The United States has no celebration comparable to that put together every July by the people of Oaxaca, Mexico. Delegations from each of the eight regions throughout the state come together to collaborate on decorations, performances, food, drink, and other commemorations of their culture. With every hand in the community hard at work to put on a collective show of color, sound, and pure exuberance, you can feel the sense of solidarity, universal camaraderie and giving that the Guelaguetza celebration is about.
This year, the status of the celebration is up in the air. The current situation in the state of Oaxaca, a state in Mexico known for its vibrant and tumultuous history intertwined with the fiercely independent Zapotec culture, is once again tense.
For over 20 years, a Oaxacan teachers union has protested low funding and reforms for teachers and rural schools; these strikes by the the National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE) often ended peacefully. In response to police action against the protestors in 2006, the teachers were reinforced by sympathizers who organized as the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO). In the following weeks, APPO protests brought to light concerns over governmental corruption and called for the resignation of Oaxacan governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. That year, the state-organized Guelaguetza festival was canceled for the first time due to continuing protests. The people, however, still gathered in one of the many historic plazas during what was known as the People’s Guelaguetza.
On June 19, 2016, the protests escalated after the government sent in riot police. News sources reported that at least nine people, including one journalist, were killed in Nochixtlán and about 100 people were injured. Demonstrations continued over the next two weeks, with more than 18 highway blockades causing shortages of fuel, food, and medications in Oaxaca. At the end of June, a five-hour meeting between federal officials and representatives of the CNTE ended in no agreement, but future meetings were planned.
At the time, according to mexiconewsdaily.com, the economic costs of the protests were estimated to total 2.7 billion pesos (US $148 million). Aside from property damage and lost productivity, business who cater to tourists are suffering. Oaxaca City is a national treasure that shines brightest during the annual celebration of Guelaguetza, drawing thousands of international appreciators of Mexican culture to the capital. Tourism flourished in the ancient city after 1987 when it was designated as a World Heritage City by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
However, violence and oppression threaten to overshadow the beauty and power that comes from cultural pride and historical awareness. While concerns about safety could cancel the annual celebration of identity once again, we have hope that it can withstand the storms facing Oaxaca today. With hearts heavy for the peoples’ struggle, we fondly remember Guelaguetza.
Guelaguetza in its Prime
Rio Grande Valley-based commercial photographer John Faulk has had the opportunity to visit Oaxaca during Guelaguetza in prior years, and shares that it is a wonder to experience the largely grassroots celebration that fills the streets in Oaxaca City and continues in surrounding towns. Dating back hundreds of years, Guelaguetza celebrates the cultures that pressed on in the face of conquests and acculturation. Happiness, music, and pride swells in waves over the streets of Oaxaca City for two weeks, aided by liberally distributed mezcal and heralded by a grand parade.
A citywide, miles-long welcoming parade kicks off festivities for the massive celebration. Leading the parade is a boisterous group of men, joyfully taking turns spinning the oversized canvas “marmotas” familiar to Oaxacan celebrations. Their holsters help carry the weight of the traditional decorations, but the leather straps also function as catcher’s mitts: the men are so skilled at managing the large, hollow globes that they throw them spinning into the air when it’s time to trade hands, with the next man in line catching the handle in his holster. This display is met with cheers and applause, and often rewarded with shots of mezcal.
The marmotas are followed by “monos,” or “mojigangas,” operated by young men and teenage boys. They worked hard to prepare the larger-than-life paper-mache puppets; the fact that all members of the community contribute their effort makes Guelaguetza a success. Making up a majority of the parade, exquisite dancers in traditional garb dazzle the crowd. The beautifully embroidered dresses worn by women and teenage girls are “trajes” worn at cultural events like parties and celebrations, and the parade showcases the eight distinct aesthetics that make up Oaxacan culture. Trajes are not the same as “costumes” worn by performers on stage to entertain an audience. However, performers from the eight regions (which include the Valles Centrales, Sierra Norte, Sierra Sur, La Cañada, La Mixteca, La Costa, Papaloapan, and the Istmo de Tehuantepec) do later don costumes on stage, beaming with pride as they showcase their treasured traditions through theater, music, and dance.
According to the official event website,www.viveoaxaca.org, festivities around the city are scheduled to begin July 1, with the kick-off parade slated for July 23 and 30, and auditorium performances July 24, 25, 31 and Aug. 1. As of June 25, there is no indication as to whether the people of Oaxaca will once again find an alternative way to share their cultural pride; despite the trials facing the state, the spirit of the Guelaguetza celebration remains about coming together. Whether it be in Oaxaca or South Texas, we can honor the spirit of Guelaguetza by paying it forward in our communities.
*Editor’s note, July 27, 2016: It appears the celebration is going to continue this year despite the continuing protests. You can read more about the situation via other reputable news sources.