La Guelaguetza: Indigenous Dance and Music Festival Now Part of Bakersfield

La Guelaguetza: Indigenous Dance and Music Festival Now Part of Bakersfield

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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Thousands of Central Valley residents descended on Bakersfield this month to celebrate “Guelaguetza,” a vibrant festival of indigenous dance and music with a long tradition in Mexico.

Since its start in 2001, the Bakersfield festival, mirroring the Central Valley’s indigenous Mexican population itself, has grown in size and diversity.

“It was put together by a group of us who are Mixtec,” said Hector Hernandez, executive director of Unidad Popular Benito Juarez, a grassroots coalition of indigenous community groups. “Over time as we grew, different indigenous groups wanted to participate, so it became a Guelaguetza.”

As the Guelaguetza – in the Zapotec language the word means “offering” or “an exchange of gifts” – has grown, said Hernandez, it has become a sort of cultural showcase for the various indigenous communities that have migrated to the valley in recent years, groups that have historically been marginalized both in the U.S. and Mexico.

Only 1,831 individuals in Kern County self-identified as indigenous on the 2010 Census, but Hernandez estimates the real number of indigenous people in Kern County, the majority from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, is somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000.

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In this photo, two dancers hold up a flag of "Virgen de la Natividad", the virgin of nativity. The dancers traveled to Bakersfield from Gilroy for this year's La Guelaguetza.

About 3,500 people attended this year’s Guelaguetza at the Cal State Bakersfield amphitheater, the largest event yet.

“We are very thankful to everyone who made this event as successful as it was -- our community, the volunteers, the dancers, and all of the media outlets who helped us promote this event,” said Hernandez.

Guelaguetza perfomances tell the story of the first contact between European Christians and indigenous peoples. Before colonization, the Guelaguetza brought indigenous nations together to honor Centeotl, the goddess of maize. In colonial times, the image of Centeotl took on a Catholic form, in La Virgen del Carmen.

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These, calaveritas, or skulls, are decorated crafts, often customary in Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations. The calaveritas were only a few of several crafts on display at this picturesque festival.

Part of the aim of Guelagetza, said Hernandez, is the retention of cultural memory and pride in one’s indigenous heritage.

“Before I became more conscious and historically aware, I used to refer to myself as “Hispanic,” but once I learned what it refers to and that it doesn’t refer to me, I don’t use it anymore,” said Hernandez. “There’s a legacy of colonization forced onto me… the Spanish language, is supposed to make us “Hispanic” but it just isn’t that way… [indigenous identity] lives on.”

Language also became a point of contention at the most recent organizing meeting for Guelagetza in Bakersfield. A question arose over which language should be used first in giving the welcome that would kick off the event. Despite some internal resistance, organizers eventually decided that indigenous languages, not Spanish, would be placed front and center.

“Language is how [we] make sense of things, it has power, and for an indigenous event, about indigenous culture, we need to use indigenous languages,” said Hernandez, adding, “It’s all very foreign to a lot of people. Just the word [Guelagetza] can be hard for people to hear and pronounce.”

According to Hernandez, when Unidad Popular Benito Juarez presented their plan for the Guelaguetza to department heads at Cal State Bakersfield, they were reluctant to support it.

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La Guelaguetza gave families the opportunity for multiple generations to learn about Oaxacan culture together. In this picture, family members Selina and Linda enjoy a frozen treat while listening to traditional Oaxacan live music.

“They were taken aback that we used the name of Benito Juarez (a liberal reformist president of Mexico, of Zapotec origin) because they said he was a rebel… that he was a problematic figure,” recounted Hernandez.

Nevertheless, the university’s initial uneasiness with associating with Unidad Popular Benito Juarez “smoothed out” in subsequent years, according to Hernandez.

Today, said Hernandez, the Guelaguetza aims to preserve history and culture for future generations, and to instill pride in the legacy of indigenous people.

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A customer purchases tlayudas, a traditional Oaxacan dish. Tlayudas, often described as a "Mexican pizza," are considered one of the most popular Oaxacan street foods. Tlayulas are prepared with an oversized corn tortilla, followed by a spread of pork fat and bean paste, then covered with cheese, shredded lettuce or cabbage, tomatoes, salsa, and topped with meat.

“The youth today prefer to adapt to current customs and completely forget their pasts -- to go trick or treating instead of building an altar to the dead, or cooking mole with the family. That is culture,” said Hernandez. “In Mexico they used to compose calaveritas, poems and lyrics to denounce political injustices, to talk about your history and yourself,” he said. “But now it’s about commercialism or consumption of themed movies… We have to study and analyze our histories and reclaim what’s been lost.”