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The Oaxaca 'People's Festival' Celebrates Indigenous Culture That's Not for Sale

Shannon Young - GlobalPost
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August 11, 2016

Teachers from the Oaxaca City outskirts march with a delegation of dancers and musicians with a banner calling for the release of political prisoners and an end to structural reforms that slash budgets for public services like education. (Shannon Young)

This state-sponsored festival, which draws visitors from around the globe, is a carefully stage-managed showcase of local cultural traditions. It's also a major boost to the local economy — ticket prices start at the equivalent of $50. That’s way out of reach for many people in Oaxaca. Some free tickets are available, but you have to stand in line for hours to get one.

But there’s another celebration that’s also become a Oaxaca tradition: the alternative festival known as the People’s Guelaguetza. It’s completely free, and organized mainly by a dissident teachers' union that’s been battling the government for years.

From a distance, the street processions with costumed dancers, brass bands and giant puppets look like many traditional parades here known as "calendas."

Then you see the banners with slogans like "no forgiveness, nor forgetting," and hear the chants calling for political prisoners to be released.

Participants see this alternative festival as more in touch with Oaxaca's actual indigenous cultures than the famous one is. The word "Guelaguetza" is Zapotec for a system of mutual aid and generosity that plays a crucial role in the social fabric of many indigenous communities.

“I think it’s necessary to rescue the real meaning behind the Guelaguetza. The Guelaguetza isn’t about the commercialization and selling of the indigenous person as a registered trademark,” said Salvador Aquino, a teacher and a member of the delegation of dancers and musicians representing the town of Miahuatlan de Porfirio Diaz in this year’s alternative parade.

“I’m sharing what I do, my dance moves, my music,” Aquino added. “That’s what the real Guelaguetza is all about: coming together as brothers and sharing.”

The teacher-organized processions are marathon street parties that snake through downtown neighborhoods and gather thousands of participants over the course of hours.

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