Latin America & Caribbean

Oaxaca festival in Mexico highlights indigenous pride

The Chirinos Chinas family
Image caption The Chirinos Chinas family are performing in the Guelaguetza

An old Mexican man, with a big moustache and wearing a wide sombrero, ambles into the sunlit Benito Juarez auditorium in Oaxaca City, clutching a live, twitching turkey.

Looking around for his fellow villagers, he passes rows of vividly embroidered traditional dresses, pineapples with red ribbons tied round their middles in bows, and thousands of sombreros like his own.

This is the Guelaguetza, a folk festival in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca that attracts thousands of visitors from across Mexico and abroad.

It is also home to some of the strangest dances on the planet.

Indigenous dancers descend on Oaxaca for the second half of July from the hill villages that surround the colonial city.

In the Turkey Dance, men dressed up in large baskets pretend to be fighting turkeys, squawking and pushing each other over as the real thing calmly looks on.

The animal theme continues as people pretend to be angry bulls, charging at and headbutting their dance partners who flip bandannas provocatively over their heads.

At the end of each troupe's performance, the dancers throw gifts into the crowd, usually local sweets, herbs and basketwork.

One group, though, throws large mangoes and the scrabbling crowds race to protect their children's heads.

"Why are they throwing all the presents over there?" asks Gloria Castaneda, a tiny Zapotec woman with long grey braids.

"Throw them here, to us!" she yells, elbowing her neighbours out of the way to get to the front.

'Generation gap'

The dances, costumes, foods and high-pitched conversations of these Zapotec and Mixtec peoples seem things of an ancient past - and indeed, these peoples existed alongside the better-known Aztecs and Mayans.

This celebration of Oaxaca culture is the annual display of a civilisation that is undergoing a revival, especially among the young.

"The resurgence has to do with 'Indianness' now being considered stylish," says anthropologist Howard Campbell, an expert on Zapotec culture at the University of Texas at El Paso.

"Young people are interested in the language and culture because people all over the world now consider 'Indianness' cool, exotic, primordial and romantic."

On the way to collect orange mushrooms for the Cuajimoloyas mushroom festival, Sonia, an older Zapotec woman explains to her young friend, Isabel, the medicinal properties of hundreds of the plants they pass.

"This tree is good for sensitive teeth," she says, her arm round its trunk. "Pick the bark off, crush it with some water and rinse your mouth with it every day for three days."

"In many Zapotec communities, there is a generational gap," says Carlos Solle, a scholar of Mexican indigenous linguistics.

"The old people and the young people speak Zapotec, but those in the middle only speak Spanish."

A common explanation for this is that the middle-aged have spent long periods in the US, often working illegally.

Despite the great distance there is a regular trickle of Zapotecs into the US, with the main destination being Los Angeles.

Almost all the villagers who live in the forested mountains of Oaxaca, the Sierra Norte, have relatives there.

"I have hardly ever left the forest except to go to Los Angeles," says one man, who asked to be known only as Victor.

"But I didn't have any papers, so eventually I had to come back. My kids speak Zapotec, but I don't - they learned it off their grandparents while I was away."

However, Lynn Stephen of the University of Oregon, who has studied the Zapotecs of the Teotitlan del Valle region for 27 years, does not think there is a generation gap.

"There is certainly more interest now and support for speaking Zapotec," adding that the revival of the Zapatec language is happening in places where it had been thought lost.

"What has changed greatly is that there is much more of a sense of pride in speaking Zapotec and people seeing it as an asset.

"The Zapatista movement of the 1990s opened an important political space in Mexico for other indigenous movements and for many communities to regain pride in being indigenous," she says.

Dominant women

Some of the Zapotecs, though, were proud of their heritage and practising autonomy long before the Zapatista uprising in the neighbouring state of Chiapas in 1994.

Juchitan, a city known for its dominant women, has a tradition of indigenous intellectualism and in 1981 elected the Coalition of Workers, Peasants and Students to its city government.

The coalition set up a Zapotec radio station and literacy campaign before being thrown out of office by Mexico's then ruling party, the PRI, two years later.

Image caption The Guelaguetza festival sees dances of all kinds

Nevertheless they continued to promote all things Zapotec, and Juchitan Zapotecs have been able to retain much of their culture.

"Even the rich and powerful in that town are Indian and proud of it and speak the Zapotec language," says Professor Campbell.

Back at the Guelaguetza, the largely indigenous audience is shrieking with laughter at the latest dance troupe, who shrilly insult their partners' dancing ability in between dances.

"Strong stuff," says Mrs Castaneda, pouring her third cup of locally brewed liquor out of a petrol can.

"This is one of my favourite things about the Guelaguetza."