Now that May is upon us and Summer is just around the corner, it reminds me of home. Preparations have begun for the annual Guelaguetza Festival back home. It takes place on two consecutive Mondays in July and involves people from all seven regions of Oaxaca which include Cañada, Mixteca, Valles, Sierra, Tuxtepec, Costa and Itsmo de Tehuantepec. The event is really the premiere festival of the year, featuring music and dance, promoting the folklore of the Americas. We call it the Lunes del Cerro or ‘Mondays on the Hill’ and it’s a celebration of the indigenous traditions of the Catholic faith. The dates sometimes vary but it almost always takes place on the two Mondays after July 16th the Day of Saint Carmen.
So what does the word ‘Guelaguetza’ mean? It’s comes from the language of the Zapotec Indians and at its most basic translation; it means ‘gift’. But at its heart it goes beyond that; it refers to reciprocity in the exchange of gifts and services. To make it simple, it’s a day where everyone is just good to one another. Offerings are made in the form of dance, food, music, along with other gifts and the festival was soon woven into the indigenous cultures of the region, becoming a form of social etiquette that has endured for generations. As far back as I can remember, there was always a Guelaguetza Festival to prepare for each year.
The Guelaguetza is also about honoring Centeotl, the goddess of maize or corn through ceremonial rituals. This is the primary reason the festival is held in mid-July, because that’s the height of the rain season and these tributes would inspire a robust harvest. That’s why in the days leading up to the first Monday of the event, a competition takes place to choose who will represent Centeotl at the Festival. Young women from all seven regions contend for the honor and it’s she who best represents the values and traditions of her region that is chosen to pay homage to the corn goddess.
The preceding Sunday of the event is the day she is selected to lead the procession and she is crowned on the day of the Guelaguezta. It is a day filled with music, as participants from each of the seven regions gather in Oaxaca to demonstrate the rich history of their culture through song and dance, dressed in the traditional costumes representing their district. These dances can be somber and pensive or rambunctious and rowdy; a lot of innuendo involved. But whichever way they go, they always culminate in the dancers throwing gifts into the crowd; each one representing their region’s specialty and they would always be some type of traditional garb such as straw hats, fruit, flowers, the best were the coconuts and the pineapples. My friend Javier got hit in the head with a pineapple one year, he said it hurt like heck. Every year since we’re ready to duck and move out of the way.
Of course, it’s also about food. Lots of food. I can remember all of the wonderful aromas lingering together throughout the Festival. Every region bringing their own delightful flavors to the feast, everything from tamales wrapped in banana leaf, tlayudas, chilled beef, enfrijoladas, tejate, slow-cooked lamb, nicualote, pan de cazuela sweet bread, and delicious sweets and sorbets from every part of Oaxaca. Not to mention the chocolate; some of the richest, most amazing you’ve ever tasted in your life.
Words can’t even describe how much I miss the Guelaguetza. When I came here to Austin, I used to try to go back home every year for the festival; but over the past few years I haven’t had the time due to my heavy work constraints. Luckily, the festival has been going on for decades and next year will be another chance to go home and attend. I surely do hope that can happen.