Women in Oaxaca, Mexico, dressed in colorful dresses, holding a pineapple on their shoulder as part of a procession on the streets

Guelaguetza in Oaxaca – July 2023

The Guelaguetza is one of the best known traditional, indigenous festivals in Oaxaca City, which takes place every year in July throughout the whole city. Colorful parades march through the city and the Auditori showcases traditional dance sessions.

The tradition dates back over five-hundred years when the native tribes in the state of Oaxaca worshipped Gods and Goddesses, and lived a cyclical life in harmony with the seasons.

It was a time of many rituals and rites, before the Spanish conquistadores arrived in Mexico and established the church.

Why do Mexicans celebrate the Guelaguetza?

The native tribes of Oaxaca, of which there are many honoring their traditions till this day, celebrate the Guelaguetza festival with dances as an honor to the corn Goddess Centeotle. Corn is one of the most iconic and symbolic vegetables for Mexicans. According to the Popol Vuh, the ancient book of the Mayan creation story, God made men (the Mexicans) from corn and therefore gave them life.

For the Guelaguetza, women are dressed in colorful dresses and are often seen carrying fruits and vegetables as part of their dance ceremonies and processions.

The Christians took on the theme, and celebrate the Guelaguetza in honor to the saint Señora Carmen, an image of Virgin Mary. Offerings to the Corn Goddess are an integral part of the festival honoring the ancient traditions, as well as giving out little presents to the audience.

Women in Oaxaca, Mexico, dressed in colorful dresses, holding a pineapple on their shoulder as part of a procession on the streets

How do Mexicans celebrate Guelaguetza in Oaxaca 2023?

The festival in Oaxaca is centred around ancient dances and many parades throughout the bustling streets of the city center. The main characters here are women, who perform in colorful Mexican dresses and often carry fruits, flowers and vegetables in baskets on their heads and shoulders.

The biggest part of the festival in Oaxaca takes place in the Auditori, a round open-air event space situated on a hill, for which tickets are being sold throughout June and July. The processions and dances in the streets are for free.

Auditori in Oaxaca City with musical celebration

The Guelaguetza starts always on a Saturday, before the first holiday on Monday. On the Guelaguetza Monday itself, folklore groups show traditional dances and performances. The highlight after each show are the little gifts the performers give out to the audience – traditional items from their local regions. On the preceding Monday, called Octava, shows are being repeated.

You’ll often see the beautifully dressed Chinas Oaxaqueñas, Mexican women accompanied by musicians and bands, marching through the streets on those days. If you are staying downtown around the festival, you can’t miss it! However, book your accommodation in advance, since the main festivals in Oaxaca, such as the Guelaguetza and the Day of the Dead, have the city often booked out months in advance!

Mexican traditional clothing in Oaxaca state

What is the background of the Guelaguetza?

Oaxaca (the state) has one of the largest indigenous groups in Mexico, with over 30 % of the territory being steeped in ancient traditions and speaking native languages. The rest of Mexico counts only 10 % of indigenous population, according to the ethnic report by INEGI. 

Arriving in Oaxaca you’ll see that indigenous culture is still very important here till this day. From colorful dresses, to traditionally painted wooden figurines, to Mexican mural art, to traditional Mixtec food and herbal drinks, Oaxaca has a lot of unique culture to offer, that you won’t find anywhere else.

More than 300,000 people are monolingual, speaking one of the many native indigenous languages exclusively. Some are bilingual, with Spanish as their second language, but still follow a predominantly native lifestyle. Unlike in Yucatán, in the Southeast of Mexico, where indigenous culture is closely related to ancient Mayan traditions, the indigenous cultures in Oaxaca are from many different native groups.

The two largest ethnic groups in terms of population and area are the Zapotec and Mixtec, still active these days. However, there are numerous other indigenous groups, each with their own unique traditions. Each group speaks distinct languages, entirely different from the other ethnic groups.

Oaxaca’s ancient traditions developed as earth-based, spiritual celebrations related to the worship of corn (maize) and the Corn God. The word Guelaguetza originally comes from the Zapotec language and can be translated as the „mutual exchange of gifts and services.“

This is in reference to the importance in native cultures of sharing, reciprocity, and extended community.

Mural by Vanez Crack in Oaxaca City

When will the Guelaguetza take place in 2023?

Since the 1960’s the Guelaguetza has been celebrated on the two Mondays following July 16th. This year it will be the 17th and 24th of July 2023, with Saturday 15th giving the kick-start to the festival in Oaxaca. All events associated with the Guelaguetza festival in Oaxaca, such as concerts and plays, are all held during the month of July.

Only when the first Monday falls on July 18th, the day on which Benito Juárez died in 1872, the dates of the Guelaguetza festival change. In those years, the celebrations are postponed for one week, falling on July 25 and August 1 (as occurred in 2011).

Benito Juàrez was a Zapotec lawyer and politician, and the first indigenous president of Mexico, serving from 1858 to 1872.

I hope you enjoyed this article about the best festivals in Oaxaca in 2023 and the Guelaguetza tradition! Are you wondering if Oaxaca City is safe to travel? Then read on here.

If you coming to Oaxaca City for the Guelaguetza festival and want to know about the best Food, Wellness, and Music – head over to Amazon and get our Cool Guide to Oaxaca City!

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