Festival Brings Oaxacan Traditions to Poughkeepsie

The Guelaguetza festival, originating in Oaxaca, Mexico, will take place in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. on August 4, in its fifth year. (Photo by Pilar Roca via La Voz)

In its fifth year in the Hudson Valley, the Guelaguetza festival, originating in Oaxaca, Mexico, will take place in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. on August 4. (Photo by Pilar Roca via La Voz)

The Guelaguetza festival of traditional dances from the state of Oaxaca, Mexico will light up Poughkeepsie, N.Y. on August 4, splashing the Hudson Valley town with the vibrant colors of costumes nearly 2,500 miles from where the event originated. In an article on the celebration, La Voz’s Mariel Fiori describes what the day will bring.

Around 50 dancers from four different groups of the tri-state area, wearing more than 100 colorful costumes (44 of them donated by the Mexican government) present 14 traditional dances, including the favorites such as the Danza de la pluma (Feather Dance) or Flor de piña (Pineapple Flower), on a stage in front of the Hudson River, organized in a span of 5 hours so that over 1500 audience members can enjoy them. This is the fifth annual Poughkeepsie Guelaguetza, promising tradition, culture and flavor so we can all be Oaxacans for a day.

The Poughkeepsie festivities had their inception ten years ago, when women from the town’s Saint Mary’s Church, led by Rosa López, wanted to present a folk dance. They decided to do the dance themselves and invite others to join. They thought to persuade some local teens to perform the Danza de la pluma, one of the most emblematic Oaxacan dances. However, when it comes to the kids of immigrants, the ever-common roadblock of cultural unfamiliarity popped up. Said López, “the teenagers didn’t really know the culture, none of them wanted to do it. They were all ashamed to dance.” But that didn’t stop the Oaxacan native.

“I understood that it would be very difficult to instill in these young people something they had never seen. I spoke with their parents and told them that in order to make their children love the culture of Oaxaca, it had to be shown to them, and so it was the parents who had to dance. We didn’t have a teacher yet and we met at David Castellanos’ house and started to rehearse in his patio. Word got out that a Danza de la pluma was being put together and a young man, Heric Eloy Martínez, showed up and it was he who showed us the dance.”

Also a native of Oaxaca, Eloy Martínez had danced in Guelaguetza festivals in the state since the ’90s.

“It is a very international and important event for our state, Oaxaca, and it is very beautiful because every region of the state is present,” explains Heric.

He adds: “The Guelaguetza is an event that I love a lot because it is there that I can represent my Zapotec heritage, my indigenous culture,” he says.

But what does “Guelaguetza” mean?

The word Guelaguetza is of Zapotec origin and it designates the action of offering, sharing or giving. Also known as Lunes del cerro (Monday of the Hill), this recent festival (it started to be celebrated in 1906) is carried out the two Mondays closest to the 16th of July, which is the day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (Virgen del Carmen) according to the catholic calendar. Groups from each of the eight regions of the state of Oaxaca (Costa Chica, Cañada, Papaloapan, Mixteca, Sierra Sur, Sierra Norte, Valles Centrales and Istmo Tehuantepec) participate in this celebration, proudly wearing glamorous costumes, each attesting to the traditions of its region.

By 2009, López, with the help of other locals Oaxacans in Poughkeepsie, presented the first Guelaguetza, no small feat in a town where Mexicans overall make up just under 3,000 of the town’s over 32,000 people, or only 9 percent.

One of those local Oaxacans included Felipe Santos, who explains why he wanted to help organize the Guelaguetza Festival.

“I lived in San Agustín Yatareni, in the Valles Centrales region of Oaxaca, I didn’t know about the cultural wealth that my state has. I immigrated to the United States when I was 15 and I was here for many years without taking an interest in absolutely anything. But when Rosa López invited me to participate, I fell in love with my traditions and started informing myself about them, seeing how beautiful they are. That was when I became seriously devoted to sharing my new experience of Oaxacan culture in the Hudson Valley. Additionally, this is a connection with others and the cultural heritage that I want to leave for my children and the children of others.”

The connections of fellow Oaxaca native Eloy Gutierrez have brought in donated costumes, support from local businesses and the attendance last year of Carlos Sada, the consul general of the Mexican Consulate in New York, himself born in Oaxaca. In response to what Gutierrez deems the most important aspect of the celebration, he replies:

“To participate in my Oaxacan culture, to meet all the people who have lent us a hand, especially Americans and people of other nationalities. We feel proud to have all these people collaborate with us and provide us their support.”

Visit La Voz for more information on the 2013 Poughkeepsie Guelaguetza.

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