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.
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.
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.