Charles Cottle —
I was recently invited to display several photographs of Oaxaca, Mexico at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater during the annual Latino Heritage Month celebration. The exhibit had to be put together quickly, so I chose seven photos that I had ready to go and worked up seven more for a total of fourteen. The first five of the show were participants in the annual Guelaguetza celebration held in the city of Oaxaca. The remaining photos were landscapes and scenes from the city of Oaxaca and the surrounding area in the state.
Every year during the last two weeks of July throughout the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, and especially in the central valleys of Oaxaca, Oaxacans celebrate Guelaguetza. A Zapotec word meaning sharing and cooperation, “Guelaguetza” is a celebration of regional culture and ethnic diversity. The main performances of the Guelaguetza are held on the last two Mondays of July, but festivities associated with the celebration are spread throughout a ten day period. In the state capital, Oaxaca, delegations from around the state come to participate in the parades, the side events, and the special events held on Mondays. I have been at almost every Guelaguetza in the city of Oaxaca since 2007. Each time I go, I am swept up in the buoyant spirit of the festival. It never fails to lift my own spirits and those of the people around me.
From a simply descriptive point of view, Guelaguetza is a pageant of folk dance composed mainly of enthusiastic young people. In actuality, it is a celebration of cultural diversity and ethnic identity and pride in which both the dancers and the public participate together – both figuratively and literally. In the state of Oaxaca there are sixteen officially recognized ethnic groups, each with their own language and traditions. Thus, including Spanish, there are seventeen languages spoken throughout the state. In reality, however, there are many more languages once we consider that numerous sub-groups of an indigenous group, who supposedly speak the same language, cannot communicate with each other.
On the Saturdays before the main events (held on Mondays) there are parades of the participant delegations from around the state of Oaxaca. As the last of the delegations moves past, the public joins the processional until there is a convergence of everyone at the zócalo, the city square. The sense of pride and joy in their ethnic identities is evident on the faces of the participants and the audience. And yet, there is no ethnocentrism in this celebration. No one is excluded and all are invited to participate in this collective cultural expression.
Unlike state sponsored North American celebrations, there is no militarism, no celebration of military virtues, and no jingoistic nor nationalistic appeals in the Guelaguetza. And the celebration isn’t about political independence or sports. Instead, Guelaguetza is an inclusive cultural celebration marked by enthusiasm, pride, and unabashed joy in being part of the celebration. It is unique, and for me, it expands my appreciation of Oaxacan culture.
In the first photo of the series, the dancer is from Ejutla de Crespo, one of the towns in the central valleys of Oaxaca. The name “Ejutla” is a word derived from Nahuatl that refers to the place of green beans. The suffix “de Crespo” refers to one of the heroes of the Mexican revolution of 1810. The community where Ejutla is located was founded in the sixth century BCE by Zapotecs.
The costume worn by the participant below is typical for the region. It is completely handmade. The billowing skirt is made of cotton. Her blouse is done in needlepoint. Part of the embroidery is done with a difficult stitch called “hazme si puedes” (make me if you can).
Note: I have included a link from each of the following photos to the original photo. Clicking on the link will allow you to view the photo at full screen resolution. If your browser first presents you with a framed version of the photo, simply click in the upper right hand corner of the photo to see it at full size.
The dance troop below, known as “Flor de Piña” (Flower of Pineapple), is from Túxtepec, Oaxaca. The huipil is an item of dress for women featured in a number of indigenous groups. It may be long or short, but it is invariably worn over a skirt. In the case of Flor de Piña, shown below, the huipil is long and is worn over a long skirt. It is handmade and often is covered in images of birds and flowers.
In the following photo, members of the delegation from Teotitlán del Valle perform the “Danza de Pluma” (Dance of Feathers). The origins of the Danza de Pluma are prehispanic, although it is often performed as a reenactment of the Spanish invasion of Mexico. The dance is performed by a number of towns in the central valleys of Oaxaca, and I am told that each sees its version as the most authentic. The dance itself is physically demanding. It requires high leaps and perfect coordination among the dancers. The dancers are all male who wear costumes similar to the ones below worn by the troop from Teotitlán del Valle. Each dancer wears a large headdress that must not collide with those worn by the other dancers.
In the small towns of the central valleys of Oaxaca, the celebration of the dance is an annual affair that lasts for several days. The dancers train for at least three months prior to the event. I have only seen the dance performed at the annual Guelaguetza in the city of Oaxaca. In that event the dancers only have about ten minutes to perform. Even in that confined time frame, however, the dance is revealed to be one of beauty and style.
The photo below is a portrait of two of the members of the Guelaguetza troop from Tlaxiaco, a city in the Mixteca region northeast of the city of Oaxaca. Wearing traditional indigenous dress from the region, the troop performs folk dances that have prehispanic origins. The dances, known as sones and jarabes, from the region are physically demanding and the troop is popular because of their expertise in executing the steps.
Below is a photo of a member of the Guelaguetza delegation from Juchitán de Zaragoza, a city on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Much has been written about the traditional dress of women on the isthmus. The formal attire in Juchitán consists of a blouse or short huipil over a skirt, both of which are made of black velvet and embroidered with patterns of flowers and geometric shapes. The headdress is know as a resplandor. Daily wear, unlike formal attire, consists of the same basic components, but with lighter fabrics and skirts differing from blouses in design.
