Mojigangas dance across the Calle Macedonio Alcala in front of Templo de Santo Domingo, Anna Bruce / | © Culture Trip.

La Guelaguestza, pronounced “gay-luh-gets-uh,” is held every year on the last two Mondays of July—“Mondays on the Hill,” in the center of Oaxaca de Juarez, Mexico. The festival celebrates Mexico’s indigenous cultures through dance, traditional attire, and native food. It originates from pre-colonial traditions when indigenous communities would gather in mid-July to celebrate Chicomecoatl the maize goddess and ask her, for a fruitful harvest. After Spanish colonialization, Catholic missionaries discouraged pagan rituals, changing indigenous festivals to reflect the beliefs of Christianity.

Illustration of Chicomecoatl or Xilonen “seven snakes” goddess of agriculture.

Prior to 1920, Guelaguestza was a celebration honoring Our Lady of Mount Carmel. In 1920 an earthquake struck Oaxaca damaging significant amounts of the city. The community was in despair and the city’s morale was at a low, so the state government devised a plan to re-organize La Guelaguetza into “reciprocal exchanges of gifts and services” to involve statewide communities and showcase their unique cultures. Keeping true to the importance of sharing, reciprocity, and extended community to the indigenous cultures, the festival was redefined to better connect the people of Mexico.

The festival goes beyond the two days of celebration, extending across the city into plazas, parks, and the surrounding villages.  Processions of dancers fill the streets and plazas—interacting with the audience, handing out shots of mezcal, and pulling people to dance with them. Oaxaca in July is full of celebration at every turn.

Café Volador, Oaxaca Mexico.

While in Oaxaca I found myself relaxing at Volador—my favorite local coffee shop, located down the street from Santo Domingo de Guzman on Calle de Xolotl a pedestrian zone.

I would sit in the window seal of Volador watching scenes pass by—listening to the children practice their instruments at the music school, Arsnova Academia de Musica, and fill the air with classical Mexico songs, dogs in the adjacent houses barking to the tune; the smell of traditional cooking from El Quinque, located at the corner of the plaza, coating the air and enticing everyone too eat their delicious entrees. During Guelaguestza the plaza is full of different events.

Women dancing the traditional Flor de Pina at Guelaguestza Photo credit Instituto Cultural Oaxaca.

Women dancing the traditional dance at Guelaguestza Photo credit Vanessa Teran.

Adults and children dance Torito’s dance along with a variety of other traditional dances. People are dressed in different attires, ranging from jauguar mixteco to the traditional wear of Istmo de Tehuantepec. At nightfall the plaza clears and the youth take over—using the walls as goal post for their late night futbol games, drinking caguamas, and socializing prior to dancing the night away.  In Oaxaca de Juarez, there are nearly one hundred plazas woven throughout the city—each different from the other.

Santo Domingo Church at sunset photo credit by Christian Heeb.

The Plaza of Santo Domingo de Guzman is located down the street from Volador, and nearby Calle Alcala and A Gurrion are, both pedestrian only streets. The plaza is full of vendors, restaurants, and artisanal shops. Across from the plaza, Instituto de Artes, founded by Francisco Toledo, houses some of Latin America’s most important graphic arts. Also a cultural center with an open Library, it host frequent events and activities.

Luce art of ‘Lapiztola’ on walls of Instituto de Artes.

Kids studying at the interior courtyard of Instituto de Artes.

Santo Domingo Plaza is constantly full of people either lounging along the retaining walls in front of the church, passing by on their way to work, or shopping for local products. During the season of Guelaguestza is becomes the main thoroughfare for the dancing processions.

Oaxaca has the largest indigenous population 50 percent—of any state, and they comprise 20 percent of Mexico’s overall indigenous population. They have a significant impact on Oaxaca, Mexico that is felt across the entire country and impacts traditional festivals like La Guelaguestza.

Photo of Oaxaquenos in traditional wear in front of Santo Domingo.

After working in Oaxaca for six months, I learned about much more than just architecture. I learned about the culture and values of Mexico and the joy of this beautiful place and culture will forever be imprinted on my memory. I now find myself on a new adventure—this time in my hometown of San Antonio—working for Michael G. Imber Architects, and exploring the history and culture of Texas and the whole United States. Let’s see where the road leads me.