Monday, May 6, 2013

The Guelaguetza of Oaxaca: Pre-hispanic-Christian Continuity

Dancers at a Guelaguetza

For two consecutive Mondays each July, Oaxaca City is host to the Guelaguetza for which it is famous.  A guelaguetza is a festival of folkloric dances but has a history that reaches far back in time. The word Guelaguetza means "offering" in the Zapotec language and In pre-hispanic times it was it was a celebration held each year to propitiate the rain and corn gods for a good crop.   Some accounts claim that a virgin slave girl was sacrificed in this festival.

The feast of Xiolnen, a goddess of corn, falls on July 16 and the celebrations last for two weeks.   The Spanish christianized the event  by redirecting it toward the Virgen del Carmen, which is not unlike the early Church's designation of the Roman feast of Saturnalia as  Christmas.   In modern times, the main Guelaguetza takes place on two consecutive Mondays in July. Even though the tendency has been towards secularization and the Guelaguetza as performance, the event begins at the Church of Carmen Alto, itself on a hill in the city, and processes to the dance area on Fortin Hill which overlooks the city, where an open-air auditorium has been built for the Guelaguetza and other events.

Carmen Alto Church, Oaxaca
Carmen Alto, Oaxaca

Open-air auditorium (white arc) seen from Oaxaca City

While I was in Oaxaca this April I was lucky enough to see a "citizen's" Guelaguetza, not the world-famous July event, but a collection of folkloric groups from different areas of the state of Oaxaca getting together in a show of civic pride.  The gathering and parade before the actual dance event, to me, was as interesting as the show itself.  I shot a short video of the on-goings which you can view at   Just click on the link and the video should come on. 

Here are a few photos from the parade and event, as well.  Included in the parade were a groups of masqueraders that added levity to the event.  These people also performed a parody of a dance on stage at the outset of the performance. 

Band before start of parade

Dance group in parade

Large paper mache figures carried in parade

Group of masqueraders

This Guelaguetza was held on a stage that had been set up in front of a very important church in the city, Basilica de la Soledad; the Virgen de la Soledad is the patron saint of Oaxaca.  Initially, the dancers had lined-up in front of another major church in Oaxaca, Santo Domingo and then paraded to the event site.

Basilica de la Soledad, Oaxaca

The church itself could be seen from the site of the dances as the following photo shows.

Basilica de la Soledad seen from the dance plaza

The actual performance began with a scene that was a parody of the church with a "priest" giving last rites to a woman who was in a dance costume.  I do not know if anything like this is involved in the July event or whether it was unique to the one I viewed.  

Religious parody at start of Guelaguetza

Before the July festival one young woman is chosen to represent the goddess Centeotl, a pre-hispanic corn goddess and she presides over all Guelaguetza events for that year. This kind of proximity between the indigenous and Christian is so ubiquitous in Mexico that after you have been there for a while, it starts to seem natural.  The high point of Christian religious celebrations in Mexico, in many cases, are the pre-hispanic dances, frequently  performed in front of a church. This is one reflection of the continuity that exists between the two religious systems in Mexico.  For more on this continuity, please refer to a previous post (March 2013) in this blog entitled  "Converting Christianity: the Christian-Indigenous Dialogue".


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