During the later half of July in Oaxaca, colorful posters, live bands, and an overall air of festivity denotes the coming of Guelaguetza— an annual cultural event where different ethnic groups in Oaxaca perform in an outdoor auditorium to showcase their indigenous cultures through dance, dress, and food.
I went to the 10:00 am festival on the 22nd. The whole stadium was packed. All 11,000 seats were occupied and many people had arrived hours in advance, waiting in long lines that wound down along the mountain, to get a seat in sections C and D.
The festival opens with the honoring of the goddess of corn Centéotl. A few days prior, a contest is held in which participants are tested on their knowledge of clothing, customs, and traditions. The winner is vested as the goddess and presides over the first activities of the Guelaguetza and walks among the audience.
Afterwards, each group performs, dressed in the clothes of their indigenous community and using dance to express everything from the groom bringing the bride’s family gifts prior to marriage to the conquest of the Aztecs to honoring Saint Peter.
The Guelaguetza has been taking place since before the Spanish conquest of Mexico and so the preservation of indigenous cultures while integrating some Christian elements brought by the Spanish made for a diversity and character of each of the performances which was truly special to see. Every performance was energetic and unique, showcasing the richness of the respective group’s culture.
What is even more special about Guelaguetza is that it goes beyond the dance performances that occur at the auditorium, encompassing the performances, and dissemination of traditional food, dress, and handcrafts happening in the city center and surrounding regions.
The most extraordinary part of Guelaguetza is that it preserves indigenous customs and traditions and, in doing so, preserves the age-old art of ethnic groups in Oaxaca— similar to the way we put famous pieces on the walls of museum, only Guelaguetza is not just something to look at and admire from afar. Rather, it is a cultural exchange in which anyone can partake and, through doing so, truly appreciate the ways of different ethnic groups which have been passed down, generation through generation.