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.
Oaxaca’s Guelaguetza 2014 Thrills Crowds, Still Controversial
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
The 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!
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.
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Oaxaca Mexico art and culture, Photography, Travel & Tourism
Tagged culture, definition, guelaguetza, Mexico, Oaxaca, photographs, Teotitlan del Valle