Usos y Costumbres: Zapotec Wedding Traditions

The relatives of the groom were preparing for this wedding weeks in advance.  They bought the plumpest chickens, ordered the folding chairs, tables and red and blue striped fiesta tent, asked the baker to prepare the biggest and lightest cake, hired the melodious local band, and arranged for the magistrate to perform the legal marriage ceremony.  The church ceremony will take place next year.  The courtyard of the family compound where the ceremony was to take place was freshly painted in a deep earth red.

The women of the family began their preparations days earlier, cleaning, making fresh tortillas, and preparing the chickens, cleaning and cutting them, making the rich red and picante barbecue sauce that would be spooned over the cooked meat served in a bowl and eaten as a soupy sauce.  On the day of the wedding, sisters, aunts, cousins arrived at dawn, their dresses covered with checked aprons embroidered in huge flowers, to start the wood cooking fire that would provide the heat to slow simmer the chicken pieces for five hours in spices and chiles.  This would be the main meal of the day to be served at the three o’clock lunch after the ceremony.  The fiesta would be for one hundred family members of the bride and groom.

Guests began to arrive at 12:30 p.m. and took their seats in rows set up in front of the head table reserved for the bridal party.  They came with gifts:  cases of beer, bottles of mezcal, arms full of floral bouquets, bags of one liter soda bottles, cellophane wrapped cookware and dish sets, big boxes covered with silver and white wrapping paper tied with huge white or silver ribbons.  Inside might be a blender or a special piece of pottery or cooking knives.  Gifts were deposited in the altar room to be opened the next day.

At 12:45 p.m. everyone who had arrived gathered in the altar room, the ceremonial center of the home.  The brides’ family gathered in a line on one side, the groom’s family in a line down the other.  First, the bride’s father spoke about giving his daughter in marriage to the family of the groom (she would come to live in his village with his family) and the happiness of the family with this betrothal.  The groom’s uncle, the family patriarch, spoke about the delight of the marriage and welcoming the bride into the groom’s side of the family.  Then, the bride’s family went down the line and greeted everyone on the groom’s side.  When this pre-ceremony was complete, everyone took their seats for the official legal ceremony to begin.

Fresh flowers were everywhere.  The wedding party was framed by the looms and dyed yarns in the background.  Children ran up and down the aisles.  The tone was festive and casual.  The magistrate asked the couple to promise to be friends their entire lives together and the ceremony closed with a handshake.  The kiss came after the champagne toast.

Out back behind the house, four women were supervising the chicken cooking and serving, and two hovered over the steamy broth fanning the wood fire.  Smoke curled and ashes fluttered through the air like snow flakes. They prepared 100 bowls.  One woman kneeled in front of the huge cauldron, reaching in to pick out three juicy chicken pieces, choosing both light and dark meat, for each bowl.  She stacked the bowls in another empty cauldron, and then just before serving, the hot, bubbling soupy sauce was poured into the bowl.  We carried them into the courtyard and handed the bowls to the groom’s uncle, who took them first to the wedding party and then personally served the rest of the people in the room.  It was his gesture of welcome as gracious host.

Of course, none of us (except for some of the men) could finish our meals, which is the idea!   Colorful plastic buckets were provided to all who desired to take their leftovers home.  Fiestas are designed to give people more than they can possibly eat and provide plenty to take home to savor the next day.  Food is a central part of every family celebration, as is the giving and receiving of gifts.  I imagine this might be a link to a centuries old tradition of paying tribute and of reciprocal responsibility of taking care of each other in a communitarian society.

A huge bowl was placed before me.  I took fresh chopped cilantro, onion and cabbage and added it to the broth.  I took the fresh corn tortilla, tore off a small piece, took a hunk of fall-of-the-bone chicken and put it inside, wrapped it like a mini-taco, and dunked it in the spicy broth.  My fingers were deep red from the color of the sauce.  Spoons and forks just don’t work as well.  Between the bites, I sipped cold Corona beer and accepted one shot of mezcal that created a shiver as it went down.  I was in heaven.

After we had all eaten, the chairs were put to the side of the patio in rows and the tables folded and put away.  Cake was cut and served.  Then, the band played (after they had eaten) for the bride and groom to have their first dance.  We all joined in.  By that time, five hours had passed and the party was not yet over.  It would continue well into the night.

The aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters of the groom would return the next day to wash the dishes, clean up and put the house back in order.  They would share another meal together and the newlyweds will open their gifts, starting their formal life in the comfort of extended family and age old traditions.

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