Oaxaca’s single biggest cultural event, held in the second half of July, has come to be known as the Guelaguetza, which is Zapotec for “offering” or “mutual help”. It celebrates the cultural and ethnic diversity of the state. This year’s edition (the 80th) of the Guelaguetza ends on Monday 30 July, so this is the final weekend.
A massive open-air amphitheater, seating 100,000 people, is a permanent fixture on the side of the Fortín hill which overlooks the north west quadrant of Oaxaca city. The original Aztec garrison (for the collection of tributes), known as Huaxyacac, was established by Ahuitzotl at the end of the fifteenth century on this very hill. Today, a massive statue of Benito Juárez (cast in Rome in 1891) stares out over the suburbs.
The Guelaguetza may have its origins in Mixtec and Zapotec celebrations of their corn crop. Later, the festival was carried on by the Aztecs in honor of their corn god, Xilonen. Later still, in the eighteenth century, the Spanish Carmelite missionaries linked the festival to their own Christian rites for the Virgen del Carmen (16-24 July). The timing holds even more significance today since July 18 also marks the anniversary of the death of Juárez, a much-revered politician of humble, indigenous origin, who served five terms as president of Mexico in the nineteenth century.
In the 1930s, the fiesta of the Guelaguetza took on its modern hybrid form, which includes a parade of stilt-walking “giants”. During the Guelaguetza, the Fortín hill is the scene for spectacularly colorful regional folkloric dances performed by several different ethnic groups (Mixtec, Zapotec, Trique, Popolac, Chootal, Chinantec, Mazatec, Mixe) from the seven main geographic regions of the state. The entire city comes alive with color. Color is everywhere from the beautifully hand-embroidered dresses and huipiles, to the food, to the paper streamers decorating the streets and to the mixture of merchandise sold on the sidewalks.
For travelers unable to visit in July, some central hotels, including the Camino Real, luxuriously housed in an architecturally-gorgeous former convent, and the Monte Alban opposite the cathedral, offer a weekly, scaled-down version of the Guelaguetza, year-round.
Want to read more?
- July in Oaxaca: The Mexican pageantry of the Guelaguetza (Alvin Starkman)
- Guelaguetza (María Díaz)
- The Guelaguetza (Wikipedia)
- Oaxaca is the most culturally diverse state in Mexico
- Markets in and near the city of Oaxaca
- The development of Huatulco, the tourist resort in southern Oaxaca
- Map of Oaxaca state, with an introduction to its geography