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Guelaguetza-mania! – Oaxaca, Mexico | We're Not There Yet

Hostel Girasoles, you are a minx! We moved into our new digs and we feel quite at home already- the location is great, the family that runs the place is super attentive, and the kitchen is delightfully free of cockroaches (fingers crossed). During our ramblings the day before, we found out that all of the paid tickets for the Guelaguetza were sold out, but that we could join the masses early on the morning of the show to try to get in the free seats. We decided to head up to the stadium to do some reconnaissance, which truly paid off the next morning when we headed out at 4:30 am to get in line. We were by no means at the head of the line, but were comfortably within the second wave of seating.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, what is Guelaguetza? This is a question that we were asking ourselves upon arrival in Oaxaca. With all the decorations, commemorative t-shirts, and nightly firecrackers (which turned out to be completely unrelated to the festival and just a normal nightly occurrence during summer months in Oaxaca), it felt like the whole town was gearing up for a Mardi Gras style blowout. In truth, the build-up around Guelaguetza kind of outstrips the festival itself, which is a 4-hour long folk dancing exhibition. The modern Guelaguetza is adapted from a centuries-old tradition celebrating the gods for ‘life’s gifts’ – namely, corn- which they did by gathering in mid-summer and sharing food and dance. This has been going on for hundreds of years and continues to be celebrated in towns all over Oaxaca state. In recent times, Oaxacan city officials have cashed in on the Guelaguetza craze and built a stadium specifically for the Guelaguetza festival, which was completed in 2010.

And so we found ourselves seated in the free seats in the brand new stadium at 6am with hot Styrofoam cups of atole in our hands and about 4 hours of sleep under our belts. The show was scheduled to go from 10am to 2pm. It was a long, chilly wait. And then came the folk dancing.

Off to a good start…

If your only acquaintance with traditional Mexican dance is the Hat Dance or the Cucaracha, you’ve pretty much hit the highlights. The majority of Mexican folk dances, particularly from the more conservative mountain regions, are rigid, repetitive line dances with little room for self-expression, or excitement. I don’t want to come off as culturally closed-minded, but there is only so much bowing and stamping with arms clasped behind backs that I can take before I feel that I’ve got my fill. That happened about 30 minutes into the show, but partly out of stinginess (hey, I waited in line for hours for the free tickets- I’m not going to waste that!) and partly out of hope that the exiting part was just around the corner (because there had to be an exciting part, right? That’s why all these people waited in line, in the cold and the dark for hours to see this thing, right?), I stuck it out for the entire show. Even when R had enough and left me watching the spectacle alone and totally baffled, I stayed in hopes that something would give. Finally, at the tail end of the much-hyped Pineapple Dance (women line dancing while holding pineapples), I gave up and slipped out to beat the crowds out of the stadium and back to the city where I felt almost ashamed of my own lack of enthusiasm for this established, dignified festival.

…but would have been better if there was a little more of this…

…and a little less of this.

Turns out that only suckers go to Guelaguezta. That is- tourists, recipients of city government favors (the ‘good’ seats), and local families looking for wholesome and cheap outings. Smaller Guelaguetzas in surrounding towns have fallen into favor with most locals over the splashy, overhyped version in the capital. It makes sense that a more modest and casual environment would be a better fit for this kind of show- it’s not like there is new choreography every year and there is not much room for lights and sound effects in the traditional program. I’m glad we went- it was a happy coincidence to show up in town on the very weekend of Oaxaca’s most famous festival, but we feel like we have done our cultural duty and it is time to revisit the mezcal festival (here all week, in honor of Guelaguetza… oh, now I get it).

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