Friday, July 13, 2012

Gifts of Culture: Guelaguetza in Oaxaca

Here in Oaxaca, there is currently a strange word on everybody´s lips: Guelaguetza. From the Zapotec Indian language it means an offering or gift. In cultures based on exchange and trade it can also be considered in terms of an action or service to community. This month, when you hear the word it will imply the sharing and enjoying of all the good things in life such as food, music, dance, and stories.



While the tradition dates back to ancient Pre-Hispanic times, the modern event now known as the Guelaguetza was established in 1932. The annual celebration is Oaxaca´s biggest and oldest cultural festival, and it is starting now! For the month of July, the city of Oaxaca will host events that acknowledge the different regions of the state and relish in their particular gifts and characteristics.  



The main spectacles of the festival are two dance and music performances that are held in the auditorium on the hill overlooking the city, or the Cerro del Fortín. These performances are held on two consecutive Mondays in July, and for this they are often referred to by locals as "Los Lunes del Cerro" (Mondays on the Hill). This year these official performances will be held on Monday the 23rd and 30th of July.



At these events the people from the seven different regions of the state of Oaxaca have the opportunity to share with the city and each other their particular dances, costumes, music, food, produce, as well as their unique histories and sense of humour.



The richness of the sights, sounds, and tastes will amaze you. The events captivate and involve crowds. Skirts are swirled into frenzy as women dance. Tubas boom across the valley. Mountains of regional specialties are cooked up for sale. Gifts are thrown from stages into the arms of onlookers. Note that this may be quite harmless if it is woven straw hats and canisters, like the people from La Mixteca are known to throw, but do take care, when the dancers from Tuxtepec finish their piece, as last year I almost got hit by a flying pineapple!


The two performances in the auditorium are not the only events that you should put on your radar. There will be countless activities and cultural displays going on in and around the city.

For example, you will be certain to find me in the Plaza de la Danza by the Basilica de la Soledad on the 25 and 26 July where there is to be a Tejate and Tamale fair showcasing the gastronomic specialty from the town of Huayapam.


On Sunday the 22nd and 29th of July there will be a performance of the famous drama Donaji in the Guelaguetza auditorium. This show is the compelling story of Princess Donaji who was the last Zapotecan princess.


A great place to see the spectrum of traditional dances and also to enjoy a lively town market atmosphere is in the town of Zaachila, which is located not far outside of the city. On Monday the 30th of July you can see the Laa Ni Ro Daan Zaadxil, or the Fiesta Grande del Cerro de Zaachila. Incredibly, this performance takes place in the archaeological site of the small town, where audiences recline against an ancient tree covered Zapotec pyramid to watch dancers on a stage below. Take a picnic blanket and a hat, and settle in for the whole afternoon, starting from 1:00pm.


In 2006, a year that marked much popular political activity in Oaxaca, the “Guelaguetza Popular” was established as an alternative to the performance on the hill. This year, on Monday 23 July, you can join a large gathering of people from all regions of Oaxaca at the sporting ovals of the Instituto Tecnológico de Oaxaca (ITO) University where you will be treated to the full variety of traditional dancing and festivities.

Desfiles, or parades, seem to blossom spontaneously in the streets of the city in these weeks. Representatives and delegations from municipals, towns, churches and Universities alike, put their best foot forward and take to the streets to dance. Some of my best memories of the season are from simply following along beside these moving, dancing, twirling caravans of people. Walk with them and you will often find yourself in a “front-row” position with stunningly costumed dancers and the most generous smiles.



There are many new faces in the city in these days, and the atmosphere in the public spaces is of festival and fun. I guarantee that you will come across a cultural event just by stepping out of your door. For example, walking back from dinner one day this week, I had the unexpected pleasure of running into a dance performance of a local primary school. There was a group of about 20 students; the dear little things danced about 6 different traditional dances back to back, changing their costumes at top speed in a little tent to the side of the stage. Parents, family, and community where their audience, and the stories they told with their dance, drew me in, made me laugh out loud and clap my hands with delight. 

If you are in Oaxaca, keep your eyes and ears open. If you are not, get to the travel agent this instant and get yourself down here! This month, whether you find yourself in the city auditorium or in the streets, marketplaces, and plazas of Oaxaca, you will no doubt be thick amongst vibrant colour, music, dance and the joyous celebration of a proud culture and way of life.


Friday, July 6, 2012

Feathers, food, and friends: The Festival of the Year in Teotitlan


This week, the town of Teotitlan is enjoying its main festival of the year, la fiesta de la Preciosa Sangre del Cristo, a weeklong town party that honours and celebrates the town church. It is a chance for the people to acknowledge the colour, life, and complex tradition and history that are unique to their culture.

