The church wedding is an important part of Zapotec community life. Often, a couple will have a civil marriage ceremony and begin their family as Rosalia and Uriel did three years ago. Their dream will be to save enough to hold a religious service that recognizes their marriage in the eyes of God. Their young children are baptized as part of the celebratory mass. This is common practice.
As a by-product of the Mexican Revolution and its sweeping reforms, the state eradicated church political power and confiscated lands, so it is the civil ceremony that takes legal precedents. Yet, the traditional church wedding holds strong emotional appeal for many couples, their parents and extended family.
Uriel and Rosalia’s wedding began with a twelve o’clock noon mass at the Teotitlan del Valle church and included the baptism of their two young sons, Emilio and Cristian.
There were about two hundred people attending, a fraction of the six hundred who would later join the fiesta and meal at the home of Uriel’s uncle and aunt, who hosted the event.
In Zapotec tradition, it is the groom’s family who hosts and pays for everything: the two large bulls slaughtered to become barbacoa (barbecue) to serve the multitude, the beer and mezcal, the band, the tortillas, fresh flowers, decorations, gifts for guests, ample takeaway containers, and an elaborate, multi-level wedding cake filled with strawberry cream.
There is not usually a cash outlay for these expenses. It is part of the elaborate mutual support, bartering, give-and-take system called guelaguetza in Oaxaca’s usos y costumbres pueblos. Extended family comes together to do what it takes to host. For example, I give you a pig one year for a baptism. In six years, when my son gets married, I ask you to return the pig to me. Maybe it weighs a little more than the one I gave to you. That’s how it works and the cycle continues.
Wedding preparations began weeks before. The women of the family gathered to plan the food and make decorations. They ordered large yellow corn tortillas handmade in a neighboring village.
Men conferred to determine how many tables and chairs, cases of beer, and bottles of mezcal would be required. Together, they all determined the collective resources needed to mount this significant event. Then, on the wedding day, they served the hearty festival dish offering greeting of buen provecho to each guest.
On the wedding day, Uriel’s extended family pitched in to cook and serve: aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews. As guests arrived, more tables and chairs unfolded. Their arms held extended in greeting, offering gifts, adding their tribute to honor the couple and their families, an ancient practice modernized.
In addition to bottles of mezcal and cases of beer, guests brought cookware sets, utensils, toys for the boys, dinnerware, drinking glasses. and other household items. There was even a new washing machine and bedroom closet on display outside the altar room. Inside was barely passable. The line to greet the newlyweds and family snaked through the courtyard and out onto the sidewalk. We all waited patiently to offer personal congratulations.
In the back of the family compound an army of 60 women were on hand to measure out the meat and broth so that everyone would have their portion. They had been tending the stew pot for days. Platters of fresh tortillas, lime wedges, shredded cabbage, diced onions, and cilantro were set on each table to add as condiments to the spicy meat.
After the meal, the plates were cleared, the tables folded and stacked in a corner, and the chairs arranged in a circle. Let the dancing begin. First, the band from Yalalag played as the couple came out, she adorned in traditional dress from her native Zapotec village.
Then, Teotitecos welcomed their band to play the traditional Jarabe del Valle. Paco served as master of ceremonies, inviting family members to dance with the couple in honor of their emotional, financial and in-kind support. Celebrants carry fragrant herbs gathered from nearby mountains. On the bride’s arm is a basket filled with flowers, bread and chocolate — essential for sustaining life.
The party continued through the next several days, and I could hear the band and firecrackers each morning and evening. These celebrations are rooted deeply in a pre-Hispanic past, embedded in memory. It is a wonderful experience to share.