The preparation begins days, even months ahead. A few days before, the party truck pulls up to deliver hundreds of chairs and raise the huge red and blue striped tent that will cover the courtyard. The wedding celebration is about to begin. On the morning of the wedding, the couple welcomes their relatives in the altar room of the groom’s parent’s house. First, the men from the two families line up and, one by one, walk in to give their blessings to the couple, any advice they have for a good marriage, and any regrets about their relationship that they want to express. Then, the women line up and take their turn. After this, all assemble and form a parade walking around the streets of the village before going to church for the wedding mass, the band leading the way, the priest following, then the couple and their parents, and then all the guests – stringing out for several blocks.
The woman’s relatives do not pay for the wedding. In Zapotec tradition, the man’s side of the family covers all the costs: the mass, the band, the food and drinks, everything. People never rent a party house or hotel for the reception like we do in the U.S. Teotitlan del Valle families use their own house, rent the tent, hundreds of chairs, and provide food to feed all the guests. Everyone is invited (or so it seems) — all the close and distant relatives, aunts, uncles, godparents, cousins, nieces, close friends, and MORE. Anyone who has ever had an association the family is included on the guest list. You will see town folk lingering at the tall entry gates to the family compound where a wedding is taking place, waiting for an invitation to come in – which will always be extended. A wedding celebration could include hundreds of people. For example, Eric’s parents were recently invited to the wedding of the daughter of the man who delivers their drinking water. The man didn’t know Eric’s parents very well, but liked the way they acknowledged him when he delivered the water, so they were sent an invitation.
The woman’s family is responsible for giving the presents and money to the couple. The man’s relatives would customarily take a bottle of mezcal and flowers, but nothing more. Gifts could include major and small appliances, the size depending upon the closeness of the relationship. In wealthy families, gifts could be a car, a washing machine, a chest filled with gold coins, refrigerators, stoves, television, closets, and dishes. These are delivered to the girl’s house to store until the wedding day. At the end of the mass, the guests form the second parade of the day, the band plays and all promenade to the boy’s house for the reception. A truck or two, filled with the gifts, bring up the rear. Guests will take seats and watch as the trucks are unloaded and the gifts displayed in the center of the patio for all to see. Before cars and television, Eric thinks his people probably gave gifts of rugs, blankets, food and clothing, plus goods traded with other villages.
Guelaguetza: A System of Mutual Support
Weddings cost upwards of $15-20,000 USD. The groom’s family pays for about 60 to 70 percent of the expenses. This is a substantial sum for a weaver, whose annual income might be about $10,000 USD. The bride’s godparents always buy her wedding dress. That is the expectation when agreeing to become a godparent. Many families cannot afford to give a wedding but they feel an obligation to do it according to custom regardless of one’s means. A wedding party can last up to three or four days. When a family doesn’t have enough money, they will ask a relative or close friend to help them cover the costs, and promise to repay it later. This loan is known as the guelaguetza. There is no contract or written agreement. The spoken promise is honored regardless of how long the time passes. It could be one, five or 10 years later before repaying the guelaguetza. The man who made the original gift might say, “my son is getting married now and I would like you to provide the (fill in the blank …. music, barbeque, beer, mezcal, money). The repayment is always in the same form that was given. This is the Zapotec custom and Eric believes this is how his people have learned to honor their traditions, be mutually supportive and get along with each other over the centuries. Every time there is a dance of the feathers, a quince anos (Sweet 15), a wedding, a Christmas posada, or a baptism, there is a guelaguetza – the obligation of giving and paying back.
Eric believes that the women never enjoy the parties. Yet the social fabric of women’s lives are knit together in the camaraderie of life cycle events. Together, they make the fresh tortillas from scratch, starting two days before the event. They are cleaning the chickens, washing dishes, preparing the kitchen, chopping fruits and vegetables. The men are busy, too, trying to get the bull slaughtered to prepare for the barbacoa (goat barbeque), bringing in tanks of propane gas for the cooking stoves, buying the beer and soda, setting up the tent, and also cleaning the house. If the house is small and more space is needed, the men will dismantle the looms and take them out. They might clear out a bedroom or storage room to make more seating and dining space. There are weeks of chores in preparation for these events. Eric feels the women have harder work because they are in the kitchen constantly. That’s the primary reason why he doesn’t want a big traditional party — he is not eager for his mother to work that hard. He is sympathetic to the role of traditional women who prepare and serve the food, give first to the guests and the men, and eat last. And, he also knows that traditions are important to keeping a culture vibrant.
He notes, “When my cousins, the doctors, got married, they rented a party house in Oaxaca. But I saw that the women were bored, they didn’t have anything to do. They waited to be served but were very uncomfortable and didn’t understand this non-traditional practice. There were place cards for seating but in our culture everyone is used to sitting where they want. So, everyone got up and sat where they wanted to. The wedding reception ended after only a few hours, compared with a traditional Teotitlan wedding celebration that continues until 5 or 6 a.m. the next day.”
Some families are leaving the village because they cannot afford to participate in the guelaguetza system. Young people see that there are other choices for courtship and marriage via television and exposure to living in the city or working for a time in El Norte. Family expectations are powerful. Because so much depends upon extended family interaction, acceptance and interdependency, one wonders how these courtship and marriage customs will continue or be shaped by the pressure of external forces that all societies are challenged by.