The scene for this event is set at the site and plaza of the Preciosa Sangre de Cristo. Significantly, the church was built over a destroyed Zapoteco temple using much of the old stones and structure; its modern construction began in 1581, although it was not completed until 1758.



In the shadow of this sacred edifice, white cowboy hats crown the old men. Red ribbons shine in the black hair of the women. Ice-cream glints stickily on the chins of the children. All sit together with pride to watch the ritual dance; La Danza de las Plumas, or Dance of the Feathers.


The dances are effectively a re-enactment of the events leading up to and surrounding the Spanish conquest of the indigenous nations of Mexico. They cover many key moments including battles, betrayals, and invocations to the gods for guidance.

Spanish conquistador Cortes, is played good-naturedly by a local teenage boy with the cheekiest smile, and his soldiers by other local boys aged 6 to 12 years, all dressed in symbolic military uniform, complete with tassels, battle banners and toy guns.


However, it is the adult Aztec warriors that are of course the focus, and Moctezuma, their King and Capitan, is the most impressive of the great plumed dancers. The colours and ornaments of their dress are significant to pre-Hispanic beliefs, as well as those related to the Catholic Church, and the modern Mexican national flag. I find it beautifully appropriate, the way the complex layers are carried and acknowledged together. The sound of leather sandals propelling off the ground, and the rattle sticks symbolising weapons, are the sound of war, heard simultaneously with the swish of silk capes that symbolise ties with the Church. Old and new, mirror and feather, leather and gold, the combination is imposing and moving.



La Malinche, Cortes´s indigenous interpreter and lover is my favourite “character” in this performance, played by a girl of maybe 9 years. I especially appreciate the part in the dance where she attempts to negotiate between the two powerful men and the nations they represent. Also, the scene in which she dances with the Aztec Queen Cihuapilli, also played by a young girl, is fascinating as it represents the ways the two cultures have mixed and merged since the Conquest.

In its complete practice, the dance takes place over three days during the festivities, and it is a serious affair. Even when the sky opened up, and the whole town sought shelter in the church or under tarps, the dancers danced on regardless. They are undertaking a very prestigious and important service to the community in the form of a three year apprenticeship to the dance. Rain will not stop them. This particular group is on their final year. In October there will be a new selected intake, and among them will be our friend and volunteer, Alejandro. We wish him all the best in undertaking the great honour, and we look forward to seeing him dance in the festival this time next year!


Inside the church, the rattle and pound of the dancers was dulled. Locals were streaming in with candles “to ask of the Lord”, as one woman told me. At the foot of the altar, there was a regular fire of prayers burning bright and strong. “It is an important day for us”, said the woman. Whole families sat on the simple wooden pews. Candle light glowed on the children´s faces as they were blessed by their mothers and fathers. Fresh flowers, roses and lilies, were so abundant that they seemed to sprout from the church floor.  

Outside in the streets, women wore their best aprons, embroidered and pleated to perfection. At their feet were baskets of tamales, of mole de amarillo. We ran into Soledad from the program, she was selling hers, three for ten pesos, by the church gate. In Eugenia´s family´s house we tasted her famous enchiladas. Then later, at Teresa´s new café we chased away the cool damp with deliciously hot chocolate and coffee.

Glancing into doorways and patios from the street I could see long tables set, comal stoves smoking, and tamale pots steaming. Children seemed to run from table to table depending on which of their neighbours currently had the best spread.


One little girl in Eugenia´s household proudly told us that she had been up until 3 in the morning helping to wrap tamales. By the mountain of food in that house, I did not doubt it. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if half the town had been awake every night starting last Sunday, baking, cooking and preparing.


The celebrations opened on Monday, you see, with young single women dressed in their finest traditional wear, parading through streets with beautiful wicker baskets filled with flowers sitting ever so perfectly on the top of their heads. On Tuesday everyone comes together in the evening to enjoy fireworks. On Wednesday night, after a day of observing La Danza de La Pluma, the whole town gathers for the town dance. Thursday, is a day of rest, before Friday, when the young women take to the streets again. Then the celebration is closed with two more days of dancing. In fact, if you are in Oaxaca now, you should head out on Sunday to catch the last round of La Danza de la Pluma!


It is especially weeks like this that one can clearly see the strength and solidarity that exists in the community of Teotitlan. From the traditional dances, Catholic ritual, outstanding local gastronomy and party decoration, everyone woman, man and child is participating proudly. All of us from En Via feel lucky to get to share in such celebration, and to see the women and families we work with particularly, enjoying the company of their neighbours. You, our friends and supporters, are always in our thoughts at such times, and with you we continue to celebrate the success of the women within such a special community.