After four weeks in Oaxaca, I finally made plans to leave. Originally intending to go directly to San Cristobal in Chiapas, after hearing of the parties taking place in the friendly community of Juchitan (in the Isthmus of Mexico), I decided to make a quick stop.
While a less common destination for travelers than the cities of Oaxaca and San Christobal, the Isthmus is worthy of (at least) a night’s stay for a few reasons:
- It holds many strong Zapotec matriarchial communities (women are the official head of the household)
- Has a unique muxe culture (transgender males that take on traditional female roles in the household and stay home to care for their parents), and;
- The people of the Isthmus know how to party! They hold large traditional Zapotec parties almost every day in the month of May.
My short jaunt through the town in the evening revealed a semi- busy market as well as a concert near the Zocalo to mark the beginning of the 'Vela' season!
With temperatures of plus 40 celsius during the day, I came to Juchitan for Vela Ique Guidxe - the first of the season. Going alone I was a bit apprehensive, not knowing what to expect or how to dress - finally with the counsel of Geovann at the Hotel Modelo where I was staying, I put on my only long dress and hoped for the best.
The vela was 10 minutes outside of the center by taxi. Arriving, I saw women of different ages, shapes, and sizes dressed to the nine’s. I felt awkward in my long wrinkly dress, and scuffed up flats. Nearly all wore colourful floor length skirts, and matching tops with beautiful flower embroidery. I found out later that the cost of an outfit ranged between $15,000 to $25,000 pesos ($1300 CDN or $2200 CDN), and given the hectic party schedule and how long it took to clean them, you needed to own multiple outfits! Women who were not wearing traditional clothing sported cocktail dresses. For males, the dress code was a white top and black pants. Traditionally men wore other clothing, ‘velas’ have evolved in that sense, but women are clearly the main event.
Approaching the vela, I saw many plainly dressed women sitting outside the entrance beside stacked cases of beer. As visitors arrived, many purchased a case (or two) before entering. It was mostly men who carried the beer, but it was interesting to see the odd woman, very ornately dressed carrying a 24 over her shoulder!
The vela took place in a large tent with two stages and live bands that alternated sets until 6 AM in the morning. Interestingly, the stages were set-up outside of the tent - clearly the focus was on the dance floor! Rows of seats lined the dance floor, partitioned into 5 or 6 sections, each had a large table of food in the centre.
As I discovered, each section belonged to a family or a group of friends, invited by their mayodormo (the head of the ‘society’). The host family supplied the food and contributed to the cost of the venue and live music, and their guests brought beer or liquor. In the center of the tent was a gawdy looking platform with several chairs set up - this was for the incoming king and queen, and there was a ceremony later in which they were throned.
Feeling extremely nervous as I walked in, I asked a family who I should talk to about being there, and they pointed me towards the administrator of the party, Rolando. Even after the first ten minutes, I was amazed at how welcoming everyone was. I was arriving at a private Zapotec celebration with a big SLR - and the Rolando told me I could take as many pictures as I wanted! There was also another photographer, Ulises Lopez Carrasco with a large external flash, and I stuck by his side for a while.
Appearing to be the only tourist at the event, for the first time on my trip, having a big camera in a social setting worked to my advantage. Approaching a big group of people hanging out with their family and friends, with a small point and shoot might not have gone over as well.
As the music began to play, people (mostly women) began to dance. The music was a blend of mix of traditional Zapotec music, interspersed with cumbia and merengue. Many women danced in couples, and there were quite a few good cumbia dancers as well. Towards the end of the night, we even danced their version of the bus stop - I have been wondering lately, if there is any country, that they don’t do the ‘bus-stop’.
A few hours later, after much drinking, eating, and dancing, and after I had started to tire of taking photos, many of the different groups invited me to sit down with them. I was continuously offered food and beer, and while I couldn’t refuse it all (I was told it was rude to rather, ‘accepta-la’), I couldn’t eat/drink it all either!
In our talks the main thing that I noticed was, how proud the people of Juchitan are of their culture - and their interest in sharing it with the world. I learned that each year the mayordormo who is in charge of the vela for that year rotates to another family, and she selects a new queen for the vela. The other tables were the guests of the mayordormos from previous years. I have a few pics of the reining mayordormo and her ‘society’ since they were one of the few to invite me to sit with their group.
Many of the people I spoke to were disappointed that I was only staying for one night. I was even offered free accommodations for the next two nights, so I could participate in the large vela on May 30!
One thing I found interesting was how comfortable the men were at describing women as the head of the family. As the MC for the night told me, the men of Juchitan see women as beautiful flowers to be cherished (hence the embroidery on the dresses). Hmmm - perhaps I could learn to get used to the heat.
By 3:30 AM, the party was still going strong, but I was ready to go home - Thank you Juchitan, I will remember this night for decades.