Guelaguetza. Perhaps no other word is so identified with Oaxaca.
The city, the state, and almost every detail of life imaginable in this southern Mexico state revolves around that word and the annual festival of the same name. Held every July, it is an explosion of color, culture, love, fiesta and even disagreement. In short, Guelaguetza is Oaxaca!
The other night I was sitting with a 15 year old girl. I’ve watched her grow up and now she is on the verge of stepping in her new role as a young woman here in Mexico. We just sat and talked. About life, family and as frequently happens here in July, the Guelaguetza.
I asked her if she ever wanted to dance in the calenda, or the huge arena, built just for the Guelaguetza. “Of course” she said, “Because there’s nothing like it in Mexico.” In fact, she was once part of a group of students learning from one of the top dance teachers here in Oaxaca. Her delegation is known as the Chinas Oaxaqueñas, typically the first group in the annual parade. If I close my eyes, I can almost see her dancing down the boulevard right now.
Ultimately, she chose to spend her summers serving others, rather than dancing, but the jump in her voice, the spark in her eyes told me how much she loved her time dancing, how important it was to her.
A few years ago I spent some time after the Calenda de la Guelaguetza, or parade, just talking to some of the participants. I asked them about the time commitment, the practices and the colorful dresses the participants wear.
Here’s what I learned. If you want to dance on the street in the parade, or on the hill for the big Lunes del Cerro celebration, you’re gonna work hard. You’ll practice for hours, must keep up your grades, stay in shape and work to pay your expenses, which for a special handmade dress, can reach upwards of $1000.00 US.
One young man told me that he works all year dancing and practicing just for a shot of being part of his village Guelaguetza team. It’s the highlight of his life.
But everything is not all coming up roses for this annual festival. In 2006, in the middle of a massive teachers strike, the annual celebration was cancelled. It was as if the Grinch had stolen Christmas. The pain of that year is still being felt.
Some locals now talk of the Guelaguetza in disparaging terms, especially those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Still more, whether they are from Oaxaca, or strangers spending time here, feel that the official Guelaguetza celebration is little more than a show to benefit a certain political and economic class. To them, if there is an authentic Guelaguetza celebration, it is the one the teachers sponsor each year, the “Alternative Guelaguetza.”
I’ve been to the amphitheater and the celebration of Lunes del Cerro. I’ve seen the dances up close and I’ve spent significant time with people connected to this wonderful festival. Here’s what I’ve learned. In spite of what people may say and in spite of all the struggles recently in the city related to the Guelaguetza, there are few places in the world where you can go to experience something special like the Guelaguetza.
Why is that? Because whether it is the big celebration in the city center, a small local festival in an outlying village, or even the alternative celebration, Guelaguetza is about the heart of the people of Oaxaca.
And it’s about what my little 15 year old friend said… “There’s nothing like it in Mexico!”