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Globalization as a people mover

An art installation flying over the streets of Oaxaca City for the Guelaguetza celebration. (Elizabeth Havice photos)
Taking a break from work for a weeklong, citywide party in Oaxaca

OAXACA CITY - Ahhh, Oaxaca. After my friend Avery (see dispatch 4) and I parted ways more than a month ago, I received an e-mail from him on his arrival in Oaxaca City. Here's what he had to say:

I spent the day walking in spirals around the zócalo [main square] of Oaxaca City. The tapestry of folks and faces, smells and sounds, music and mountains, is completely irresistible. The zócalo is a really weird mix of things. There was a big campesino manifestación [farmer protest], along with indigenous people selling inflatable animals, tourists with those pants that unzip at the knee, hipsters, students, and scores of old men smoking pipes, sitting at outdoor cafés drinking beer. I could spend some time in Oaxaca City...it feels magic. Where else is jazz blasting from the corner store?

Avery's review, combined with the wistful sighs and appreciative whistles made by nearly everyone who heard I was going to Oaxaca, certainly had me looking forward to the trip. Oaxaca gets glowing reports for good reasons, including its cultural diversity, colonial churches, breathtaking valley views, and adventure sites. And on top of all that, my visit fell during the week of the Guelaguetza (pronounced Gay-la-getz-ah), the most festive time of the year in Oaxaca.

The Guelaguetza, a Zapotec word meaning mutual help, cooperation, or exchanging of gifts, had its origins long before the Spanish conquest. In pre-Hispanic times, the festivities were held specifically to honor the gods of maize and wind. The current characteristics of the Guelaguetza emerged in the late 1950s, when all seven regions of the state of Oaxaca came together formally for the first time to celebrate their longstanding tradition of helping each other and sharing resources, particularly at such times as weddings, births and deaths.

In today's Guelaguetza, members of communities from all over the state come to Oaxaca City to display and share the traditional dances, dress, and products of their community. This is no small feat, as there are more than 15 indigenous cultures in Oaxaca, living in hundreds of different communities. That means there are performances large and small, frequent parades through the city, an endless hum of music, and unexpected displays of fireworks lighting the evening skies.

The Guelaguetza attracts thousands of tourists from Mexico and abroad. The city comes absolutely alive, and the energy is contagious. The zócalo is packed with merrymakers, musicians, and vendors, as well as workers on strike and activists protesting the government's role in "commercializing" indigenous tradition at the Guelaguetza in order to make a profit. Just as Avery described, it is a true tapestry of colors, sights, sounds and people.

Not having done my research, I had no idea that the Guelaguetza even existed until the day before I left for Oaxaca. Someone I was interviewing told me about it, and also of the trouble I would likely have in finding a hotel room! Luckily, my source worked with a wonderful woman in Oaxaca who has a big house in which she lives alone. After a phone call from my kind informant, yet another home was generously opened to me.

Assured of a place to stay, I hopped on a night bus and arrived in Oaxaca smack in the middle of the Guelaguetza. After getting oriented and taking care of a couple of interviews, I thoroughly enjoyed removing my researcher hat for a couple of days. I slipped comfortably into the relaxing ebb and flow of being a traveler in a season of festivities. Wandering the markets, sipping hot tea, sitting in the zócalo and rushing out to the street to catch the merriment of a passing colorful parade has been a wonderful and welcome respite from the comings and goings of research.

Of course, the party can only last so long. Luckily, just as the days have started to feel too carefree and I have begun to get anxious about getting back to work, the Guelaguetza too has come to a close. Tomorrow I leave Oaxaca City for the countryside to investigate how microfinance institutions in rural areas help small communities more efficiently access their remittance dollars. Back to work.but with the sights, sounds and smells of the Guelaguetza lingering in the back of my mind!