After Two-Year Hiatus, Guelaguetza Festival Returns to Oaxaca

Photo: Gobierno de Oaxaca


After being suspended for two years due to the covid-19 pandemic, the most important traditional festival of Mexico’s central southern state of Oaxaca is set to return this year in all its color and glory starting on Monday, July 8.

Now celebrating its 90th year, the Guelaguetza is a two-week extravaganza of music and dance from the various regions of Oaxaca, and has become a major tourist attraction for the state.

The Guelaguetza was first held in 1932 in order to provide a source of income and solidarity with the people of Oaxaca, who had just suffered a devastating earthquake.

But the origins of the festival date back to pre-Hispanic times, when the ancient cultures of the region paid homage to Centéotl, the corn goddess, through ritual displays of dance and sacrifices.

The Guelaguetza, also known as the Festival de los Lunes de Cerro (Festival of Mondays on the Hill), is today an essential part of Oaxacan culture, blending pre-Columbian traditions with modern practices.

The word Guelaguetza comes from the Zapotec language and literally means a “reciprocal exchanges of gifts and services.”

In pre-colonial Oaxaca, the various tribes and communities of the region lived by a common code of ethics that specified that if someone gave you a gift, you were obliged to reciprocate with a comparable offering in the near or distant future.

This “pay-me-when-you-can” barter system was the fundamental basis of the early Zapotec economy, and the annual Guelaguetza festival was a way of reminding all parties of their respective obligations.

Since corn was the most important commodity in ancient Oaxaca, it seemed natural to tie the reciprocity reminder ceremony to the goddess of maize, who was honored in late July each year during the height of the rainy season.

Thus the Guelaguetza took on a duel purpose, serving both as a way of prodding neighbors to meet their duties to repay what they might owe and to implore Centéotl to comply with her duties to feed her people.

During the Spanish colonial period, Catholic missionaries sought to replace the pagan celebration of the corn goddess festivities with a more Christian observance of the feast of the Virgin of Carmen, the protector of fishermen, celebrated on July 16.

To that end, the Carmelites built the temple and ex-convent of High Carmen – better known as Carmen Alto in Oaxaca – at the foot of a hill.

The new chapel allegedly took the place of the Teocalli de Huaxyacac, a temple devoted to Centéotl, Xilonen and Huitzilopochtli.

The new Spanish-organized Virgin of Carmen ceremonies commenced with a mass and procession ascending the hill.

The indigenous participants wore costumes, danced to traditional drums like the huéhuetl and teponaztles, and paraded around with tarascas, large puppets of mythical creatures operated by men directing motion from inside (much like the dragons seen in Chinese New Year parades).

Young children also played with mini tarascas.

The result was a hybridization of cultures as the two distinct traditions became interwoven into the modern La Guelaguetza festival we know today.

Unfortunately, that tradition ended in 1741, when Bishop Tomás Montaño decided to ban the tarascas, saying that they scared attendees.

He replaced them with the Dance of the Giants.

Three couples – one indigenous, one Spanish and one black – performed in the churchyard for the entire community to enjoy.

Initially held on last two Mondays of July, the Guelaguetza has evolved in recent years into a two-week festival that, according to Oaxaca government sources, is responsible for more than half of the state’s annual tourism revenues.

Starting in mid-July, participants from the seven different regions of the state, decked out in indigenous costumes with brightly hued ribbons and bells, gather in the capital city to dance, sing and play music.

In addition to folkloric dance and song, the cultural exchange extends to gastronomic celebrations, with regional food showcased alongside other Mexican delicacies.

Since 2005, the dance showcase has been performed twice on the two Mondays, first at 10 a.m. and then at 5 p.m.

Aside from the dance showcases, the festival encompasses a wide variety of events, which build momentum for the culminating Monday performances.

The celebration kicks off the Saturday prior to the first Monday with the Calendas procession (a parade with dancers from the various regions), a display of marmotas (large paper or cloth lanterns, which resemble tiny air balloons) and monigotes giant puppets with people controlling the movements from inside.

The next day, the Queen of the Guelaguetza is elected based on her ethnic roots and understanding of Oaxaca tradition.

Throughout the Guelaguetza ceremonies, she assumes the role of Cenéotl, the corn goddess, by presiding over the dance performances.

The Bani Stui Gulal – literally, Repetition of Antiquity, in Zapotec – is also performed on Sunday, and tells the story of the event’s evolution from the pre-Columbian era to modern day.

Another Guelaguetza play centers on Donaji, the Zapotec princess who perished protecting her people from Mixtec warriors.

On the morning of the first Guelaguetza performance, “Las Mañanitas,” the Mexican birthday song, is performed at dawn on pre-Columbian whistles and drums on the Cerro del Fortín.

Throughout the following week, the schedule is essentially repeated a second time, until the last dances are performed on the final Monday of the Guelaguetza.

This year’s Guelaguetza celebration will officially begin on Saturday, July 11, and run through to Wednesday, Aug. 3, although the Oaxaca government has already begun a barrage of more than 200 complimentary cultural events that will take place throughout the month.

These include art exhibits, classical music concerts, mezcal tastings, mole competitions and photo displays.

The Mondays of the Hill will fall on July 25 and Aug. 1

Oaxacan tourism officials say that more than 80,000 visitors are expected to attend the festivities this year.

Tickets, which can be purchased on site or through Ticketmaster, run from free to 1,355 pesos per person, depending on seating. However, to avoid crowding, everyone who attends must obtain a ticket in advance, and the lines for free tickets can take up to 12 hours.

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