Things to do in Oaxaca: get caught up in a calenda

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While you study at the ICO, be sure to take advantage of everything Oaxaca has to offer.  Not only the traditional tourist attractions – enjoy some of the more unique aspects of Oaxacan daily life!

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One Saturday, the sound of a brass band, a block or two away, interrupts my work.  I step outside of my front door, smiling at my neighbors, who have all done the same.  The memeleras on the corner greet me warmly, and an ambulance passes us, the first vehicle in a parade.  Behind the ambulance, and threatening to overtake it, come delegations from the seven regions of Oaxaca: dancers decked out in beautiful costumes, brass bands sweating beneath their heavy instruments in the heat, women throwing candy in all directions, young men offering shots of mezcal, passers-by who’ve gotten caught up and are swirling through the city as part of the parade.

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I wave to three of my neighbors, American NGO workers in their 20s, who are marching slowly behind a group of women in brightly colored skirts.

It’s Guelaguetza season again.  Oaxaca is always a lively and colorful city, and for most of July, it becomes even more vibrant, filled with parades (calendas), fireworks, music and dance.  The Guelaguetza is the best known, and perhaps the most uniquely Oaxacan, holiday: a two-week-long festival that celebrates indigenous culture.

The term guelaguetza also refers to a reciprocal exchange of labor and goods common among many of Oaxaca’s indigenous communities.  When someone hosts a wedding, for example, various relatives are expected to contribute time and labor as well as gifts of food or drink that will be served to the guests.  The candy (and in the case of one particularly notable dance, pineapples) that dancers throw during the festival represents this exchange.

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The most famous Guelaguetza event is los lunes del cerro, or Mondays on the hill: on the last two Mondays in July, delegations from all over the state perform dances indigenous to those regions in a massive auditorium on the Cerro del Fortín.  (Because July 18th is the anniversary of the death of national and Oaxacan hero Benito Juárez, the festival is held on the following two Mondays, out of respect.  For this reason, this year’s Guelaguetza was held on July 25th and August 1st.)

In addition to the dance show, there are dozens of free concerts and other events throughout the month of July; a Mezcal Fair held in the Llano (Parque Juárez); and the Guelaguetza Popular, which as the name implies is not sponsored by the government but rather by radical political groups and competes with the government event.

All of the events are worth a visit, but my favorite has always been the parades.  I love how they impose themselves on my quiet, cobblestoned neighborhood, and how everyone comes out to participate.  I love how we allow the parades to transform our days into something joyous and communal.  I love watching the dancers – from different parts of the state – bring together people from different parts of the city, and visitors from all over the world.

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Calendas aren’t exclusive to the Guelaguetza, either.  You can find one nearly any day of the year: Oaxacans hold smaller ones for weddings, saint days, graduations, business openings…when you hear a band coming, grab a few ICO classmates and follow along!

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All photos (c) Catherine Hemenway 2011.

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