When is too much of a good thing too much?
It is a question I found myself asking after spending the day in Oaxaca de Juarez Saturday for the start of Guelaguetza 2014. For over 80 years Guelaguetza has become synonymous with the culture and life of this southern Mexican state.
Held each year in late July thousands of people from around Mexico, Oaxaca, and indeed the world, descend on this little hamlet. Criss crossing the city, they hope to see the parades, the dances, the colors, and experience the culture and gastronomy of the heart of Mexico’s indigenous people.
Since 2006 when the celebration was canceled due to a teachers strike that still haunts the city, the crowds have grown exponentially as the government has sought to reassure the world that Oaxaca is safe and Guelaguetza will prevail. Their success is evident if you are unfortunate to try and cross the city by taxi, car or bus over the two main weekends of the festival.
Trips that normally take minutes are extended to hour long journeys as tempers flare and the temperature spikes, as it always does in late July. Crowds along Alcalá Macedonia, the main tourist area that fronts the cathedral of Santo Domingo are literally a sea of people, reminiscent of Main Street USA, the heart of Disneyland.
To navigate the zócalo, direct routes are simply not available as vendors, musicians, protestors and growing hoards of people crowd the area at peak times. And then we get to the parade.
One of the highlights for everyone is the parade held on successive Saturday evenings. Since it is free, people from every corner of the state either want to be part of their towns’ official delegation, or watch it from the streets.
Last night however, highlighted just how popular this event has become and the fact that Oaxaca is going to have to do something soon to avert a potential disaster.
This years route was revised back to the 2010 path. That meant the dancers and performers approached the zócalo on Abasolo, turning left at Iglesia Sangre de Cristo. When people realized this, almost at the moment the parade arrived, they stormed the corner, leaving behind seats from as far away as Santo Domingo.
This caused the already overcrowded street to become totally impassable, stopping the parade dead in its tracks. I watched as the police, who receive little or no respect from the people here, begged people to back up and allow the parade to pass, all to no avail. It finally took the pleadings of parade officials themselves to get the people to back up enough for the parade to continue. Essentially, they were asking people to give up their opportunity to actually see the parade.
What would have happened I wondered, if the people, fed up with government that did not consider this possibility and plan ahead, just refused to back up? Would we have seen another police over reaction like the one that lit the spark in the 2006 teachers strike?
For an event of this magnitude, one that draws visitors from around the world, the official organization of the parade more closely resembles a local civic parade in the United States.
There are no lines marking where people can sit. Barricades at key intersections are slow to go up, if at all. The police are unable to control the crowds and seem indifferent until it is too late, or a supervisor happens to pass by. And then the parade itself has morphed from delegations of dancers and performers to essentially a massive march including every seemingly important person in the village.
This has lengthened the parade so much that the number of delegations marching has been seriously reduced. The Guelaguetza parade is now almost evenly split between performers and extraneous participants.
Make no mistake, the parade was still fantastic. The colors exploded against the blue sky and billowy clouds and the peoples faces were filled with smiles. The folks I had with me were stunned at the rhythm and beauty of the event. Everyone of them realized that they were part of something special that you could only experience in Oaxaca.
I think that is what the organizers of this annual festival would want to hear from everyone who lined the streets of Oaxaca last night. My fear is that unless something is done soon to take control of at least the Saturday events, we may soon reach a critical point in Guelaguetza history that will indeed be too much of a good thing.