This is The Guelaguetza

By Roger Vela

During these days the Guelaguetza is celebrated in Mexico. It is one of the most important cultural celebrations not only in that country, but in all of Latin America. The Guelaguetza is a festivity, based in Oaxaca, where the richness of several cultures is mixed through dance and music.

This celebration has its origin in pre-Hispanic times. It began as a ritual on the hill called by the Zapotecs as “Daninayaaloani” or Cerro de la Bella Vista, located in the city of Oaxaca and now known as Cerro del Fortín. This celebration was held in honor of the Zapotec goddess of corn known as ‘Cénteotl.’ Banquets, dances and rituals were offered at the ceremony during eight days.

After the Spanish conquest, the pre-Hispanic ritual was mixed with the celebration of the Virgen del Carmen. But it was not until the end of the 50s of the last century when the Guelaguetza began to perform as an event similar to the one celebrated now.

Now, the days on which the Guelaguetza is celebrated pay tribute to both the pre-Hispanic and Catholic traditions, because although it lasts a week due to its Zapotec origin, it takes place on the two Mondays after July 16, the day of the Virgin of Carmen.

The word Guelaguetza comes from the Zapotec “guendalezaa” which means “gift or offering”, although this cultural celebration is also known as “Fiesta de los Lunes del Cerro.”

It is common that on Sundays before the Guelaguetza a performance called Bani Stui Gulal —“repetition of the old” in english— is held in the Plaza de la Danza in the city of Oaxaca. It shows the origin and transformation of the Guelaguetza.

This performance is composed of different traditional dances in which the pre-Hispanic and colonial times are shown, but also those about the independent and contemporary times. In them we can see from Zapotec offerings and Catholic processions, to carnivals with folk figures, typical costumes and fireworks.

But that series of dances is just the preview of what will happen a day later at the Guelaguetza Auditorium, located in the Cerro del Fortín, where dozens of dancers will dance for more than 10 thousand people traditional dances with live music to represent the culture of the eight regions of Oaxaca: cañada, costa, Valles Centrales, Istmo, Papaloapan, Mixteca, Sierra Norte and Sierra Sur. Each region has its own traditional music band, in which the brass and woodwind instruments play a leading role. 

Many dances are performed such as: the dance of the pineapple flower, the dance of the feathers and the devil’s dance. The dances show the cultural diversity that exists in Oaxaca and each one has a different meaning that connects with its traditions and customs in each movement.

"The dancers" costumes are unique and special for each region and among them we find colorful embroidery and fabrics that show the history of the Triqui, Zapotec, Amuzgo and Mixtec cultures, which meet in this great celebration to achieve a mixture of cultures that it has surprised the whole world.

In addition, during this festival the representation of the legend of Donaji is performed, it is about a young Zapotec girl, in love with a Mixtec prince, who was sacrificed. This story is so important to the people of Oaxaca that the city took Donaji’s face as its image.

Traditional dishes are also one of the main aspects of this celebration, and it is because the diversity of Oaxacan cuisine has delighted everyone: mole, tlayudas, bread, tasajo, enchiladas, tejate, coffee, chocolate and of course a good mezcal must accompany this great cultural festival.

The Guelaguetza is so important to Latin American culture that in 2018 the city of Oaxaca registered a record of 132 thousand tourists from around the world who attended to appreciate the different festivities that are organized inside and outside of this celebration. Without a doubt, the Guelaguetza is one of the greatest gifts that Oaxaca has given to the world, because it shows the different cultures and traditions that give identity to the native nations that enrich Latin American diversity.