Indigenous Migrants Celebrate Their Guelaguetza in Fresno

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By Erika C. Encinas

DSC_0020As summer is ending and the color of trees is changing, indigenous communities are getting ready for their annual festival in Fresno. Every September, the Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities (CBDIO) and Frente Indigena de Organizaciones Binacionales (FIOB), in partnership with community volunteers, take part in presenting a tasty and colorful event, La Guelaguetza.

Guelaguetza is a Zapotec word that means “exchange” or “share.” It is a festival originating from the southwestern state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Its roots date back before the European conquest in the 1500s, where people gathered and shared crops that were produced and used this time to give thanks to the higher beings for the good harvest.

Historically, all the regions in Oaxaca joined once a year in July to share and exchange food, crafts and traditional dances. It was a celebration to honor the abundance received by their Goddess of Maiz, or corn. Not much has changed since that time, as the traditions are kept alive at the annual Guelaguetza.

Cornelio Santos, one of CBDIO’s board members, is on the subcommittee promoting the event. “This is our 16th annual Guelaguetza, and we host this event to expose our Oaxacan culture to others,” Santos said. “There’s a large Oaxacan indigenous community in the Central Valley, but many don’t know about our culture. It’s distinct from many and very special too. Every year, our event gets bigger and it’s thanks to all the volunteers, participants and communities. All the proceeds gained are used for our organization’s services.”

On the morning of the event, vendors will start early preparing delicious Oaxacan breakfast dishes such as pozole, tamales and hot atole (similar to oatmeal). There will also be an exhibition and sales of arts and crafts made by Oaxacan artisans whose work is hard to find, especially at local stores. Traditional clothing will be displayed, as well as handmade handbags and rebozos (shawls).

The Guelaguetza is a great way to learn about the Oaxaqueño community, which has a large population here in the Central Valley. Photos on this page by CBDIO-Fresno
The Guelaguetza is a great way to learn about the Oaxaqueño community, which has a large population here in the Central Valley. Photos on this page by CBDIO-Fresno

Francis Romero, a law office clerk from Fresno, went to the Guelaguetza last year. “Oh my goodness, the food was great, and the dancers were greater,” Romero said. “I still use my Oaxacan handbag that I bought last year for traveling purposes. I like taking my kids to the Guelaguetza because they never get this type of exposure of indigenous culture, ever. I’m going this year too and can’t wait to try the food again.”

Something different will be in this year’s festival: A group of indigenous children from the Central Valley will act in a short play portraying the hardships of preserving their native Mixtec language—an outcome made possible by a two-year grant provided by the James Irvine Foundation.

In addition, “Danza de los Diablitos,” or Dance of the Little Devils, will be performed. This dance has not been presented locally for several years. According to a co-representative of the group, Kelvin Morales, the Dance of the Little Devils goes back many generations before Christianity was introduced. It’s an interpretation of celebrating the afterlife of someone who refused to convert his preference of religious beliefs. This traditional dance originates from Juxtlahuaca, Oaxaca, but has extended throughout the Mixtec regions. For that reason, many Mixtec communities from the Valley will be able to relate and feel at home.

Mario Rojas, a folklore dancer from Donaji del Valle Central, will be performing for his second time in the Guelaguetza. “I’m very excited to share my dance with the public,” Rojas said. “I haven’t been to Oaxaca in several years, but every time I perform I can see my family, smell the food, and feel the warmth from my village. It’s something indescribable. My heart races and the adrenaline rushes from all the jumping and dancing I do.”

The Guelaguetza comes only once a year. This is an opportunity to see over the horizon south of the border with the entire family. The festival will be held on Sept. 28 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Roosevelt High School (4250 E. Tulare St.). The cost is only $10, and children under 12 are free. For more information, call 559-499-1178.

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Erika C. Encinas was an intern at Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities (CBDIO) as part of her journalism and mass media career at Fresno State. Encinas is also part of the Donají del Valle Central and the effort of CBDIO to build the local talents of Oaxacan regional dancers. In addition, she will be one of the emcees at the 16th Guelaguetza in Fresno.