20 July – 6 Aug 2013. Where to begin? I said something similar to that in the last post. The Guelaguetza Festival is so huge and so spectacular that I hope I can convey some of the sheer joy, happiness and excitement we experienced at this event – the best of life, the best of human endeavor, the best of community.

While we were staying in La Manzanilla, and expressed to people that we would travel a little around Mexico before returning to Vancouver mid August, we heard several times go to Oaxaca, go to Oaxaca. When I was told that the state of Oaxaca has the highest population of indigenous people in Mexico it became an immediate draw for me. Sixteen separate indigenous cultures are recognized. Then I kept getting this thought look up festivals in Mexico and then I’d forget. Then it would come again look up festivals in Mexico and then I’d forget. And again look up festivals in Mexico. Finally I did it and discovered Guelaguetza would be held at exactly the time we were planning to go to Oaxaca. Miraculous serendipity!

From the moment we arrived we were consumed by Guelaguetza. The word Guelaguetza is Zapotec meaning offering or gift. The celebration pre-dates the arrival of the Spanish, and was originally a celebration of the ancient deities, especially the corn goddess Centeotl. It was also an integral part of the ancient cultures at weddings and baptisms, and later, after the integration of the Catholic faith, at the celebration of the village patron saint day. Everyone in the community would bring gifts of food, and drinks and whatever was needed so the celebration could happen. All contributed, all brought offerings: Guelaguetza.

The festival today is a huge affair popular with foreign tourists, and even more so with Mexican tourists who come from all over the country. The indigenous people of Oaxaca present their traditional dances, music, costumes and food. It’s a wild party where their cultural traditions are affirmed, deepened, shown to each other and the world, and madly celebrated. It’s about maintaining their traditions, sharing their traditions, and gifting. After every dance performance gifts are thrown to the crowd, ranging from tiny woven corn-sheaf artifacts, to traditional pastries, to small plastic bottles of mescal, to pineapples. Yes pineapples. Beware the flying pineapples!

There was so much going on. We didn’t want to be overwhelmed, or try to do so much we’d be exhausted. We decided to focus on the dance. Every day there were dance performances, most were free, some were in a theatre, some outdoors, and there were four major performances at the sold-out 10,000-seat stadium on the hill. We were lucky enough to get tickets in the front section to one of the performances at the stadium.

This site has some wonderful detailed information about some of the dances. A direct quote: Traditional dances mean more than a few hours of amusement to people from the Oaxacan coast. They are an important social event and moreover are attributed with profoundly magical and religious meaning. A dancer does not take part for his or the public’s entertainment, but as a prayer to the powers above, to seek their approval, to show them devotion and respect.

Instead of presenting this chronologically, or by venue, I’ve decided to group it according to the dances since we saw some performers more than once in different locations, and, sadly, some not at all.
Every group had its own band, frequently, though not always, a brass band. I’ve never seen so many tubas.

Many of the villages hold their own celebrations and we decided to go to one to get a more intimate experience of Guelaguetza. We chose the town of Santa Maria del Tule. Apart from the festival, Tule is known for its tree, the Arbol del Tule. It’s a two-thousand-year-old Montezuma cypress. The biggest tree I’ve ever seen, and home to thousands of small birds that flitted in and out of its many crevices. We sat by it and took it in, or tried to – its size, its life, its enormous and ancient presence: a tree for the ages!

A woman is standing on the left, giving an idea of its size.

The Tule celebrations were held in the town stadium that I suspect was once used for bull fighting. There were dancers from several different regions and ethnicities of Oaxaca.

This construction is covered in fireworks and held high over the head as the fireworks explode. We saw some at the stadium too. Spectacular!

The audience

I was unable to establish the town or ethnicity of the following two groups of dancers but we loved their exuberant performances.

This next was one of the most spectacular and intriguing dances. It’s an Afro-Mexican dance from Costa Chica on the Oaxacan coast. In the site linked above there is a quite detailed description of its history and meaning. The Devil’s Dance was originally a ritual performed by African slaves in a plea to the god Ruja to be freed from slavery. The head devil carries a whip, perhaps symbolic of the whips used against the slaves on the plantations, and he whips the devils into action. The female devil is known as La Minga, and tries to disrupt the other devils using seduction. We knew none of this at the time – we simply experienced it as this outrageous exciting puzzling mind-boggling extravaganza that suddenly appeared in front of us.

The Parade! On both Saturdays of the festival almost all the different groups of dancers participated in a Calenda des Delegaciones, or Parade of Delegations, through the streets of Oaxaca. We arrived early at the starting point to get photos of the groups as they arrived. Before we knew it, as we were photographing the later arrivals, up front and around the corner from us the parade had begun, so we walked with the parade. I was trying to get to the front but it never happened as people lining the streets that I wanted to photograph kept distracting me. The dancers didn’t walk: they danced! Non-stop for about an hour and a half or more, each with their own band playing. It was a riotous crowded joyous melee. Every now and then someone would yell out Viva Oaxaca! and the crowd would respond Viva Oaxaca!, and then Viva Guelaguetza! and the crowd would respond Viva Guelaguetza!, and Viva Mexico! It was so much fun. The streets were packed on either side. And on either side was a stream of people, including me and Don, moving with the parade. And squished in the middle the musicians playing to beat the band, and the dancers dancing their big hearts out.

A few shots from the audience. Many people dressed for the occasion.

Waiting for it all to begin

The performers from Villa Hidalgo Yalalag in the Sierra Juarez region

The dancers from San Juan Colorado before the parade. Almost all the groups we saw had at least one child dancing alongside the adults. This little boy kept up like a pro in a dance that included sword play. He was matched with the big guy with the horse.

performing the Danza de los Chareos at the stadium

and after the parade was over

Three towns in Oaxaca are known for their brightly painted woodcarvings of fantastical creatures known as alebrijes. Of course there was a giant one in the parade, and you can see the woman in the left of this picture holding a small one. Also in this photo, and the next, are the Conquistadores that are a part of the Danza de la Pluma, which I’ll show in a future post.

These women are from the San Antonio Huitepec Delegation from Zaachila

From San Antonio Castillo Velasco comes the guajolote, or turkey dance. Yes he really is holding a live turkey with cigarettes and greenery and garlic dangling from it, and one of the women dances holding it high above her head. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see that.

I couldn’t find any information about this group

or this tiny boy who was one of several dressed in these giant hats.

At the end of the parade

And at the end of the parade we collapsed into a nearby restaurant for much needed sustenance. In the next post – a theatre performance of mime and dance from the people of the Istmo who have the most beautiful costumes of all, and the Oaxacan State Folkloric Ballet performance of Centeotl, the Corn Goddess.

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.