Welcome to Pillars of Health, a four-part series exploring how indigenous Oaxacans, from Mexico to California, cultivate four hallmarks of a healthy lifestyle—community, rituals, food, and connections to nature—and how you can apply these practices to your own self-care habits. Regardless of where you come from, there’s so much to learn from rich indigenous cultures like those of Oaxaca. We’re here to show you what’s possible.
Read time: 7 minutes
- A strong sense of community can go a long way in bolstering your health.
- In indigenous Oaxacan communities—including those in Mexico and in cities across California—the Guelaguetza festival, an annual celebration of Oaxacan cultural diversity, represents an important space for social connections.
- Whether you find a sense of community at Guelaguetzas near you or you cultivate it on your own terms, that sense of belonging and cultural identity can play a huge role in a healthy lifestyle.
For Otomi Dominguez, it all began in the park. As a Oaxacan immigrant in Los Angeles, California, he and other Oaxacans in the area would regularly meet at Normandie Park in the city’s Koreatown to play basketball. Casual basketball games eventually turned into organized tournaments, which then inspired the group to consider what else they might be able to achieve when they worked together.
“We decided that since so many of us could come together for a sport then we should start an organization to help our home communities [in Oaxaca],” many of whom still experience poverty and lack important resources like quality education, Dominguez said in a dissertation written by Dr. Xóchitl Chávez, PhD, a scholar of expressive culture and performance who specializes in indigenous communities from southern Mexico and transnational migration.
Together, Dominguez and his fellow Oaxacans formed the Organización Regional de Oaxaca (ORO), a nonprofit dedicated to promoting and preserving indigenous Oaxacan culture in California through cultural events and artistic activities—including the Guelaguetza, an annual festival celebrating Oaxaca’s rich cultural diversity through traditional dances, music, food, and more.
A Celebration of Sharing and Reciprocity
According to Historical MX, a resource from Sam Houston State University, “guelaguetza” is a Zapotec (one of the many indigenous communities in Oaxaca) word meaning mutual cooperation or a sense of sharing and reciprocity. The festival originally dates all the way back to the pre-Hispanic era, when the celebration was meant to honor a corn goddess and ask for a good harvest. By the 1700s, the festival had adopted some Christian elements, taking place annually on July 16 for the patron St. Carmen.
Then, in 1932, Oaxaca hosted what was considered to be the predecessor of what we now know as the Guelaguetza festival. Called “Homenaje Racial” (Racial Homage), the celebration involved traditional performances from people across various Oaxacan cultures and ended with the exchange of gifts and offerings between indigenous people at the festival—hallmarks that are still part of current Guelaguetza celebrations.
Today, the Guelaguetza is typically celebrated on the last two Mondays in July—not just in Oaxaca, Mexico, but also in indigenous Oaxacan communities in the U.S.
The Guelaguetza Comes to California
“As a result of the massive migration of Oaxacans to the U.S., and especially to California, during the 1960s and the following two decades, Oaxacan immigrants settled down in an extensive array of cities and communities,” explains Luis Escala Rabadán, a sociologist and research professor in the Department of Cultural Studies of El Clegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana. “This process implied not only the migration of their labor force, but of their culture as well. As a result, the Guelaguetza festivals began to take place in the city of Los Angeles during the late 1980s,” carried out by organizations like ORO, the nonprofit originally founded by Dominguez.
Nancy Rodríguez was one of the first organizers of Guelaguetza festivals in Santa Cruz. Her daughter, Janet Robles, was inspired to be part of the annual celebration after she moved from Mexico to California and saw her mom’s involvement in the festival. “In her new school in Santa Cruz, [Robles] witnessed the way fellow Mexican nationals humiliated and discriminated against Oaxaqueños, especially when they spoke in their native tongue,” Dr. Chávez wrote of Robles’ experience in her dissertation. “She also felt overwhelmed by the presence and pressure of gangs in the schools,” a concern shared by other migrant families in the area as well.
