Category Archives: Cultural Commentary

Oaxaca Street Life: Guelaguetza Crush, Art and Expoventas

Thousands of people converge on the streets of Oaxaca for Guelaguetza. Only 11,000 were in the Guelaguetza auditorium to hear Lila Downs last night. OaxStreetLife-9

The rest were visitors strolling Macedonio Alcala, the walking avenue between the Zocalo and Santo Domingo Church, and roaming vendors selling everything from fragrant azucenas that only bloom at night to ice cream and hair decor.

Carnival rides bring smiles to children and parents.  OaxStreetLife-4

The perpendicular and parallel side streets are filled with pop-up outdoor food stands where you can get tortillas cooked on a comal any way you like them.

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A must-see art exhibit at Instituto de Artes Graficas de Oaxaca across from Santo Domingo Church opened last night. A crowd of visitors and locals packed the galleries to see some stunning lithography and the beer flowed.

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Mexico’s art is usually wrapped in social and political commentary and this exhibition is no exception. Here artist-illustrator Artemio Rodriguez paints the Virgin of Guadalupe on a shovel and the eagle on a cactus with a snake in its mouth, symbol of nationhood, on a wheelbarrow. Is this irreverent?

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Images of farm workers and the iconic Porfirio Diaz, president/dictator, offer us visual contrast between poverty and poverty, honor and corruption.  Art here is something to chew on, not for matching with furniture and color palette.

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Of course, shopping is King and Queen, and you can find some of the best Oaxaca artisans from many villages here in Oaxaca this time of year.

WHERE? At pop-up art and folk art Expoventa shows throughout the city:

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Pictures of the Exhibition: Today at Las Bugambilias B&B

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Guelaguetza 2014 Photo Out-takes — Oaxaca Folkloric Fesitval Dazzles Crowd

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It’s more like a party than a traditional performance. Oaxaca’s annual Guelaguetza folkloric festival draws crowds from throughout Mexico and all over the world.

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If you hang around the stage at the end while most of the crowds leave, you might be handed a small cane cup filled with mezcal and get a close-up photo, too.

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I hosted a group of Australians and we had third row seats. That’s the luck of the draw, plus mostly getting to the tourism office early.  We bought these tickets in early June.

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Even photo out-takes are worth looking at!

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For a discussion about the cultural and political controversy surrounding Guelaguetza, see my July 24, 2014 post.

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People ask me all the time if Oaxaca is safe.  There were 11,000 people in the audience, plus all the performers. Instead of the crush, we did the WAVE!

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The exit is through a narrow underground tunnel and then down the Cerro del Fortin steps.  Most of us left that way!  Everyone was calm, helpful, friendly, gracious and orderly.

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We took a few minutes to stop and look at the stunning views of the city and the Santo Domingo Church below.

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Is Oaxaca safe?  YES!

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One big crowd pleaser is the Dance of the Feather — Danza de la Pluma. It is a story of the Spanish conquest over the Aztecs. Many villages do this ritual dance. It is an important part of indigenous Mexican identity.

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The chief dancer is the Moctezuma, and featured are two girls, each representing the duality of Mexico — The Malinche and Doña Marina – who are one and the same.  How high the dancers leap is a feat of pure prowess and determination.

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Everyone in the crowd was hoping to catch a pineapple — one of the Guelaguetza gifts thrown — actually hurled — from the stage into the audience by each village represented.

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If we had our hands and a hat up, we got bread, radishes, lettuce, palm hats and fans, rolls, tortillas, sticky tamarind fruit, ritual bunches of fragrant greens.

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I managed to catch a bunch of bananas that I shared with my neighbors in keeping with the meaning of Guelaguetza. Only the front row received the pineapples. I think the organizers were afraid of injury!

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By the time we left the auditorium it was almost 10 p.m. We were hungry and thirsty. Somehow, sweet rolls didn’t seem enough. My mantra: time for a mezcal margarita and a good meal. This is the hour most Mexicans have their dinner! It was way past my bed-time.

Guelaguetza2014-29Our group of five women walked about six blocks to La Biznaga where we were lucky to find an open table. Beware: the margaritas are especially potent! The spinach lasagna (yes, Italian) was wonderful. Safe? Yes!

Oaxaca’s Guelaguetza 2014 Thrills Crowds, Still Controversial

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Tickets to sit close to Oaxaca’s Guelaguetza Auditorium stage are costly, about $100 USD per person.  Up high in the upper galleries, the seats are free and people start lining up hours in advance of the opening to be able to capture one.

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The controversy lies in the accessibility to this annual folkloric performance in an auditorium that can hold 11,000 people.  So, the government provides live video streaming on the Internet and broadcasts the performances on a big screen in the Zocalo.

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However, this year the Zocalo is an encampment, occupied by another demonstration of teachers who continue to protest poor pay and lack of support for adequate school supplies.  Since 2006, it has become much more than that.

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In the political tradition of Mexico, this legal demonstration highlights the ongoing conflict between the workers and the bourgeoisie, those in power and those who have no voice, those who have access and those who don’t.

