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Published: Tuesday August 5, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Wednesday August 6, 2014 MYT 2:12:45 PM

Guelaguetza: Joyous and colourful

Guelaguetza, a dance and cultural event held every year in Mexico, is a burst of colour and tradition.

Aurelio Mendez has played the wooden chirimia flute, an instrument from pre-Hispanic days, for 40 years at Mexico’s Guelaguetza festival, considered Latin America’s biggest indigenous folklore and dance event. The moustachioed 54-year-old musician is helping to keep local traditions alive in the annual festival held in the southern state of Oaxaca, home to one of Mexico’s biggest indigenous populations.

“You can’t lose everything,” Mendez says, proud that more and more delegations from indigenous groups are joining the dance and cultural event every year.

Guelaguetza celebration on July 28, 2014 in Oaxaca, Mexico. - AFP PHOTO
Guelaguetza celebration on July 28, 2014 in Oaxaca, Mexico. – AFP

Some 11,000 spectators attended July 28’s music and dance performance in a circular amphitheatre on a hill offering a picturesque view of the city of Oaxaca. Fifteen ethnic communities take part in the annual festival, which mixes Roman Catholic and indigenous traditions. 

The event is also a chance to show off traditional crafts and foods. The women wear the colourful Tehuana dresses that were made famous by Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Samantha Montano, 18, was proud to wear the flowery attire from the isthmus of Tehuantepec. “It’s a great feeling to be able to represent my community,” Montano says.

Festive air: Dancers and revellers soaking up the merriment at the Guelaguetza Dance Festival which is held annually in Oaxaca, Mexico. The festival is one of the most important ethnic meetings in the country - EPA
The Guelaguetza Dance Festival is one of the most important ethnic meetings in Mexico. – EPA

The festival is held the two Mondays following the July 16 feast of the Virgin del Carmen; this year, that was July 21 and 28. Before Catholicism was introduced, the festival was held to honour Centeotl, the corn goddess in the Zapotec language.

“This is an incredible festival. The dances and clothes are beautiful. It’s a great experience,” said Michael Gura, a 34-year-old American tourist from Arizona.

The current format began in 1932 but it divides people between those who see it as a showcase of Oaxacan traditions and others who deride it as a money-making masquerade.

The Guelaguetza Dance Festival is held annually in the state of Oaxaca. - EPA
Guelaguetza is a showcase of Oaxacan traditions. – EPA

Guelaguetza is a Zapotec word meaning “offerings that are given, gifts that are received”. “It serves to show the world part of our culture, our language and the views of our people,” says Felipe Miguel, an indigenous education teacher who participates in the dance.

But Felipe says that many of his colleagues were unhappy with his participation. “They call me a traitor, but I tell them that culture is very different from politics.” 

Regional dancers perfom during the Guelaguetza celebration on July 28, 2014 in Oaxaca, Mexico. The Guelaguetza is a festival held once a year that gathers music, dances, gastronomy and handicrafts from different ethnic groups and tribes of the state of Oaxaca.- AFP
Regional dancers performing during Guelaguetza, which gathers music, dances, gastronomy and handicrafts from different ethnic groups and tribes of the state of Oaxaca. – AFP

Some 500 teachers tried but failed to block access to the venue on July 28 to protest the event as well as demand pay raises. Oaxaca, 470km south of Mexico City, is a state rife with social conflict. In 2006, 13 people died in a revolt against then governor Ulises Ruiz that had started as a teachers’ protest. – AFP

Tags / Keywords: Guelaguetza

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