To create a healthy, empowering way to connect with their communities, Robles and Rodriguez formed a folkloric dance group that would eventually go on to perform at the annual Guelaguetzas in Santa Cruz.
“The Guelaguetza makes us feel seen”
For Rodríguez, working with her daughter and their fellow Oaxacan immigrant communities makes her and other Oaxacans feel seen. “[We get the opportunity] to meet other people, to say, ‘I am here’ and ‘I’m bringing a part of my traditions.’ [We get] to share [and feel free], to see a family forget about their problems while living in the U.S., to give, receive, and smile. [We] take out [our traditional Oaxacan] clothes and celebrate [our] identity,” she told Dr. Chávez.
The Guelaguetza is more than just a place to gather with like-minded people who come from similar backgrounds. It’s an opportunity to feel at home when you’re thousands of miles away from your real home. “Imagine, to be in your homeland for one day, for a moment because [you] cannot [actually] return [without] proper documentation,” explained Felicia Saldívar in the same dissertation. “For them the Guelaguetza is very important. It’s a new connection. One day that you recharge with energy, positive energy in order to return to work again in the farms, in the factories, to return to be the manual labor of capitalism.”
Channeling the Positive Energy of Guelaguetzas In Your Own Community
According to Rabadán, Guelaguetzas are fundamental for multiple reasons, including not just the fact that they “create the necessary conditions for the gathering of numerous paisanos—or people who share a belonging to the same hometown, region, or state of origin—around several cultural references (music, dances, languages, food),” but also because of the “collective identity” forged by these community gatherings.
In fact, the Society of Clinical Psychology (part of the American Psychological Association) says a strong sense of cultural identity can have a “protective role” in mental health. Why? It’s all about “feeling connected with a broader social group,” which “can enhance [a] sense of self and self-esteem,” according to the resource. Research also shows that taking cultural identity and practices into account may even help people feel empowered in other aspects of their health, including diabetes management.
It makes sense, right? Cultivating a cultural identity means developing strong connections with people who come from similar backgrounds—who understand your lived experiences in ways that others simply never will, whether it’s being subjected to discrimination at the doctor’s office or celebrating certain holidays that aren’t recognized by most workplaces. When you feel seen in that way, you’re more secure in yourself, and that self-confidence can carry over to other aspects of your life, from your commitment to healthy habits to your day-to-day mood and mindset.
“Community helps us build resilience, develop strengths, and form connections,” says One Drop coach, Sandra Gonzalez, a registered dietitian/nutritionist (RDN) and certified diabetes care and education specialist (CDCES).
So, where might you cultivate your own community? Keep in mind: Your community doesn’t necessarily need to be as colorful and vibrant as that of the Guelaguetzas. Maybe you’re a voracious reader who would love a book club that specifically focuses on literature written by authors who share your cultural heritage. Perhaps you’re passionate about cooking but have never tried those recipes that have been passed down in your family for generations. (Even your One Drop community could be a place to connect with like-minded people who understand your experiences.)
“Many of us have experienced community in one way or another,” says Gonzalez. “The key is to express it by sharing common values and practices with others.”
For example, for Gonzalez, who grew up in Mexico, speaking about her rich culture, heritage, and history makes her feel connected to others. “I rely a lot on my Latinx community here in the U.S. to feel safe and supported,” she adds. “I’ve also found community through volunteer work with Spanish-speaking communities.”
Wherever you find community, remember that “we all come from indigenous communities,” notes One Drop coach, Melinda Washington, RDN, CDCES. “In that sense, we can all recognize the value of depending on each other. That’s how we love, grow, and heal. Going back to these types of roots can help us understand where we came from and where we can go.”
This article has been clinically reviewed by Lisa Graham, RN, BSN, CDCES, health coach and director of clinical operations at One Drop, and Alexa Stelzer, RDN, LD, CDCES, health coach at One Drop.