SANTA CRUZ >> When the Spanish colonizers imposed Catholicism on the indigenous communities of Oaxaca in the 16th century, forcing them to covert to Christianity, the native people resisted by blending elements of their rituals into this new religion.
This blend of cultures is celebrated as Guelaguetza, which is a Zapotec Indian word that means “gift of sharing.” It’s an annual festival celebrated in the seven regions of the Mexican state of Oaxaca, but increasingly in communities in the United States as well.
In its 11th year, Santa Cruz’s Vive Oaxaca Guelaguetzabrings together the region’s Oaxacan community on the Harbor High School football field to honor the gods for providing ample rain and a bountiful harvest with music, dance, food and an open air market.
To the remarkably tight brass melodies of Banda de Música del Centro de Integración Social No. 8 San Bartolomé Zoogocho, the festival began with a presentation from this year’s local goddess of the corn, Karen Yuslen Martinez Valencia, as well as her Oaxacan counterpart, Indira Taniveth Jarquin Vásquez.
Before the Spanish arrived, Oaxacan indigenous peoples paid homage to the goddess of corn through ceremony and ritual at the height of the rainy season.
“A local corn goddess is chosen every year to make sure there’s a bountiful harvest,” said Elizabeth Gonzalez, who served as the festival’s Goddess of the Corn in 2012. “There’s an interview process and the girl is chosen with her Oaxacan cultural identity in mind. She has to have at least one parent originally from Oaxaca.”
After the goddess of the corn finished her address to the people who packed the Harbor High bleachers, the brass band led a wildly colorful parade through the crowd gathered around the stage.
Giant papier-mâché marmotas, or puppets, gyrated and bowed clumsily overhead as men, women, boys and girls representing all seven Oaxacan regions danced behind them.
Girls carried baskets on their heads filled with flowery crosses and stars; others in colorful blouses carried pineapples, signifying the Tuxtepec region. Men in wild masks and antlers galloped and reared about like shaggy satyrs while Montezuma warriors in enormous feathered plumes two-stepped behind them.
“More than half of the population in Oaxaca is indigenous,” said Izamar Sanchez, last year’s goddess of the corn. “This festival is basically a celebration of those roots. It is about gratitude to the earth and abundance.”
The Vive Oaxaca Guelaguetza is sponsored by Senderos, the local organization that, among other services, specializes in teaching Latino culture and history through the artistic expression of dance and music.
“It’s important for Oaxacan families here to have their culture displayed and validated,” said Curt Coleman, president of the Senderos board. “We’ve found that people have a stronger grasp of the English language if they hold onto their first language. It’s the same thing with biculturalism.”
For more information about Senderos, visit scsenderos.org.