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The guelaguetza festival, which migrated into southern California with the Zapotec immigrants from Mexico’s Oaxaca state, has been celebrated at the California State University San Marcos for 14 years. This year, a group of indigenous people from Oaxaca organized a guelaguetza festival in the central Willamette Valley of Oregon, in the city of Salem.

The guelaguetza celebrates giving and sharing in Zapotec culture, but it is a more complex concept than those English words suggest. Gifting for the Zapotec can imply giving without any expectation of reciprocity, but it also suggests ritualized giving. The guelaguetza festival itself, at least as celebrated in southern Mexican villages, requires very formalized giving and receiving relationships.

Like the annual festivals held at CSU San Marcos, just north of San Diego, the new festival in Oregon was founded with numerous goals in addition to the traditional gifting and sharing that are so important in Oaxaca. One important consideration for the organizers was to try to bring together the different immigrants from Oaxaca who live and work in the Willamette Valley. The organizers want to unite the indigenous communities, which will support the local organizations in each community that seek to assist their home villages in southern Mexico.

Many of the people from Oaxaca have long been US citizens, but they are still interested in keeping their native traditions alive, and forming a guelaguetza festival may turn out to be an important event that they all can identify with. According to one estimate, there are 40,000 indigenous Mexicans living in the state. These people often feel discriminated against, even by other, non-indigenous, Mexican immigrants. Celebrating their traditions in a very visible way may help break down cultural barriers.

Organizers feel that one of the most important things they can do is support better education for the children in Oaxaca, so they will be able to get better jobs and not feel as compelled by poverty to migrate north. In essence, they hope that the next generation will have more prosperity and better educations, so they can make better lives in their native villages. Dozens of organizations that focus their efforts on providing assistance to their home villages were represented at the Salem festival. Another goal of the Oregon festival has been to foster pride in the indigenous languages of Oaxaca.

Cecilia Girón, a speaker at the event, said that being raised in Oregon did not mean, to her, giving up her native language. “Guelaguetza means to share the culture, engage in a reciprocal exchange of gifts—a gift that does not convey more obligation,” she said. Octaviano Merecias-Cuevas, the festival coordinator, indicated that it took a month and a half of planning to bring it off. He felt that mutual assistance was an important aspect of the festival.

He said that part of the purpose was to raise funds for assisting the home villages back in Oaxaca. “We understand that through strong organization and mutual support between (regions), we can create a better Oaxaca and a better Oregon,” he concluded.

The event, held from 2:00 to 9:00 on Saturday, October 10, included parades, the traditional foods of Oaxaca, and costume dances. In addition to the festivals in San Diego and now Salem, Oregon, Fresno, California, held its 11th guelaguetza in late September.