Friday, July 13, 2018
Of all Mexico’s thirty-some states, Oaxaca is the one with the most indigenous groups and the most indigenous languages surviving. There are at least sixteen distinct peoples with at least sixteen different living languages, with speakers numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
As everywhere, indigenous culture and language is under threat from the tide of global monoculture, but more than in most places, Native culture is still vibrant here. And one of the main ways that Oaxacans show pride and maintain their indigenous heritage is through the Gueleguetza.
The entire month of July is given over to parades, music, dancing, and displays of craftsmanship. On any given evening, you can sit on a bench in the zócalo or on the stone steps of an ancient church along main pedestrian avenue downtown and listen to a choral group singing traditional songs, or watch ladies in gorgeous embroidered costumes twirl to the sound of drums and trumpets.
Today, Paloma and I were wasting a few hours downtownnwhile Mamá was at her danzón class, and we ran smack into a calenda. That’s a parade of musicians and dancers attended by giant puppets and huge paper mache figures.
The Guelaguetza culminates in two day-long performances by dancers and musicians from each of Oaxaca’s indigenous groups, at a beautiful amphitheater high on a hill above the city. People come from all over Mexico and indeed all over the world to see the pageantry and feel the pride.
The work that goes into the Guelaguetza is mind boggling. All over the state, children take classes of baile folklórico; women weave and embroider and sew fantastic costumes; artisans create all the enormous and breathtaking accoutrements: fireworks, castles made of straw, fifteen foot tall dancing puppets.
Yes, there’s an element of tourism. Yes, there are financial incentives. Of course there are. But the Guelaguetza, which is a word that literally means “cooperation” or “mutual support,” or even “an offering” is a tradition that is much older than the modern tourism industry in Oaxaca. Tribes have been gathering on el Cerro de Fortín for a summer festival of trade and celebration since colonial times. In its opulence and ostentation, the Guelaguetza has something in common with our more familiar Potlatch.
But the concept of Guelaguetza is much deeper and much more embedded in Mexican indigenous culture than any one festival could be. It refers to those beautiful, complicated webs of mutual aid and obligation that are formalized through the compadre/comadre system. Whenever a baby is baptized in Mexico, or a couple is married, or a grandfather is buried - whenever any kind of rite is performed or celebration held - this web gets activated.
Someone buys the baby’s christening gown. An offering. Someone pays for the engraved glasses that guests take home as souvenirs. An offering. Someone puts a bottle of mezcal on every table at the wedding reception. An offering. Someone brings the flowers to decorate the church for the quinceañera’s mass.
And at the next christening or wedding or funeral, everything is shuffled and everyone reciprocates and somehow, all these offerings - even offerings of tacky plastic doodads and orange soda and tarps to cover the street in case of rain - somehow all these offerings add up to an extremely durable and flexible and beautiful system of mutual dependence and friendship.