people involved both as performers and audience. We went to stunning performances every day for ten days, every one of them exhilarating, exciting, joyful. Thousands of photos to sort through to try to choose the best of them to share, torn between what I think are good photographically (and so my ego wants to include them) and those that really share something of the feel of this most colourful and exuberant of festivals whether or not they are “perfect” photos. Finally with Don’s help I found a balance and still couldn’t get it down below 120 photos.

Firstly a little about Oaxaca: it’s one of the southern states of Mexico, the capital also being Oaxaca, officially Oaxaca de Juarez. As the “tail” of Mexico swings around to the east Oaxaca’s coast has much more of an east/west orientation than the usual north/south orientation that we think of with Mexico. It has the highest number of indigenous people of any state, perhaps as high as 50 percent compared to 20 percent for the rest of the country. Sixteen separate ethnic groups are officially recognized. The most predominant are the Zapotec and the Mixtec, both of whom were eventually conquered by the Aztecs. There are some older people who only speak their native language, some who speak both their indigenous language and Spanish, and the younger ones who speak Spanish, and are learning their indigenous language. These cultures survived mainly due to villages being isolated because of the mountainous terrain of the state, and many people in the villages still live in the traditional way.

The city of Oaxaca de Juarez, naturally more cosmopolitan than the villages, has a Spanish colonial feel with some beautiful streets and churches, especially in the old central district. 

The Aztec lineage is alive and well

Women from one of the villages

The whole town was overrun with tourists, the very large majority of them being Mexican (from all over the country), in town for the festival. I caught these three having a sidewalk break

Anyone who thinks that Mexicans are lazy, or more politely, laid back, disorganized, all about “mañana”, should think again. The Guelaguetza Festival is a huge annual two-week affair in both the city and several of the villages, embracing several daily dance performances (some in free outdoor venues, some in theatres), a food festival, a mescal festival, a mushroom festival, puppet performances, two large parades, performances by the State Traditional Folk Ballet company, four four-hour long performances at a sold-out stadium seating ten thousand, a competition for the Corn “Princess”, a mole (sauce) festival, two dance/pageant performances of a key piece of Oaxacan history at the again sold-out stadium, and more. Overwhelming much? It all ran like clockwork. I was constantly impressed with the organization, commitment and enthusiasm of everyone involved in making it all happen. I was especially impressed with the immediate and professional and caring medical help I received when I fell and hurt my head quite badly at the stadium.

There was so much to do and see, but rather than cram our days full we decided to focus on the dancing, and have time as well to explore the zocalo (traditional town square), and the markets and back streets of Oaxaca, and time to rest when we needed. We wanted to go the Guelaguetza celebrations in at least one of the villages to get a more intimate feel for it, and we decided we weren’t that much interested in picking mushrooms though we did eat some (more on that in a later post about our hike in the mountains). I’ll write more about the festival itself in the next post, but for now a taste of some of the delicious dance performances.

First, a couple of random shots of people in the audience that caught my eye

These children are from the Mixtepec culture. And oh how they danced, like true professionals and with such committment and character.

I couldn’t find out which culture or village these dancers represented

A little mescal fortification before the performance 🙂

Dance of the Zancudos, by the Zapotecs from the village of Zaachila. Only men perform, half of them playing the role of women. They were breathtaking! So exciting. They danced as wildly as if they were on their feet on the ground. We were riveted. The first two photos were taken as they prepared to perform.

Towards the end a man came on to the side of the stage with his son (or perhaps protege) about four years old, and he danced along with the men. He already was beginning to get the feel for it. Many of the adult groups of dancers we saw had at least one young child participating.

These dancers are from Santa Maria Huatulco, in the coastal region. Their costumes may not be as spectacular as some of the others, but their wildly enthusiastic dancing and pure joy certainly made up for that.

Dance of the Rubios from the Mixtecs of Tecomaxtlahuaca. As soon as we saw the guy holding the animal over his head we knew that part of the performance would be a hunting dance, but this photo from Don really captures the mood of it all.

This is the Danza de Mascaritas from the Mixtecs of Teposcolula. There were three guys as skeletons, and three with deer heads. All six had rope whips and cracked them often. They paraded around the dancers. Once again all the dancers were men, and all wore mesh masks. It was surprising, and a bit puzzling how incredibly like English country dancing the dance patterns were – with a major costume twist! And wild crazy dancing that almost left us breathless with excitement. But then many of the performances were like that.

To add to the theme of English country dancing they produced a maypole! It was held in place by the three skeletons and the three deer guys while the dancers wove a perfect braid around the pole.

The dancers are from Santo Tomás Ocotepec

Don has really captured their movement in this photo

And this is just the beginning. In the next three posts I’ll share more information about the festival, and endless photos of dancers in the most beautiful, original, inventive, extraordinary, colourful, gorgeous costumes ever!

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.