Oaxaca Mexico’s Dazzling Guelaguetza Festival in July
Mexico is filled with impressive cultural expressions and spectacular festivals, but arguably none as fascinating as the Guelaguetza Festival that takes place every July in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.
This indigenous festival of ancient roots celebrates the cultural diversity of Oaxaca and the rich traditions of the different ethnic groups throughout the state. It consists of a series of spectacular dances in colorful costumes and a wide array of other events and activities.
Keep reading to learn more about the Guelaguetza Festival, what it is, why it’s so unique, and how it all started hundreds of years ago. I’m also touching on the different dances taking place and the outstanding culinary experience available for visitors.
What Is the Guelaguetza Festival?
The Guelaguetza Festival is a spectacular celebration at which representatives of the eight regions of Oaxaca (Valle, Sierra Juárez, Ejutla, Istmo de Tehuantepec, Huautla de Jiménez, Pinotepa Nacional, Huajuapan de León, and Tuxtepec) gather together wearing their traditional costumes to dance, sing, and give gifts to the crowds in a kind of community sharing that creates strong bonds between the different regions.
La Fiesta de la Guelaguetza or “The Party of the Guelaguetza” is one of the largest indigneous events still taking place in Mexico, and as such, it’s a fascinating reminder of the rich cultural heritage of the different ethnic groups across Mexico and, in this case, Oaxaca.
What Makes the Guelaguetza such an Unique and Spectacular Festival?
If you have never been to Oaxaca, I strongly recommend you to visit it when you have the opportunity. This southern Mexican state is so culturally rich and naturally gifted that it’s like a whole universe in itself.
This has something to do with the fact that Oaxaca is one of the most culturally diverse states in Mexico, with over 50% of indigenous population from different ethnic groups, being the Zapotec and Mixtec peoples the largest of them.
Mexico as a whole, has a rate of 15.1% of indigenous population. This percentage varies wildly throughout the country, influencing in different ways the cultural expressions of every region. What you see at the Guelaguetza Festival is more an ancient indigenous tradition from the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca, than a Mexican cultural expression. That’s what makes this festival so unique and fascinating.
History and Origins
On its origin, the Guelaguetza was a Zapotec celebration of their corn goddess Xilonen. When the Aztecs conquered Oaxaca, the festival changed to worship now the Aztec goddess of corn Centeotl, but the tradition stayed pretty much unchanged. Nowadays, some Catholic elements have been added, for instance the date of the festival has been set on July 16 every year, to coincide with the day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
Although nobody knows for sure when the first Guelaguetza took place, we know that the celebration of the Guelaguetza Festival precedes the arrival of the Spanish people to the Americas. That means this festival has been around for over 500 years and counting.
The term guelaguetza is a Zapotec word meaning “offering” or also “reciprocal exchange of gifts and services.” In the communities of rural Oaxaca when there’s a celebration like a wedding, baptism, a funeral, or the community’s patron saint festivity, guests would bring everything needed for the party including food, drinks, their work or even money. An impressive feat of community sharing, but also a smart way to create bonds among the different communities.
At the end of the Guelaguetza Festival presentations, performers give to the public their typical sombreros, handcrafts, or food brought with the explicit goal of continuing with this tradition of community sharing.
Have you ever wondered, why do we celebrate festivals such as the Guelaguetza? My theory is that we as humans have this strong need to express ourselves and create ever more colorful and original ways to do it.
Let’s find out more about some of these creative cultural expressions.
The traditional dances performed by performers of every different region of Oaxaca are the main draw of the festival. Each ethnic group wears their colorful, traditional costumes expressing their culture through dance and clothes.
A few months before the Guelaguetza Festival starts, a Committee of Authenticity selects the delegations from each region that will perform at the event. The committee chooses the participants based on their originality, costumes, and choreography, making sure that the dances presented at the festival are up to the standard of such an important event.
Every delegation presents a traditional dance from their regions. Some of them are quite famous and anticipated by the audience, such as the Danza de la Pluma or “Feather Dance,” which represents the Spanish conquest over the Aztecs. The Jarabe del Valle or “Valley Jarabe,” performed by the renowned group of the Chinas Oaxaqueñas, is also very popular among the public.
Other traditional dances and their region of origin include:
Pinotepa Nacional: La Malagueña, El Pandero and Las chilenas.
Sierra Juárez: Jarabe de la Botella and Sones Serranos.
Huajuapan de León: Jarabe Mixteco.
Istmo de Tehuantepec: La Sandunga and La Tortuga.
Valle: Danza de la Pluma and Jarabe del Valle.
Ejutla: El Palomo and Jarabe Chenteño.
Huautla de Jiménez: Sones Mazatecos.
Tuxtepec: Danza Flor de Piña.
The richness of Oaxaca extends to its deliciously diverse cuisine. During the Guelaguetza Festival, participants showcase their world-class gastronomy in different events that run parallel to the main event at the amphitheater where the dancing performances take place. If you’re lucky you may catch a moles (the national dish of Mexico) competition or a mezcal festival.
Oaxaca offers many unique gastronomic features, among them an exquisite diet made of insects. I know what you’re thinking, but trust me on this one and you’ll thank me later. You have to try chapulines or “grasshoppers” and escamoles which are an extraordinary Oaxacan delicacy made of ants’ eggs fried in garlic and butter.
Come for the dancing, stay for the food, as the locals like to say.
What can you expect when you attend the Guelaguetza Festival? A culturally diverse, colorful, delicious, and an overall extraordinary experience that you will never forget. I don’t say this to convince you to visit Mexico, I say it because that’s what I experienced when I was there fifteen years ago.
From the moment you arrive in Oaxaca you can feel the excitement overtaking the city. This is a festival that completely takes center stage during the couple of weeks that takes place. The streets of the city of Oaxaca are bustling with activity, at every corner there’s something going, a taste of moles, an exhibition of traditional arts, concerts, plays, and much more.
The kindness of the people of Oaxaca is famous throughout Mexico, you’ll encounter lots of smiles and helpful people willing to give you advice on how to better enjoy the festivities. Add this to the fascinating dances, the delicious gastronomy, and the colonial beauty of the city, and you get an unforgettable experience.
Guelaguetza 2021: Practical Information
What do you need to know before attending la Fiesta de la Guelaguetza? Well, the first thing you need to know is that the live Guelaguetza Festival 2020 was suspended due to Covid-19, and there was only a virtual version of the festival.
Preparations for the 2021 edition of the festival are ongoing, like in any other year, but the government hasn’t yet decided if the festival will take place live or in virtual form again. The best way to keep you up to date is by following the official Guelaguetza Facebook page, where you can find all the information related to the festival, events announcements, and how to get tickets once they are available for the public.
Every year, the Guelaguetza is celebrated on the two Mondays following July 16, at the Cerro del Fortín in the city of Oaxaca. This year that would be July 19 and 26. During those two weeks the main events will take place at the new Guelaguetza Auditorium, although there are many side events occurring at the same time throughout the city, and even in other communities in the state of Oaxaca.
Learn Spanish and Visit Oaxaca
The Guelaguetza Festival in Oaxaca, Mexico, is one of the most spectacular cultural festivities in Mexico. A celebration of ancient traditions and cultural diversity, the Guelaguetza will not disappoint you if you decide to make the trip in July to personally immerse yourself into this extraordinary Mexican fiesta.
Sign up for a free class to practice your Spanish in preparation for your trip, because although the Guelaguetza is an indigenous tradition, Spanish is still the language that everybody understands in Oaxaca. We offer flexible scheduling, tailored Spanish packages, and have been providing reliable service to Spanish learners for more than 10 years.
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