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Summer in Oaxaca

Stan Gotlieb

Like "The Hidden Places", this article is about the play of light and shadows on the eye of the observer; of the offered and the hidden; of peace in the midst of struggle. (The picture is of the Guelaguetza dancing in the amphitheater specially built for the festival.)

July is the middle of the rainy season in Oaxaca. Everything is green, green, green. The Zocalo (town square) is being replanted with flowers and shrubs, and trees whose time has run out are being cut down and replaced. The benches and the enclosures around the flower beds and trees all sport new layers of paint, and the bandstand has undergone a minor renovation. It is a time of renewal; of tranquility and tolerance. The festival of Guelaguetza is upon us.

A tradition as ancient as the native cultures from which it springs, the Guelaguetza (gay-la-GET-sa ), like the potlatch of the tribes in our own northwest, is a time of giving. Believing that having too many possessions can be a burden and a distraction from one's relationships with the deities and with one's fellow man, the native peoples celebrate the Mondays on the Hill, on two successive Mondays in the middle of July. On these days, amidst feasting and dancing, they lighten their burden of possessions. Last night, I was walking to the Zocalo, and I ran into a parade (tomorrow is the first Monday on the Hill). Two lovely young women whom I had never seen before came up to me. One gave me a beautiful painted and lacquered bowl made from a gourd, and the other a dayglo yellow yo-yo.

(I have been given to understand that there is another custom, also called Guelaguetza, which is quite different. In the countryside where almost everyone is poor, if a family is about to have a wedding, or other celebration, neighbors will come by with a pig, or some bread, or whatever. The understanding is that these things are "on loan", and are to be paid back in kind, upon demand. Careful lists are kept, so as to minimize misunderstandings and bad feelings.)

An Exposition has been constructed in a large field across from our newest and largest shopping mall (McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Sears, Gigante (a Mexican version of Kmart), etc.). Food and crafts vendors have taken over the square in front of the Cathedral. Carnival is everywhere.

Oaxaca is swollen with the summer tourist flood. Chilangos (people who live in Mexico City) and other Mexicans, as well as many foreigners, are here for the dances which are the highlight of Guelaguetza. There is a large open air stadium where the dances are held, and the tickets, long since sold out, cost about $35 U.S. per performance. French, German and Italian groups have been arriving by the busfull. Oaxaca is a very popular stop on the European itinerary.

And then there are the students. Every summer, the local language academies play host to hordes of U.S. college students, brought down en masse by a faculty Spanish teacher or two, for his or her fun and profit. Especially popular is the language school of the local university, whose resources (classrooms, books, teachers) are ravaged like a wheat field before a swarm of locusts. In July, there are no unwillingly unemployed teachers of Spanish. Likewise, families with accommodations for students (usually quoted in dollars) are full up.

In the states of Guerrero, Tabasco, Sonora and elsewhere, the violence and unrest continues, fueled by the disparity between the haves and the have-nots, the rigged elections, and the repressive actions of the ruling party. In Chiapas, the Zapatistas have been negotiating so long that many believe the uprising is over save for the shouting, but the massive presence of the Mexican army keeps everyone on edge. But in Oaxaca, on this day in July 1995, all this seems very remote.

There has only been one demonstration outside the statehouse in the last two weeks. It was small, orderly, and lasted one day. No-one spray painted any slogans, or slept in the park. There was no extra police presence, and no demonstrators got roughed up. The local paper gave it a couple of column inches on an inside page. After the stormy political climate and almost daily demonstrations of the last year and a half, the contrast is baffling if welcome.

The portales (sidewalk cafes ringing three sides of the zocalo; the fourth is the State government building) are jammed with celebrants. The mariachis, beggars, mime and peddlers are all doing a land-office business. Thoughts of violence, repression, revolution: all pushed aside in the spirit of Guelaguetza. No-one believes it's going to last. Everyone is aware that the underlying causes of unrest have not diminished. Still, it is nice to be in Oaxaca when Oaxaca is being so nice...

Photography by Diana Ricci

Published or Updated on: September 1, 2000 by Stan Gotlieb © 2008
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