Despite the threatening clouds, the procession swelled in size, stretching as far as I could see in either direction. I was swept along by the crowd, down winding cobblestone streets and past colonial buildings painted tropical fruit colors. In doorways and windows, behind the wrought iron curlicues, whole families stood and cheered.
This kind of procession, called a calenda, is how the people of Oaxaca, Mexico, traditionally kick off a fiesta, and the Guelaguetza of Lunes del Cerro is the biggest fiesta of the year.
“Viva Oaxaca!” shouted the bandleader, waving his sombrero in the air.
“Viva!” we echoed.
“Viva la Guelaguetza del pueblo!”
The word Guelaguetza is derived from the Zapotec language, and signifies cooperation and giving. The principle of Guelaguetza is a guiding force in the lives of the Oaxacan people 360 days a year. Guelaguetza is killing a chicken to be served at a friend’s wedding. The Guelaguetza is being able to count on your neighbors’ help if your crop fails. The Guelaguetza is community, continuity. The Guelaguetza is the organizing principle of life in the indigenous communities of Oaxaca.
But for two weeks in July, Guelaguetza finds its maximum expression in the festival of Lunes del Cerro, “Mondays on the Hill.” This spectacle of folkloric dance takes place on two consecutive Mondays, in an outdoor amphitheater overlooking the Valley of Oaxaca. The pyramids of Monte Albán, whose silhouettes crown the hill opposite, provide a visible reminder of the continuity of Oaxacan culture.
The Guelaguetza of Lunes del Cero is a symbol of this continuity. It has its origins in a pre-Hispanic harvest festival honoring Centeotl, the corn goddess. Later it evolved to incorporate the Catholic celebration of the Virgin of Carmen, which takes place around the same dates. The dances were also presented as a tribute to a series of overlords: The Zapotec, the Mixtec, the Aztec, and eventually the Spanish. Even today the dancers offer gifts to the governor, who sits stage side with his top officials.