Guelaguetza and handcrafts

The best laid plans of mice and men…

Last week I had a chance to take family to Oaxaca to encourage them to see more of Mexico than just the typical tourist resorts. In this respect the trip was very successful. I also had every intention of squeezing in at least one or two artisan interviews. In that I failed miserably. Time flies by on vacation and there was so much for the family to see just to get the absolute basics, center of Oaxaca city, food, drink, visting some little towns in the valleys, more food and drink, archeological sites, more food and drink…. I think you get the picture.


Dancers from San Antonino Castilla Velasco at Guelaguetza main stage (1)

We went during Guelaguetza week. I had hoped to attend the main events on Monday on the hill, but I was unable to get decent tickets and I refuse to see it any other way. Fortunately, there are many other smaller events and the people watching is great.

Woman selling rebozos on the Zocalo (2)

Handcrafts are always on sale in Oaxaca city, from upscale stores to street vendors with quality ranging from what are really fine works of art to cheap trinkets. But little compares with the sheer numbers of street vendors on the main square (Zocalo) and into some adjoining streets during Guelaguetza.

By far, these stalls are dominated by resellers with indigenous-style blouses for women. The main shows of Guelaguetza feature dancers and others in authentic regional dress, and the women’s clothing is far more varied and colorful than those of the men. Many visitors buy and wear these items during the time they are in town.

I have mixed feelings about this. I do not worry about “cultural appropriation” as the makers of regional dress generally do not and a blouse paired with a pair of jeans is not trying to pass oneself off as a member of an indigenous group. Whether they conscientiously realize it or not. visitors are acknowledging that it is its indigenous heritage that makes Oaxaca so special. Perhaps what I do not like is that the buying of these shirts (authentic or not) is that of a “throwaway” item… something to be used during the festival then relegated to the back of a closet for a time until it is finally gotten rid of.

Better made machine  embroidered blouse made and sold in Mitla, Oaxaca

The “party favor” aspect of these clothes is noted by the extreme poor quality of most, with the aim of selling as cheaply as possible. There wasnt a single shirt I could comfortably say was close to authentic (either in design or manufacture)… and many would not stand more than a wash or two before seams frays to the point of making the garment useless.

Sales of authentic garb could be found, but making the situation worse, these opportunities were hidden beyond the Zocalo where most of the tourists roamed. Other than the usual galleries that specialize in these, there were stand set up for artisans from various regions of the state, these stalls were set up at the far north end of the Andador Macedonia Alcala. While there was a respectable crowd there when we visited, it was nothing like the areas closer to the Zocalo.

All in all, I heartily recommend going to Oaxaca for the Guelaguetza (and getting tickets for the main show if at all possible) and seeing the items for sale. While most is not for collectors, they do show some interesting innovation in design and colors, especially those which are a combination of traditional and modern dress. Better and better made examples of these can be found in Oaxaca and other areas such as Mitla and who knows, may be cherished as “traditional” garb some point in the future.

Photo credits:

Featured – Cristina Zapata Perez

(1) Armando Ambrocio

(2) Alejandro Linares Garcia



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