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In southern Mexico, dancing to forget the earthquakes

Sylvain Estibal

Agence France-Presse

Oaxaca, Mexico | Sun, August 5, 2018 | 10:08 pm
In southern Mexico, dancing to forget the earthquakes

Elizabeth Lopez (R) and Luis Vicente Sanchez, from Juchitan de Zaragoza, pose during a rehearsal for the Guelaguetza traditional festival in Oaxaca, Mexico on July 29, 2018. Guelaguetza ('offering' in Zapoteca indigenous language) has its origin in a quake which devastated Oaxaca in 1931. (AFP/Omar Torres)

After the earthquake that devastated Juchitan in southern Mexico in September last year, Jorge Jimenez and his dance troupe sprang into action.

The 8.2-magnitude quake -- the most powerful ever recorded in the country -- killed at least 96 people in the area. 

Entire families were buried, and the town hall was split in two. Streets were left strewn with debris, and residents had no water or electricity.

"We helped to find survivors and distributed food," recalls Jimenez, the director of Juchitan de Zaragoza, a traditional dance troupe.

"Then after a while, we decided to dance because the population needed some distraction to overcome the shock."

But the many festivities that are a usual part of life in the community were all cancelled in the wake of the earthquake.

"We are still in mourning," says the 33-year-old Jimenez.

The dancers nevertheless decided to go to Oaxaca, the capital of the state of the same name, to take part in Guelaguetza, the biggest traditional Mexican festival.

"We want to thank the country for its support" and proclaim "to the world that 'Juchitan lives, and long live Juchitan!'" Jimenez says.

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- 'Deep cultural traditions' -

The large Guelaguetza gathering, which means "offering" in the native Zapotec language, was itself founded after an earthquake that devastated Oaxaca in 1931.

Following the quake, locals decided to create a celebration bringing together the many local cultures "to pray to the Virgin and express solidarity," said Alfonso Martinez, the spokesman for Oaxaca state.

Much more than just a festival, Guelaguetza has been a must on the region's social calendar for 86 years, and showcases the variety and richness of what Martinez calls the country's "deep cultural traditions."

Every year, 30 troupes present their unique culture in a parade and performance before 12,000 spectators, dancing in colorful costumes -- some with a pineapple or even a vase in hand, others wearing demon masks and cracking a whip.

The event, broadcast on local television, has achieved great success, attracting more than 110,000 visitors to Oaxaca for the annual festivities.

For the capital of the second-poorest Mexican state, the economic benefits are significant, estimated at over $16 million, according to local authorities.

The Guelaguetza festival is also a link between the numerous communities, which are sometimes isolated in a mountainous state where agrarian conflicts sometimes lead to violence. 

On July 16, 13 people were killed in a clash between groups of farmers in the south of the state.

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- Traditional culture still alive -

Participating in Guelaguetza is a time-honored  for the many communities of this region of four million inhabitants.

The selection committee is made up of 10 former dancers whose average age is 75 -- but whose judgment is sharp.

"We traveled 29,000 kilometers (18,000 miles) last year," says Margarita, the 82-year-old chair of the selection committee, which is also known as the "authenticity committee."

The committee members roam remote villages and select the very best troupes.

"We evaluate the quality of the dance, the clothing, the hairstyle, the chemistry between the couples," she says.

The stakes are high -- if a certain community is not selected, its members sometimes go so far as to protest in the capital or complain to the media.

"Participating is a great pride for us," says Nivardo, 34, the director of another troupe.

The state of Oaxaca is home to "the most indigenous communities; 16 languages are listed," says Martinez.

There is no question of wearing a redesigned dress, or introducing a dance inspired by Beyonce.

Here, each costume tells a story.

A pattern on a dress "symbolizes the mountains that overlook the village," while embroidery can represent a river that crosses the hamlet, or even the underworld, says Nivardo.

From an early age, children are immersed in their local culture.

Some young people listen to hip-hop, but they never get away from their cultural roots, says Graciela, 31, a dancer from Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec.

"We learn music before we even know how to write," she says. "These cheerful rhythms define us -- it's our culture."

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