Dancers from Mujer Guerrera. Danielle Campbell Photo.
A group of women of all ages and sizes spread out across the grass. Vibrant flowers adorned their white blouses, tucked into their skirts with bright fabric belts. Red and yellow headbands glowed atop their brows. With each turn, their skirts flowed in the wind.
They swayed, danced in circles, and posed with squares of red cloth in their hands. Every so often, leader Sandra Gonzales let out a spirited grito.
Dancers from Mujer Guerrera (“woman warriors”) were part of New Haven’s first annual Guelaguetza, a summer festival and celebration held last Sunday at Quinnipiac River Park. Over six hours, the event honored the rich, pre-Hispanic roots of Oaxacan culture through dance, music, food, and a small vendor market. The word comes from the Zapotec, one of Mexico's largest Indigenous populations. It references the acts of giving and receiving.
Zacatelco, who hails from Mexico, said it was important to share her culture with New Haven—and create a space for Oaxacans to feel welcome in the Elm City. This year, she was able to mount it with a grant from the Department of Arts, Culture & Tourism and Arts Council of Greater New Haven. It required several trips to and from New York, where many of Sunday’s performers came from.
“We have had this idea for a long time about helping support the community arts here in Fair Haven,” said Eamon Linehan, who helped Zacatelco with the event and was cinematographer on duty. He added that much of the publicity for the event came from going door-to-door and putting up fliers in downtown New Haven.
Over six hours, performers represented various forms of Mexican culture and dance. There was pre-Hispanic dance, performances honoring the Aztec goddess Yaocihuatl, and music from the son jarocho group Jarana Beat. As the afternoon wore on, Chinelos NY brought the festival to a propulsive close with traditional dancing.
Image courtesy Dianna Ferrer.
Dianna Ferrer, who identifies as two-spirit, called in her ancestors as she led the pre-Hispanic dancers in prayer. This spring, Zacatelco invited her and and her husband to come and dance. This was her first Guelaguetza.
“I am the only one in my family that is still going with our traditions and learning about my culture,” Ferrer said. “Today I didn’t come dressed how I normally dress with the feathers. I came dressed like a Muxe. That’s what they call two-spirited women in Mexico. The third gender. So, I came in honor and representation of those Muxes from Oaxaca.”
The spirit of community and culture flowed through the Guelaguetza, from dancers on the grass to warm tacos, elotes and crisped, golden plantains from La Chiapaneca food truck. Even as the temperature continued to rise, families arrived, eager to soak the celebration in. By the end of the day, Jarana Beat was carrying the crowd into summer.
Walking to the changing station behind the stage, members of Mujer Guerrera ate food from Cositas Deliciosas and Mezcal, taking a moment to pause with their enchiladas and quesadillas. Tired from dancing in the sizzling summer sun, performers seemed refreshed by the community, accomplishment and food.
Years ago, Gonzales created the dance group as a path to healing. For her, dance is a way to part with the anxiety and depression that may define the lives of her performers—and she offers it to them as a kind of therapy and cultural immersion. Currently, Mujer Guerrera has about 40 women in the group.
Vendors were also a focal point with brightly colored art, mostly Mexican, from multiple states. One vendor, who asked to remain anonymous, came from New Rochelle, New York to sell hats from Puebla, headbands for children, blouses and inspirational shirts and highly decorated bags made by hand from Colombia.
Top: Dulce Perez. Bottom: Claudia Quintero.
A few tents over, sisters Dulce Perez and Claudia Quintero offered Mexican candy, dresses, hats, and jewelry. Perez, the shy sister, helped get them to the event, said Quintero, the more vocal sister.
The duo comes from White Plains and heard of the event from Zacatelco herself, who extended them the invitation. On a table in front of them, goods from Puebla, Oaxaca, Querétaro, and Chiapas beckoned.
Despite a few technical difficulties—one group could not finish its performance, and the city never delivered a Porta Potty that was supposed to arrive—attendees partied well into the afternoon. Ana Juarez, a resident of Fair Haven who lives just a few blocks away, came out to be more involved in the community.
“I am Mexican, and I thought this was a great opportunity to come out and meet people.”
Zacatelco, a resident of Fair Haven for 20 years, also declared the day a success. Years ago, she moved to Spanish Harlem to find more connections to art across the Latin American diaspora. It was then she found a network of Spanish creatives and through those connections, found many of the participants of the event.
Each performer received a donation as well as the artisans from Mexico. It was in line with the support for Mexican culture that was the theme of the day.
“That is called Guelaguetza,” Zacatelco said as one of the dancers offered her fruit. “We will give you; we receive.”