Village dancers in the streets of Oaxaca

The wind smelled of rain, and dark clouds threatened to break loose. “Trumpets and firecrackers keep the rain away until the calenda (parade) is over,” assured a young Oaxacan man who heard Glen and I discussing the effectiveness of our tiny, folding umbrella.

The man was right, and a balmy breeze blew the banners announcing each troupe of musicians and dancers from the surrounding hills of Colonial Oaxaca, Mexico. Ironically, the Spanish Colonial heritage of the town serves as a stunning backdrop for Guelaguetza, the celebration of all things indigenous. An entire week of dances, costumes and foods celebrate their ancient Zapotec past, when corn, spicy peppers, tropical fruits, vegetables, insects (high sustainable protein!) and chocolate gave them life.

In the Pineapple Dance, women twirled in their colorful, flowing ankle length skirts and carried pineapples wrapped in red ribbons. Behind the dancers, white clad village men played guitars, trombones, drums and even a bass fiddle taller than the young man who carried it. In the Turkey Dance, men dressed up as turkeys, squawking and pushing each other in good fun. Another troupe wore papier mache grasshoppers and mezcal worms on their heads in a bow to their regional cuisine.

Each local village parades thru Oaxaca days before the big event

The themes continued as people pretended to be angry bulls, charging at and headbutting their dance partners who teasingly flipped bandannas over their faces. One group wore what looked like shaggy white fur masks, perhaps from the goats of their region. At the end of each troupe’s performance, dancers threw gifts into the crowd, usually sweets. “Last year a troupe threw mangos at the crowd. Muy peligroso! (dangerous),” said the young man next to us, happy to practice his English.

Suddenly the parade stopped, and shouts went up the line that strikers had blocked the route and the performance was diverted to a different area. A collective groan went up, but instead of angry shouts or confrontation, someone organized the spectators to perform a synchronized Wave, and townspeople socialized with visitors like ourselves until the strikers could be cajoled into dispersing. “I wonder what the crowd’s reaction would be if strikers tried something like that at Mardi Gras,” I asked Glen, who raised his eyebrows and replied, “I don’t think the crowd would be performing the Wave.”

The streets are alive at night

Eventually the strikers disbanded, and the parade continued through the cobble stoned streets toward the parklike Zocalo, an historic plaza. Guelaguetza is all about fun, but serious meaning underscores the lighthearted festival. Ancient Zapotecs appreciated that their lives depended on corn, and other foods native to Mexico. They also understood that gathering people together in celebration created mutual respect and harmony.

One of the night parades before the big event

Celebrations last into the night during Guelaguetza. Dancers and musicians rehearse in parks and plazas in the mornings and come late afternoon, don their costumes for the real thing.

Tonight, we walk up a surrounding hill overlooking the town to watch selection of a Corn Goddess among young women vying for the honor. From what I’ve seen, the Corn Goddess won’t be the most European looking girl at the fair. Guelaguetza is a celebration of Zapotec and Mixtec origin. In Oaxaca, people are proud of their roots and now consider their culture and ‘Indianness’ exotic, special and worth celebrating.

“After the Corn Goddess is chosen,” our B&B hosts told us, “the real celebration begins.” Tomorrow we climb the hill again for the final tableau of dancing and music.

“Viva la Guelaguetza!”

Street dancing complete with fireworks