As we are confronting the coronavirus crisis, City Lore, in New York City, is putting out a call to collect creative responses to the crisis in song, poetry, video and other forms. New Yorkers are famous for coming together in community after September 11th. There were many creative responses to this sorrowful and challenging time including singing together and communal memorials on the street. Today we can’t get together and hold hands to sing — but we can be creative in other ways.
Annually, Grupo Folklórico de Poughkeepsie (GFP) brings the culture of Oaxaca, Mexico to the Hudson Valley at its La Guelaguetza festival. La Guelaguetza festival celebrates the unique folklore of Oaxaca, Mexico, which is a region of Mexico noted for its various indigenous communities.
The festival provides a window into authentic Oaxacan dance, music, and food, that is held in “Oaxakeepsie” (the nickname given to Poughkeepsie because of its large number of Oaxacan immigrants). GFP began presenting La Guelaguetza in 2008, as a grassroots effort to bring the festival to the local community.
The festival begins with a parade of all the dancers, dressed in colorful traditional costumes and led by the Corn Goddess. Each group represents a different region of Oaxaca. Because La Guelaguetza is a celebration of harvest and sharing, offerings of fruit and flowers are shared with the audience throughout the festival.
After the introductory parade, the dancing and music begins. The colorful costumes and traditional props are breathtaking. Bilingual masters of ceremony provide the festival’s context by introducing and explaining the meaning of the dances. The lively dance performances and live music allow the audience to see, hear, and participate in the traditional customs of Oaxaca, Mexico.
La Guelaguetza Poughkeepsie is truly a community effort. GFP (under the direction of Felipe Santos) works with Arts Mid-Hudson and Dutchess County Tourism to provide this festival free to the thousands of people who enjoy it. La Guelaguetza immerses enthusiasts of traditional music and dance in the rich traditions of Mexico’s Oaxaca state. In 2020, the festival will take place on Sunday August 2, at Waryas Park on the Hudson River waterfront. Please follow them on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pokguelaguetza
2019 is the tenth year of my tenure on the board of directors of New York Folklore and my fourth as president. When I first joined, at the invitation of past president Gabrielle Hamilton – who steadfastly saw us through the recession of 2008 and the lean years that followed it – I was serving as folklorist for the Westchester County Arts Council. In that capacity, I explored various modes of engagement in community collaborations, cultural development and outreach to some of the leading traditional artists in the region. Not surprisingly many were immigrants. My own grandfather was a stateless Armenian immigrant, architect, designer and draftsman. The generosity of this land made his life in New York – and mine – possible. It is with great concern and foreboding that I watch and read about the events of our time in which mean spirited and narrow-minded opportunists try to set us against one another, playing on fear, greed, and resentment, when what we need in these times of challenging social, political, economic and climate crises is bravery, imagination and empathy.
Instead of a society based on exploitation, extraction, waste and violence, we need to envision a world where all manner of conservation of resources, culture, ideas and people is the standard. It is in this spirit that I have dedicated my own professional life to appreciation and promotion of diverse expressions of culture and ideas. That, in my view is the place of Folklore today. It is not a relegation of old quaint ways to the realm of museums and historical societies. Folk culture is living culture, only relevant if it is practiced, shared, and passed on to others. Certainly times do change and older ways give way to newer ones. As folklorists, we recognize that, but in so doing we honor the spirit of what has made family and community culture an essential part of our state and national history and character.
On a further thought, I want to express that in these extraordinary times, we need to think in much more ambitious terms. I recently saw the short film by artist and filmmaker, Molly Crabapple about the Green New Deal released on the Intercept website featuring text and narration by our newest congresswoman from Queens, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It not only asks us to imagine something other than a dystopian future of ruin, but also that the arts (and folk arts) can and should play a vital role as artists did during the original New Deal. In that spirit, I call upon New York Folklore, its members and supporters to imagine and work toward a future in which the traditional arts and culture we celebrate play a vital role in building a more sustainable world that values true conservation (of culture as well as the environment), that supports immigrants, whose imaginations (and labor) are going to be needed to fix this broken world, and values education above all to foster future generations and share the best of what we know.
Tom van Buren, New York Folklore Board President