Every third Sunday in May, a pre-Columbian festival is held in Santa Cruz.
The millennium-old celebration of rain and a bountiful harvest is the Guelaguetza, originating in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. For the past 11 years, Santa Cruz has hosted its own Guelaguetza, celebrating Oaxacan music, food, culture and identity.
Held at Harbor High School, the festival opened with the celebration of Diosa Centeotl, or Corn Goddess, which is chosen every year to signal the beginning of the event. Many years ago, the indigenous Zapotecs chose to offer the Diosa as a sacrifice.
Though the original role of the Diosa has changed — partly due to colonial conquest and the rise of Catholicism — the Goddess still plays a central role in the festivities. Izamar Sanchez, last year’s Diosa, explained it’s not physical appearance that dictates how a Diosa is chosen, rather “it’s all about the intellect you have of the Oaxacan culture,” Sanchez said.
Oaxaca has a large indigenous population, with unique languages and cultural heritages. They are subjected to discrimination in Mexico and in the U.S. because of their physical and cultural variances.
The non-profit organization Senderos, which hosts the Santa Cruz Guelaguetza, is a local organization devoted to creating a space for Oaxacans to feel safe from discrimination and to foster cultural appreciation and educational advancement.
Senderos means pathways, representing the organization’s mission to help kids reach college and educate those of all ages through dance and music. Through music, food and art presented by Oaxacans, the annual Guelaguetza celebration serves as a pathway to their own culture.
This year’s Guelaguetza had eight cooks, 25 musicians and one artisan visit from Oaxaca to take part in the Santa Cruz event.
Cook and restaurant owner Amoda Gonzalez Hernandez spent a week in Santa Cruz prior to the festival preparing mole — a traditional savory dish made with chocolate, chillies and other spices — and also teaching others how to make it.
The director of the 25-piece band, Mtyo. Comilo Jimene Fernandez, said this was a special opportunity for Oaxacan students to travel to California and interact with new people and introduce others to traditional music.
“It’s a contact zone where a lot of people can come and learn about [Oaxacans]” Izamar Sanchez said.