The Mexican State of Oaxaca annually celebrates its multifaceted indigenous culture with the Guelaguetza Festival, a festival that spotlights the heritage of its eight regions. Traditional costumed dancing, parades, music, art, and regional foods honor the respective regions and Oaxaca’s 16 different ethnic groups. Dance performances on July 25 and August 1, 2022, will feature more than 60 delegations from the regions, displaying their artistic heritage. Ranging from boisterous to solemn, these regional dances are the foundation of the festival.
The Festival’s Roots
One of Mexico’s premier celebrations of music and dance since 1932, Guelaguetza’s roots date back to ancient times. Today it’s the largest folklore festival in the Americas. Each year, 11,000 fans attend the main events at Guelaguetza Auditorium in the city of Oaxaca de Juárez to see demonstrations of cultural heritage. The outdoor amphitheater, the Cerro del Fortín, is built on Fortin Hill, so spectators look down on the stage and the captivating view of town. Occurring annually on two Mondays near the end of July, the festival is also known as Lunes del Cerro, “Mondays of the Hill.”
Dancers and their bands from all the regions perform in the capital’s dramatic hilltop amphitheater, and the dances usually have a local historical and cultural meaning. Both male and female dancers dress in ornate and traditional outfits. More than 350 different huipiles (women’s overblouses) and dresses can be seen.
At its heart, Guelaguetza commemorates the mutual interdependence of the people within the community. It celebrates the importance in indigenous cultures of sharing, reciprocity, and extended community. “Guelaguetza,” from the Zapotec language, means “reciprocal exchanges of gifts and services,” and this is expressed in the shows. At the end of their dance, each delegation presents its own symbolic act of Guelaguetza by throwing small fruit, hats, and even coconuts and pineapples to the audience.
Be sure to order tickets well in advance for the shows. Some seats are free but demand for these is high.
The annual gathering allows this area of Mexico to celebrate and honor the multi-layered Oaxacan culture, with its citizens and visitors from around the world. Every year, before the ceremony begins, a young woman from each of the communities of Oaxaca state competes to represent Centeotl, the corn goddess. Representatives are selected based on their knowledge of their individual communities’ traditions.
Parades in the Streets
Aside from the dance performances, the festival features parades of indigenous walking bands and brightly colored costumes. One of the main attractions of the festival is the parade that starts in the Plaza de Santo Domingo. Oaxaca’s famous Calendas (a colorful parade of participating delegations) are led with giant papier mache figures to kick off the celebration. All ages participate in the procession wearing showy costumes, masks, and wigs. Some costumes have been passed down for generations, helping to preserve local customs and beliefs.
Other Festival Events
Throughout the festival days, native food, statewide artisanal crafts, and other Oaxacan traditions are on display. Even if you skip the dances, you can enjoy the other festivities throughout the city such as fairs and exhibits. On late Saturday afternoons (before the Monday Guelaguetza), visitors find the pedestrian-friendly Alcalá Street becomes the place to be.
The residents of Oaxaca City showcase their delicious food and give visitors a chance to taste local alcoholic beverages. This year’s Oaxaca International Mezcal Fair 2022 is scheduled to coincide with Guelaguetza. Other happenings—such as exhibitions of regional costumes, sales of artisanal items, displays of regional folk art, theatrical events, and opportunities to sample regional cuisine—will create unforgettable experiences for local and international visitors.
Enjoy Guelaguetza and all Oaxaca City has to offer by visiting Mexico on one of the last two Mondays of July (this year July 25 and August 1). Or, if you have family in Mexico but can’t join them and take part in the fun, you can gift money to them through the WU app, so they have pesos on hand to enjoy the food, drinks and more!