A jicama popsicle at Guelaguetza

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Two weeks ago, when Erin and I were staying in a hotel in Mexico City, I watched vivid footage of buses burning in Oaxaca, as anti-government protests turned dangerous leading up to the planned “official” Guelaguetza 2007. I watched a group of five or six policemen pushing a man down to the ground and then begin kicking him, oblivious or careless of the news cameras trained on them. Finally, two policemen in different uniforms came in, grabbed the man, hugging him to their bodies, and hustled him away, possibly to beat him in private.

July 23rd marked the first day of Guelaguetza, Oaxaca’s indigenous folk dance festival and its biggest tourist attraction. Also called “Lunes del Cerro,” translatable as “Mondays on the Hill,” the official performance celebrating Oaxaca’s distinct regions and cultures takes place annually on two Mondays in July, at the Cerro del Fortin on the western edge of the historic center, with a beautiful view of the city and the valley beyond. Normally, these two Mondays frame a week of fun, as street food proliferates all over town, crafts vendors set up even more stalls throughout the zocalo, and tourists from all over Mexico and the world pour into the city. To gild the lily, the annual mezcal festival is held at the same time. If you threw a stone, you would hit a marimba band or a dance troupe, on stages around the Ex-Convent of Santo Domingo or just in the streets. To me, it feels like there’s always a fiesta or saint’s day celebration going on in Oaxaca, complete with deafening fireworks, but Guelaguetza just multiples the everyday feel by ten.

Last year, when APPO took over the center of the city in protest of the state governor, the official Guelaguetza was cancelled, for the first time in its history. This year, even as the governor spent millions in promoting and marketing “Guelaguetza 2007,” Ticketmaster promised a full refund if the shows didn’t happen. APPO called for a boycott of the official one, hosted its own on July 16th, and graffiti sprouted around the city, quite well-designed stenciled images with exhortations like, “The art of the pueblos for the pueblos!” In the end, all scheduled performances went on, even in the pouring afternoon rain, and at least during “Lunes del Cerro,” the protests remained peaceful.

There’s no question there have been gross human rights abuses here. But I have no expertise with which to analyze the pros and cons of the boycott, the protests, the demands of APPO. (Erin and I bought tickets to the official one before I realized how fraught the mere act of attendance could be and watched for an hour before we got rained out.) Yet I want to report on what I do know, what amazed and moved me at the two smaller, local Guelaguetzas I saw at Reyes Etla and Tocuela. And that I ate a jicama popsicle.

Guelaguetza is not just for tourists. More than any other folk dance I’ve ever seen, it is truly a celebration for the communities here. The town of Reyes Etla was deserted on July 23rd because the entire town had gone up to their cerro to watch the four-hour show. I was possibly the only tourist at the performance in Tocuela, probably the only non-Mexican, and definitely the only Asian person. I felt like I was at a community talent show or a high school concert, with all the personal warmth the audience felt for the performers.

I had been invited to see the show at Tocuela on July 30th by Senora Soledad, my cooking teacher, as her son was the director of the show, so I sat in the VIP section right next to the stage with her family. Everyone around me wanted to know who I was and where I was from and how long I was in Oaxaca (and of course, whether I was married), and this really beautiful baby was fascinated by my digital camera.

Each dance celebrates a specific region, with the performers wearing gorgeous traditional clothing. There’s a specific repertoire that makes up the Guelaguetza, and everyone ends with the “Danza de la Pluma” and the pineapple girls, but having seen three Guelaguetzas, I can attest that each director puts his personal touches on each show.

Soledad’s son clearly loved playing with the bullfight motif, charged with male-female conflict, as his girls charged the boys waving red handkerchiefs so vigorously, the stage became a Laurel-and-Hardy show of boys tumbling and girls chasing.

But to truly celebrate the region, the performers will throw samples of the regional specialties to the audience, which might be light little things like straw woven fans and dried gourds for drinking mezcal, or dangerous projectiles like mangos and pineapples. Many of these girls do not throw like girls. I only got hit once, in the face with a tortilla, though I did duck a mango or two. Luckily, the region known for its turkeys merely dances with a turkey, rather than throwing one out to the audience. So at the end of every number, there were arms waving frantically in the air and children running up on stage to wheedle more closely.

At Tocuela, the people around me got deeply invested in making sure that I got many “recuerdos” or souvenirs, and kept yelling to their daughter/cousin/niece, “Maria Cruz! Maria Cruz! Over here! Over here!” I came home with two little clay bottles of mezcal, two mangos, a little basket, two tlayudas, one totopo (crispy tortilla from the Isthmus), one passionfruit, three rolls of pan de yema, a piece of sugarcane, a hollowed stick of wood for drinking mezcal with a cord to wear it around my neck, a weird little bar of fruity, brown sugar dessert, and an inedible dessert that seemed to be made from a wedge of sugar cane soaked in a toxic liqueur.

Oaxaca is the most indigenous state in Mexico, with over 30% speaking an indigenous language. People are generally considered indigenous if they speak an indigenous language, like Zapotec or Mixtec, rather than by the color of their skin. Oaxaca is not necessarily representative of Mexico in this regard, but the intense pride I saw in their indigenous heritage at Guelaguetza was overwhelming. I know that indigenous populations are among the poorest in Mexico, and that Guelaguetza may be only a shallow form of recognition, but coming from a country where we don’t even pay lip service to our indigenous cultures, I was so moved by the sense of connection to a deep and rich history. I’m a big believer in the importance of national principles and ideals, even if they’re only aspirational, because how much worse is it not even to aspire to them?

And I finally ate a jicama popsicle! They were selling them at Reyes Etla, big thick slices on a popsicle stick, with so many different containers of colorful powders and spices. I had trouble understanding the vendor, who was very curious where I was from, so I ended up just asking for “lo mejor,” and got something that was spicy and tart and sweet, as if it had been dusted in those chili powder and Kool-Aid.

I also ate molotes, little fried torpedos of masa filled with potatos and chorizo, at the performance in Tocuela, but I think they made me sick. God probably wanted to strike me down for the arrogant way I’ve been bragging about how I never get sick from street food. (For an agnostic, I’m kind of obsessed with God, no?) I’ll spare you the gory details, but I finally had to open my bottle of Pepto Bismol. It was too bad, as they were so perfectly fried.

But for once, the food was not the point.

(Special thanks to Erin for the National Geographic-worthy photos from Etla!)

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