Guelaguetza is one of the world’s most important festivals and takes place every year in Oaxaca, Mexico. This year the celebration takes place on July 17 and 24 and in 2018, the likely dates are July 23 and 30.
Introducing the Guelaguetza
Some of the most colorful celebrations in the Americas take place in the southeastern corner of Mexico.
Since 1932 the city of Oaxaca de Juárez and neighboring villages have put on a show of Indigenous cultures that inspire locals and visitors alike.
The Guelaguetza is one of Mexico’s premier celebrations of music and dance with roots that date back to ancient times and in a more polished sense since 1932. Also known as Lunes del Cerro (“Mondays of the Hill”), this is the largest folklore festival in the Americas.
2017 celebrations are Monday, July 17 and 24. The state-sponsored Guelaguetza takes place at the auditorium on Fortin Hill . Smaller Guelaguetzas are held in towns in the Central Valleys, including Zaachila, Cuilapam de Guerrero (near Zaachila), San Antonino Castillo Velasco (near Ocotlán de Morelos), Tlacochahuaya, Reyes and Villa de Etla.
The festival links Indigenous traditions with the Catholic faith and occurs on the two Mondays following July 16th, the Day of Saint Carmen, except when July 18 falls on a Monday, because that date is reserved for the solemn commemoration of the death of President Benito Juárez in 1872. In that instance Guelaguetza is celebrated on the last Monday of July and the first Monday in August.
The Sunday before the event begins a young woman is chosen to represent Centeotl. She is chosen on the basis of how well she represents her community.
In one translation, the word “Guelaguetza” corresponds to paying off social debts. The word Guelaguetza comes from the Zapotec language and means “reciprocal exchanges of gifts and services.” At its center is an exchange of products and services, an age-old tradition of “paying it forward.”
The term Guelaguetza derives from the Zapotec term “guendalezaa” which means “offering, present, fulfillment.” The term was used during colonial times as the prerogative of the Spanish elite to receive the first and best of the harvest collected by the Indigenous people.
Gifts are cataloged and repaid at other guelaguetzas. This tradition is voluntary, contrasting with the “tequio,” obligatory communal work which also plays an important role in social relations.
Of special interest is the translation of Guelaguetza in Teotitlán del Valle. According to Zeferino Clemente Mendoza Bautista, it means the Tortilla from the Zapotec farm (Tortilla de Milpa Zapoteca)
Guela… Family farm (milpa)
Zaa…….Clouds (nubes) (an allusion to the Zapotec people)
Dances range from solemn to raucous expressions of local culture. At the end of each dance, each delegation presents their own “guelaguetza” to the audience by throwing small fruit, hats, and even coconuts and pineapples.
The audience stays alert to catch the gifts and to avoid getting hit by projectiles. Pineapples sting the most.
While the formal dances occur only two days each year, the entire month of July is filled with folk art and gastronomic exhibitions.
There are numerous festivals on July 16 – the Day of Saint Carmen – as well as a convite 9 days earlier on July 7.
Other related events in Oaxaca City include an eye-popping sale of regional folk art and theatrical events including Donají, La Leyenda.
Pedestrian-friendly Alcalá Street becomes dancer-friendly on late Saturday afternoons (before the Monday Guelaguetza). The celebration begins with Oaxaca’s famous Calendas, a colorful parade of participating delegations and led with giant papier mache figures.