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Lila Downs sings about this. Diego Rivera painted it.  Jose Guadalupe Posada sketched the iconic images of this Day of the Dead Calavera Catrina mocking the middle class who turned its back on the impoverished.

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This is my third year to attend the Guelaguetza. Fortunately, my ticket was a gift this year. Each time, I think about what a privilege it is to be here.

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The other controversy is about what Guelaguetza really means. Guelaguetza is not a folkloric performance as most visitors believe, but a way of life for indigenous people.  Full baskets of gifts for visitors is a symbol for the hope of there being enough — more than enough, of plenty — for all.

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Guelaguetza is a complex word meaning mutual support, giving and receiving, a way to keep communities intact, a way to honor ritual and tradition. You can learn more about this in the Teotitlan del Valle community museum.  It is why Zapotecs here have survived and thrived for 8,000 years.

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It is beautiful to see this honored on the stage of the auditorium, replete with Oaxaca’s most beautiful women, handwoven textiles, music, and ritual dance.Guelaguetza2014-34

We watch mating and marriage rituals recreated complete with live guajolotes, and the teasing between young men and women from Pinotepa Don Luis. The women’s purple and red skirts are back strap loom woven with cochineal and purpua dyed cotton.

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We see how communities like Juxtlahuaca in the Mixteca-Baja depend on raising, killing and selling cattle as they dance with spurs clicking and rattling.

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That is why this performance never tires.  It is important to know, however, that this is a re-enactment of daily life.  To get to know the real Oaxaca, visit her villages and meet her people. Don’t sit in an auditorium with a camera and binoculars, and believe this is a complete experience!

Guelaguetza2014-35The evening performances end in a dazzling fireworks display!  It can be seen for miles around and went on for what seemed a good ten or fifteen minutes. This is only one of many images I caught. Yes, it’s a great time to be in Oaxaca!Guelaguetza2014-39

 

The performances happen on the last two Mondays of July each year.  There are two performances remaining, one at 10 a.m. and the other at 5 p.m. on Monday, July 28.  Go, if you can. It’s a magnificent experience.

 

Oaxaca’s Monte Alban Archeological Site Key to Zapotec Civilization

The UNESCO World Heritage archeological site of Monte Alban never ceases to capture and hold my attention. I go there every time I host visitors to Oaxaca and each time there is something new that I notice or an area that is recently restored. MonteAlban

The Spanish conquerors named Monte Alban, or white mountain, because the hill was in bloom with white flowering trees when they arrived.  This week, the sky was nearly flawless blue with outstanding big, white cloud formations. I don’t remember a more beautiful, breathtaking day here.

MonteAlban-8The best way to enter the site is to begin on the north platform, the highest place. After you go through the ticket turn-style make a right turn and continue up the hill.  The path isn’t well-marked, but the trail is well-traveled, so you will figure it out.  Even though it looks daunting, be sure to climb the pyramids.

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Otherwise, you will miss the most stunning views.  On the main level of the platform you will see carved stones depicting men captured in war. Called Los Danzantes, or dancers, these are replicas. The originals are in the museum on site and in the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City.

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Summer in Oaxaca is very temperate and GREEN.  Now,  the rainy season that brings torrents of water is almost over, and so we may get a late afternoon or evening shower, which is lovely, and tends to cools things off — a perfect temperature for sleeping.

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By the time we arrived at Monte Alban, it was almost ten-thirty in the morning, and the sun was already strong. Our guide extraordinaire, Rene Cabrera Arroyo, was prepared and had plenty of bottled water for us.

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It took about two hours to walk the site and get a complete explanation of Zapotec history, conquests, relationships with the Aztecs and Mixtecs, and the political and religious structure at the time they were at the height of their power.

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Of course, we had to stop to look at the clay replicas of the found objects in the Monte Alban tombs made by local craftsmen from Arrazola. The figures are all hand formed and the sellers — who are the artisans — are licensed by Monte Alban to create and sell their wares.  Prices are reasonable and there’s room for a little bargaining to make it more fun — if you must!  (Remember, the dollar to peso value is in favor of the visitor so don’t drive a hard bargain.)

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It’s Guelaguetza time and Monte Alban crawling with visitors who come to Oaxaca from throughout Mexico and many foreign countries. I am hearing a cacophony of languages: German, British English, Australian English, Dutch, French, Japanese and Chinese, as well as Spanish and American English.

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Oaxaca is a wonderful place to visit and bring the family for summer vacation. It’s safe, educational, fun and affordable. Entry fees are 59 pesos per person.  That translates to about $4.25 each. We’d love to see you here!

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After Monte Alban, we went off to Atzompa, the nearby village of potters who supplied the priests and nobles with utilitarian and ceremonial clay vessels.

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My advice: wear sturdy shoes for rock climbing, use a sun hat, sun screen, and pack a water bottle — as important as your camera! And, consider hiring a licensed guide who knows the in-depth history of the place.  It will enrich your visit.