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Guelaguetza’s Revenge

24 July 2007

I can’t say I’m completely in agreement with Hermann Bellinghausen’s op/ed piece in today’s Jornada (a very minor disagreement is over Abelardo Rodriguez. The interim president may have been a scoundrel and a puppet, but I think he was legitimate).

On the other hand, I lack Dr. Bellinghausen’s erudition and breadth of knowledge. His writing style is a challenge (I thought I wrote complex sentences!) and I did have to make a few minor changes — and resort to footnotes (oh well, it was a Jornada article, the only newspaper I’ve ever read that regularly has footnotes and bibliography attached to editorials).

What brought it to my attention was a post on the Oaxaca Study Action Group, which I finally decided to join. I have absolutely no interest in their internal disputes (I shit-can sniping at each other’s right to participate. I expect to study the action, not take sides in some sterile dispute over adherence to some theory). Ironically, the post that mentioned this article seemed to miss that Bellinghausen is pointing out that rejection of the “official Guelaguetza” is based in tradition, not revolution.

A physician, as well as a poet and journalist, Hermann Bellinghausen writes about indigenous affairs and leftist movements from his home in Chiapas.

Not that it matters much, but Guelaguetza is a relatively new invention. It owes its birth in 1932 to Governor Francisco López Cortés and the support of then president Abelardo Rodriguez*. Meant to “render racial homage” to the humblest (and most humbled) of the Oxaqueños, it was yoked together out of tradition, racism and a humanitarian gesture – a way to raise funds to attempt to ameliorate some of the damages caused by the 1931 earthquake. The 76 year old Guelaguetza, born of an earthquake, is shaking Oaxaca once again.

Today, it still functions to remind us of the shameful illegitimacy of a government, that can only maintain a semblance of permance through violence and delinquency. Like that of Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. The “dispute” over the Guelaguetza shakes up the symbolism in a painfully real landscape.

Originally a traditional festival in the mostly Zapotec central valley, Spanish missionaries turned it into a fiesta in honor of the Virgin of Carmen. It has always been a popular celebration involving communal cooperation and resource sharing.

Based in the legend of the tragic love between the Zapotec Princess Donají (daughter of the Christianized Lord of Zaachila) and the enemy Mixteco soldier Nucano [a Oaxacaño “Romeo and Juliet”), it served the missionaries as a ritual submission by the Zapotec and Mixteco communities to the new overlords. Since then, the dances and the celebration have been syncretic, as are most surviving native traditions. The fact is Guelaguetza is a grand celebration of who holds the political and economic powers of Oaxaca, disguised by the hypocracy of typical Creole racism. The Indian is the colorful background in a celebration of the master. The bourgeois conservatives of 21st Century Oaxaca have all the characteristics of their 17th century ancestors. The only difference is that now we enter the grounds through Ticketmaster or American Express.

The post-revolucionary State sought to attract disaffected Mixes, Isthmus Zapotecs, Huaves, Mazatecos. Integration? Identification? Control? Today, the 16 pueblos — don’t call them “ethnic groups’! — are not celebrating their integration, their union, but merely seek to dazzle us. Over the years, the Guelaguetza has become a great tourist attraction, supporting hotel, restaurants, travel agencies, craft shops, jewelry shops, and services. The people in the pueblos get the tips. That is if they dance, are folkloric and shut up.

To develop an even “better” spectacular. the venue was transferred to the more scenic Cerro del Fortín and was killed stone by stone. Under Jose Murat** the perversion of the original was nearly completel: the Indians left offerings — live turkeys, fruit, bread, and flowers — at the feet of the “Lords”. Another innovation: the “Lord’s” daughters got to be colorful too — dancing in and out between the Indians. Ulises Ruiz never imagined that changing the traditions of Guelaguetza would seal his fate: with a second year of repression and crisis, he is building his own political tomb.

We attended this latest version of the Guelaguetza, but others persist in the many pueblos of the Oaxacan plateau. The APPO is seen as recovering their tradition, and the undercurrent of the struggle that seems to have been forgotten by the social movements throughout the state, and not just in the Capital city. This fight did not begin yesterday, and the people have found anew ways to say “¡BASTA!”.

With the EPR back in the headlines, there is money to be made in writing off as conspiracies the discontent in Oaxaca as “provocation” or “plots by radical groups”. But, the repression exposes the limits on power, and the international scandal makes the situation less and less “managable” as we say in the mass media.

The oaxaqueños capitalists are desperate. The tourist booty they earn sucking the life out of the Indians is drying up. “They want to take over OUR Guelaguetza”, is the latest eruption*** by the defenders of “Oaxacan Identity”, threatened by forces that surely come from Pluto demanding that “all the weight of the law’ be brought against them. It doesn’t seem to matter that these forces are the most criminal elements in Oaxaca – the Executive, Legislative, Judicial branches, and the police. Who else can be responsible for the “lessons” taught Emeterio Merino Cruz?

So, now there is a People’s Guelaguetza that wants the site, and which the administrators of the supervised celebration are determined to stamp out with repressive fury. Very possibly, Ruiz Ortiz is the last “Lord” of the Guelaguetza chants. The show can’t go on without a police cordon and military guards along the highways leading to the dance — that “celebration” of Indians decked in feathers for the amusement of the children of the rich, disguised in their own costumes as well as the Indians, before governors who act more and more like the overseers on a hacienda.

Who would have thought that a tradition turned spectacular would stir up such public discontent? Burdened by symbol and myth, Guelaguetza bit back, and stripped naked the power that gave it reality.

*Rodriguez, appointed to fill out the last year and a half of Pascual Ortiz Rubio’s term. In November 1929, President-Elect Alvaro Obregón was assassinated. Outgoing President Plutarco Elias Calles – in the opinion of many (including Bellinghausen) manipulated the situation, arranging for Emilio Portes Gil to serve as acting president until the 1931 election. Ortiz Rubio was forced to resign, according to Bellinghausen and others because he refused to be Calles’ puppet. Abelardo Rodriguez, according to this view, was an illegitimate president forced on the people.

**Ruiz Ortiz’ predecessor, also considered corrupt and authoritarian. He is widely suspected of manipulating the State election in favor of Ruiz Ortiz.

***DOCTOR Bellinghausen uses the word “hilillo”, which is more like the eruption of a boil – or popping a zit.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 25 July 2007 8:36 am

    Thanks for this. We struggled with the Jornada article — and only knew we didn’t know enough to know what it was all about.

  2. 25 July 2007 4:44 pm

    I’ve already spotted you on the OSAG forum, trying to sneak in your “sly rhetoric”. This will not be tolerated. End communication.

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