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20 July-6 Aug 2013. This is the fourth and final post about the Guelaguetza Festival. We were in Oaxaca for nearly three weeks. The first ten days we were immersed in the dancing and music of Guelaguetza, an annual festival of the indigenous people. Even going to performances every day it was impossible to see it all. To do that we would have needed to arrive a week earlier, to have been, frequently, in two places at once, and to have been “festivalizing” just about twenty hours a day so big is this festival. Not only the whole town is having a party; the whole state is having a party. Well the whole country really since it takes place during the time Mexicans have their holidays and people come from all over the country to attend.

As the festival grew from its prehispanic indigenous roots, to then merging with the rituals and festivities of the Catholic Church, to becoming a large annual event celebrating the traditions of the people of the state, a stadium was built at the original place of celebration to accommodate the growing number of attendees. For a time it was known as Mondays on the Hill. Mondays referring to the two Mondays in July on which the main performances take place, and the hill at the edge of the town being the traditional location for the festivities. The stadium seats over ten thousand people. There were six performances, all sold out.

Donaji, La Leyenda is a mime and dance reenactment of an important piece of prehispanic history involving a war between the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs. During the war the Zapotec Princess Donaji is captured and beheaded by the Mixtecs. The Mixtecs tell the Zapotecs where to find only her body. The legend of Donaji arises from the story of a young shepherd who, some time later, dug up a lily to take it home and in doing so found what was presumed to be Donaji’s head, intact and richly decorated. The body and head were then buried together in the temple of Cuilapam, and Princess Donaji became a legend. There’s a lot of richness in this whole story – a war, a beautiful princess, tragedy and beheading, and finally a kind of miracle when the head is found. This was all reflected in the sumptuous energetic performance, at times lyrical, at times dramatic, and always so rich in colour and movement that it didn’t matter that we couldn’t understand the Spanish narration.

But first the opening act: a little Mariachi music

On the last day of Guelaguetza we went to the final performance at the stadium. We had been lucky enough to book tickets online about a month or so earlier for the front section so we were quite close to the stage. We were also right next to the seats reserved for all the dancers.

Upon entering we were given a bag of goodies – a fan in case it was really hot in the blazing sun, a straw hat for the same, a plastic poncho in case it rained, a cushion to put on the hard concrete benches, and a water bottle to make sure we didn’t get dehydrated. They thought of everything.

The performance lasted four hours! Group after group of fabulous dancers twirling and whirling, telling the story of their village, of their traditions: all of the dancers performing a sacred and meaningful ritual of indigenous beliefs blended with the beliefs of the Catholic Church brought by the Spanish five hundred years ago. Since the Spanish ruled Mexico for three hundred years the church seeped into the traditional ways until it became hard to separate the two. The Danza de la Pluma is about the wars between the Spanish and the indigenous people. El Torrito Serrano is a dance about a bullfight. There are dances about corn gathering and about weddings. In some the influence of the Spanish culture and Catholicism is plain to see. Others are ancient rituals to the various gods of the indigenous people. One is a dance arising from the African slaves’ cry for freedom. What you see is a grand mélange, a history of the region told through music and dance.

El Torito Serrano from the Zapotecs of San Pablo Macuiltianguis in the Sierra Norte region. Their costumes are not the most flamboyant, and they look quite tame here:

and even here:

but I tell you this was one of the most exciting dances we saw. The entire crowd was screaming with excitement. Initially the boys played the part of the bull and charged at the girls, but then they reversed roles and the fun really started. In the photo you can see the boys holding their scarves as capes. Well those girls showed no mercy. Over and over they literally head-butted the boys off the stage, never using their hands. It was a high stage: good thing there were security guys there to catch them. Those girls were committed and fierce and didn’t let up until the boy was on the floor and off the edge of the stage. It was completely wild. And somehow they did it all in time with the music. It never stopped being a dance.

Speaking of the crowd – Don’s photo of the stadium and audience

and the dancers as part of the audience, awaiting their turn

Dancers from Tlacolula

Dancers from San Agustin Loxicha

Dancers from Pinotepa Nacional

Mazatec dancers from Huautla de Jimenez

Dancers from Huajuapan de León

Every group hurled gifts into the crowd at the end of their performance. I couldn’t find out where this group is from, but the second photo shows the crowd going wild as they throw their gifts of small items, probably woven from corn sheaves.

Many times throughout the performance someone on stage would yell “Viva Guelaguetza!”, and the crowd would respond “Viva Guelaguetza!” waving their hats in the air, and “Viva Oaxaca!” and “Viva Mexico!”. Often the music would be familiar and the entire crowd would sing along, again waving their hats. It was exciting and magical.

And then the grand finale! All the dancers poured onto the stage. They lit firecrackers attached to papier-mâché structures held above their heads, and fireworks filled the sky. A perfect ending to this most joyous and exhilarating festival. Viva Guelaguetza!

                                                           The End

Next post: A hike in the High Sierras, a visit to the Tlacolula Market, and a visit to the Zapotec ruins at Monte Alban.

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.