The style of clothing worn by women on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec was made famous by Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist, who adopted this style of dress in the 1950’s.
The next three photos are of churches known nowadays as ex-convents because they once provided living quarters for Dominican friars. We frequently think of convents as institutions for nuns, but these locations were convents for friars, not for nuns. Neither are they referred to as “monasteries” because the Dominicans in Oaxaca did not live a monastic life. They were, instead, actively involved in the worldly affairs of the communities to which they were assigned.
The first two photos are of Santo Domingo de Guzmán in the city of Oaxaca. Built under the direction of the Dominicans, the construction began in 1555 and took more than 100 years for its completion in 1666. The church was built for the upper class of Oaxaca. The interior of the church is ornately decorated in a baroque style and is covered almost completely in gold leaf. The Cathedral of Oaxaca is located several blocks away, and although it has always been the seat of ecclesiastical power in Oaxaca, its interior is far more plain and less ornate than Santo Domingo.
In the view below, the main sanctuary is between the two towers. To the left is the attached complex of buildings that used to be the quarters of the friars. Nowadays, the buildings on the left are a world class museum of anthropology and archaeology that also houses a research library of works brought by the Spanish in the sixteenth century. If you look closely at the center of the photograph, about three quarters of the way down from the top, you will see the plaque commemorating the city of Oaxaca and its surrounding archaeological sites as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987.
This is another view of Santo Domingo de Guzmán. The flamboyant tree is a popular spot in the evenings for young people to gather, to see, and to be seen. During the day, the tree provides shade for vendors and laborers who wish to rest for a bit.
The Mixteca people founded a community at the place now known as Yanhuitlán sometime between 250 and 900 CE. By the time the Spanish arrived, the settlement had fallen under the administration of the Aztecs. Located in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca, the Dominican church and convent at Yanhuitlán, shown in the photo below, were built between 1541 and 1575. Although the sanctuary is not as ornately decorated as the Santo Domingo de Guzmán church in the city of Oaxaca, the church is, nonetheless, an architectural masterpiece containing altarpieces (retablos) considered to be fine works of art. Like many of the churches of the era, it is built upon a site of prehispanic religious practice.
The next two photos are of Hierve el Agua (the water boils), a popular day trip outside the city of Oaxaca. In the first photo we can see what appears to be a waterfall situated in mountainous terrain. In truth, what appears to be a waterfall is actually calcium deposits left by evaporating water as it trickles over the cliff. At the top of the precipice are small pools of water fed by underground springs with a high calcium content. Over many years the trickling water has left behind dramatic cliffs that appear to be waterfalls. A similar process is found in several sites at Yellowstone National Park in the United States.
The photo below is of one of the reflecting pools at Hierve el Agua. In addition to the pools in which people can wade and swim, there are picnic grounds, concession stands, and hiking trails for people to enjoy. The mountainous setting is characteristic of the area surrounding the valley of Oaxaca. Indeed, most of southern Mexico is mountainous.
The next two photos were taken inside the city of Oaxaca. The first is a classic courtyard fountain scene through an archway. This view is repeated so many times in Oaxaca and throughout Mexico that one might consider it a clichè. Nonetheless, I always find it attractive.
The scene below is of cacti at the Ethno-Botanical Gardens in the city of Oaxaca. These gardens are located just beyond the complex of museum buildings at Santo Doming church pictured above. A major focus of the gardens is to show how the plants of Oaxaca are used by indigenous people in their daily lives. Many have medicinal qualities. Others produce fruit or fiber that provide economic support. A tour of these gardens is truly and educational experience. Tours are given daily in a variety of languages. One must enter the gardens with a tour as individual entries are not permitted.
The scene below is of Teotitlán del Valle, a village about thirty miles outside the city of Oaxaca. Teotitlán del Valle is a village of weavers, and it is world famous for its woven goods. A number of books have been written about this village. It is not the only village whose inhabitants devote themselves to weaving, but it may be the most famous. Weavers in the folk tradition use natural yarns, spin their own thread, and employ natural dyes in their weaving. Master weavers from Teotitlán produce products of the highest quality. Buyers should beware, however. There are many imitations on the market, produced by machines and imported from outside Oaxaca.
I conclude this photo essay with a view of Monte Albán, one of the major archaeological sites of Mesoamerica. Located just a few miles outside the city of Oaxaca, this site was established sometime between the ninth and sixth centuries BCE. By the first century BCE, it belonged to the Zapotecs, the dominant culture in the region at that time. Monte Albán was in decline by 750 CE, but it was inhabited until about 1,000 CE, after which time it was abandoned. Interestingly, the Spanish, who arrived in the early part of the sixteenth century CE never discovered the magnificent city underneath the forest growth from centuries of neglect. In the 1930’s until the 1950’s, under the leadership of Professor Alfonso Caso, the research and restoration of the site began. Today, the site is a major destination for tourists and archaeologists alike. It remains, along with the other major archaeological sites in the region, a tribute to the mathematical and engineering genius of the ancient cultures of Mesoamerica. It is worth noting that for several centuries BCE, while Europeans were living in caves and painting themselves blue, ancient peoples of Mesoamerica were building the remarkable city of Monte Albán.