Fiesta de Las Velas: A Colorful Oaxaca Tradition
Las Velas is the crown jewel of Oaxaca traditions, where people remember and practice indigenous festivities that date back 3,000 years to honor their ancestors, the first rains, and the maize.
They’ve survived colonization, independence, and revolution and keep going strong. People dance, sing, eat and do religious processions. This renovates and strengthens family, community, and personal ties. Oaxaca traditions are motivated by pride in indigenous heritage, Catholicism, and Mexican folklore.
Las Velas and other Oaxaca traditions give people a break from work to celebrate the Patron Saints. By keeping the traditions of their parents and grandparents alive, people from this state give the world a spectacle of colors, solidarity, fraternity, participation and friendship.
¡Aprendamos las tradiciones de Oaxaca!
Let’s learn about Oaxaca traditions!
Origin and History of Las Velas
The ancient Oaxacans were hunters, fishers, and farmers. When the Spanish conquistadores (conquerors) arrived in Mexico, they colonized the locals through many methods. Evangelization was the most effective one. They gave Christian content and meaning to these festivities to allow the natives to continue celebrating them.
According to Oaxacan poet Andrés Henestrosa, “You can say that the Velas are Spanish on the outside and Indian on the inside. In other words, they have a white shell and a copper pulp.”
Oaxacans celebrate them throughout the region regardless of their ethnic roots. Zapotecas, Mixtecos, Mixes, Chontales, Huaves, Zoques, and Chinantecos come together to commemorate Las Velas.
Las Velas is a tour through a part of the santoral católico—a list of saints and the day of the year dedicated to each of them. They honor the saint and show gratitude for the favors granted during the year.
The original Oaxacan traditions were about honoring and giving offerings to the forces of nature, plants, animals, and totems, which were considered protectors of the people. The colonizers simply changed those to Catholic saints and virgins.
Today, Las Velas are an Intangible Cultural Heritage of the state and one of the most deeply rooted Oaxaca traditions.
When and Where Are Las Velas?
May is the official month of Las Velas, but people celebrate them at other times of year on the days of the patron saints. There are 17 to 26 Velas in different towns and each one lasts three days.
Every community has a distinctive Vela. They’re called Velas de Oaxaca, Velas Istmeñas, or Velas de Tehuantepec. This is because part of Oaxaca is on the Istmo de Tehuantepec (Tehuantepec Isthmus).
Many people from Oaxaca have emigrated to other states and cities of the country where they still celebrate Las Velas as if they were in Oaxaca: Mexico City, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Veracruz, Chiapas, Coatzacoalcos, and Minatitlán.
Who Organizes Las Velas?
In Tehuantepec, the “xuana” is the person in charge of the celebration. There are also mayordomos (majordomes), capitanes (captains), socios (partners), and padrinos (Godfathers) who administer, oversee and manage Las Velas.
The organizers of La Vela spend around 12 million pesos ($600,000) to make these Oaxaca traditions come to life—not including the dresses, accessories, music, pyrotechnics, and security.
The physical and economic effort is a display of their ethnic identity and enriches relationships among them. This is an interesting fact because Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in Mexico.
One of the velas is called la vela de la inclusión (inclusion vela) where “third gender” Oaxacans called muxes (people who are male by birth but dress and behave as a woman) celebrate wearing traditional regional dresses.
Fiesta de Las Velas in Mexico
Las Calendas is a tour through the main streets of the city or town. On this walk, women wear traditional Oaxacan costumes, which are known to be some of the most beautiful, elaborate, and colorful in Mexico. They carry baskets full of flowers on their heads.
Marching bands accompany these ladies regardless of the weather. Así llueve, truene o relampaguee (even if it rains, there’s thunder or lightning), they say.
The leading sounds are those of the drums and the chirimía (hornpipe) along with the distinctive roar of the fireworks. There are cuetes (small fireworks), cuetones (big fireworks), and toritos, which are impressive when you see them up close.
When they arrive at the local parish, church, or cathedral where the saint or virgin is, women offer their flowers. They end the day eating the delicious tamales oaxaqueños wrapped in a banana leaf.
