Oaxaca's Guelaguetza Festival

In the Zapotec language, the word “guelaguetza” means mutual cooperation, which is based on the idea of reciprocity–“today for you, tomorrow for me” (Bonfil Batalla, 1996, p. 30). The Guelaguetza celebration consists of inhabitants from each of Oaxaca’s seven regions coming together and performing their traditional dances. Being home to sixteen indigenous languages and ethnic groups, the state of Oaxaca is composed of multiple unique and diverse cultures within its borders. For a Guelaguetza to be successfully realized, it requires the hard work and effort from several people. The Guelaguetza would not be possible without the contributions and gifts provided by each individual in the community. The purpose of the event is to commemorate the act of communal work and strengthen the establishment of a community.

Guelaguetza dates to the pre-Hispanic era. After the Aztecs conquered the Central Valley of Oaxaca, they constructed a temple near the Cerro de Fortín, where they would worship their Corn Goddess, Centeotl, and even local Zapotecs would join in the rituals. During the colonial era, Zapotec and Mixtec communities migrated to areas near the Cerro to feel close to their ancestors. By 1700, a Christian procession took place annually on 16 July for the patron, St. Carmen, demonstrating the syncretism between the Spanish and indigenous celebrations, which consisted of “fireworks, costumes, and Catholic songs accompanied by indigenous musicians and instruments” (Heath, 2015, p. 119).

In 1932, Oaxaca hosted a celebration called “Homenaje Racial” (Racial Homage), which is asserted to be the predecessor of the current Guelaguetza festival. The festival was similar to the present Guelaguetza, as it involved the performance of individuals from Oaxaca’s distinct cultural territories. To finish off the grandiose celebration, “The Guelaguetza” was performed, which is what the current event was named after. The performance consisted of indigenous people carrying gifts and offerings, which exemplified the traditional Guelaguetza.

After the end of World War II, Mexico became a popular tourist attraction, which resulted in an improvement in Mexico’s economy. To the Mexican federal government, tourism would solve economic troubles by creating jobs, generating revenue, and countering trade shortfalls. The Mexican government began working on minor projects to help increase tourism in the country, which included building a new stadium in 1932 called, Rotunda de la Azucena (Rotunda of the White Lilies), for the annual Guelaguetza.

From the 1930s through the early 1970s, the Guelaguetza was a relatively informal celebration that welcomed all Oaxacans at no cost. This changed in 1974 with the construction of a new auditorium by the state government of Oaxaca. Since the building of this new auditorium named, Auditorio Guelaguetza, attendees have to pay an admission price to enter the event, which as a result has discouraged many lower and middle-class Oaxacans from attending, considering ticket prices range from about 960 to 1,240 pesos (approximately U.S.$56 to $73) (ticketmaster.com, 2017).

After Oaxaca’s 2006 crises, local teachers of the Section 22 “Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educacion” (National Syndicate of Workers in Education, SNTE) organized their own Guelaguetza naming it “Guelaguetza Popular Alternativa” (Alternative Popular Guelaguetza). The event took place in the soccer field of the Technological Institute of Oaxaca, with about twenty thousand people in attendance and lasting more than six hours, it turned out to be a successful event. The purpose of this alternative Guelaguetza is to take back a tradition that had long ago belonged to the people of Oaxaca. The Alternative Popular Guelaguetza continues to exist today as it is celebrated every year on the same date as the official state Guelaguetza.