On the first day of this Oaxaca tradition, people celebrate the fiesta principal (main festivity) at night. They sing las mañanitas—a Mexican birthday song— to the patron saint or virgin, go to mass. The procession begins at the church and ends at the majordomo’s house. See images of this religious procession in this video.
The second day is dedicated to la regada (the throwing), a parade through the town with floats and an equestrian show. The organizers and their families throw fruit at the people on the sidewalks. The highlight of the parade is the Queen of the Vela.
On the third day, people celebrate the lavada de ollas (pot washing) and eat recalentado. A recalentado is when people “reheat” and serve the food from the day before to the guests. Mexicans believe this is when food is at its tastiest. Watch this video to get a taste of Las Velas celebration!
Las velas translates to “the candles,” and candles are a major part of the rituals of these Oaxaca traditions. But estar en vela means to stay up all night and that was the way our ancestors congratulated and thanked the saints, by staying awake. Here are 4 of the most important rituals:
Waxwork (La labrada de cera)
The making of candles was dedicated to the patron saint.
Delivery (La entrega)
Receipt of the candles and candle ornaments at the church’s main entrance.
Powder Grinding (La molida de polvo)
A contribution people make in the form of food supplies like flour.
Fruit Throwing (La regada o tirada de fruta
The organizers of Las Velas throw fruit from the parade floats to the spectators on the street. When the show is on a stage in an open auditorium they throw fruit from it.
The regada happens during the main party at night. The most traditional elements are fruits but they can be other kinds of food, kitchenware, or supplies.
Watch this video to see some of the parts we have covered of this celebration: embroidered colorful dresses, pyrotechnics, street tours, and the regada de fruta.
Oaxacan cuisine is famous worldwide. It includes unparalleled Mexican dishes like these:
|las tlayudas||crispy corn tortillas with black beans, Oaxaca cheese, meat, cream, and salsa or sauce on top|
|el tasajo||a cut of meat|
|el pozole mixteco||a soup with pork or chicken meat, oregano, garlic, lemon, onion, hierba santa, cumin, sesame, cloves, and chili; people eat it on holidays and requires 12 hours of preparation|
|el arroz chepil||chepil rice|
To enter a Vela, men must bring a carton of drinks and women can give a monetary donation. Oaxaca is a state of matriarchy, and women are the heads and providers of the families.
Oaxacans are noble, romantic people who are deeply connected to their music, traditions, and origins. Oaxacan anthems exist in many genres besides the original bandas de viento (wind bands).
Listen to more traditional Oaxaca music:
- Dios nunca muere (with bandas de viento)
- La Tortuga (with marimba)
- La Tortuga (with banda)
- La Martiniana (musical trio with strings)
- Llorona (son istmeño with strings)
- El Feo (live with bandas de viento and strings)
The traje de tehuana (tehuana suit) is a handmade embroidered dress with colorful flowers on velvet. It corresponds to the Zapotec ethnicity. Frida Kahlo used to wear them.
The tehuana dress can either be a one-piece or two-piece suit. When it is divided, the upper part can be a corset or a huipil (a square-necked hand-embroidered shirt). Either way they come with an enagua (underskirt). For special occasions, women adorn it with a resplandor (head huipil).
No tehuana attire is complete to celebrate Oaxaca traditions without a braided ribbon or crown of flowers braided on top of your head. Big and colorful they can be real, made with maize leaves, cotton or other fabrics.
Men wear light-colored guayaberas—normally in the shades of white, ivory or cream—and dark pants. Guayaberas are men’s shirts made of linen or cotton that have two vertical pleated or embroidered stripes on the front. Sometimes they add palm-made hats to the outfit.
Come to Oaxaca and Fall in Love With Mexico
Participating in Oaxaca traditions is soul-stirring. To fill your eyes with colors and your mouth with flavors you never tasted before leaves you with a special sense of wholeness. I go to Las Velas de Ixtepec because my grandmother was born and raised in this magical place in Oaxaca.
The combination of food, music, dances, ornaments, traditions, rituals, and the unbelievable dresses women portray make a vacation a unique experience worthy of repeating.
When visiting Oaxaca, it’s ideal to do so without a language barrier. Learning Spanish enables you to travel easier and opens many doors for you, from cool job opportunities to speaking to more people. Did you know Spanish has the most native speakers in the world after Chinese?
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