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Festivals in Jalapa, Mexico

Jalapa Honors Its Saint, Visitors Join the Fun

Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec is known as a breeding ground for rebels and home to half a million Zapotecs who say they are not Mexican. But above all the isthmus is known for its festivals, which honor the patron saints of the Isthmus towns.

The most traditional of the Isthmus velas takes place in Jalapa de Marquez, 100 miles southeast of Oaxaca. The 18,000 inhabitants follow traditions that include ritual drinking, same-sex dancing, and a curious tradition in which women pelt men with fruit.

The feast of their patron saint, Sebastian, begins on the 18th of January. Since there are no hotels in Jalapa, arrive on the 17th and rent a room at Hotel Oasis in Tehuantepec (call 011-52-971- 1-5008). The Oasis, a half-hour away from Jalapa by bus, has clean rooms and reasonable prices (singles from $8; doubles from $9.50).

At nine in the evening, on the 18th, a young woman who has been chosen queen of the vela leads a solemn procession of women in full-length dresses through the dirt roads of Jalapa. When the women reach the city center on Calle Central, the mayor crowns the queen. A marimba band plays to mark the beginning of the festival and the first in a week-long series of public dances.

Ritual drinking requires newly-arrived guests to drink a capful of mescal before entering. One acceptable excuse for refusing is that you are taking medication.

Wherever you walk on the 19th, you’ll run into one of the dances. Be sure to introduce yourself to the hostess or mayordoma and pay a donation—usually a dollar or less.The mayordoma will sprinkle your hair with confetti, marking you a member of the dance. Ask her for introductions and she will gladly oblige.

After the dances on the afternoon of the 19th a procession meanders through the streets; collecting women on foot and men on horseback, it makes its way up the hill to the Chapel of San Sebastian. If possible, stay at the front of the procession. This allows you to get a seat in the chapel where you can join the people of Jalapa as they admire the women wearing finely embroidered velvet dresses of crimson and black. Each woman leaves bouquets of gladiolas and beeswax candles in front of a hand-carved statue of Sebastian.

At dusk, a wind band plays as women climb to the chapel’s bell tower. A crowd of men forms below, and the women in the bell tower pelt the men with fruit and party favors that range from Tupperware to T-shirts. According to some, this ritual is a way that Jalapa’s women assert their superiority as matriarchs.

The festivities on the 19th culminate with a display of fireworks that includes a paper-mache bull skewered with sparklers. Then a 40-foot tower built of river reeds and laden with fireworks is lit. For the finale, the dome at the top of the tower sprays fireworks in every direction but leaves an image of San Sebastian untouched.

On the 20th, the formal feast day of San Sebastian, festivities begin with a mass at one in the afternoon in the chapel of San Sebastian. As always, dances go on throughout the city; even if you don’t dance, attending them will keep you fed. No matter the time of day, someone will always be ladling out bowls of estofado de Jalapa, a beef stew cooked in giant terracota pots.

If you tire of the fare served at the dances, try Restaurante La Palapa at the intersection of the Primera Entrada and Cristóbal Colon. Prices begin at $2.50 and rarely top $10—even for the highly recommended fish soup.

In the final days of the festival the ambassadors of good humor begin appearing at the dances. Expect to see President Zedillo in a mini-skirt, or Mexico’s version of Jesse Ventura in a wig and cape.

Contact: Magda Garruda, Jalapa’s Registrar of Ecology, has volunteered to answer your questions about the festival. You can reach Magda between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Pacific Time at 011-52-972-12250.

Getting there: From Oaxaca, board any one of the hourly buses to Tehuantepec and ask the driver to let you off in Jalapa.

Suggested reading: The Isthmus Zapotecs: A Matrifocal Culture of Mexico by Beverly Newbold Chiñas is an anthropologist’s perspective. Mexico South by Miguel Covarrubias documents the history, struggles, and popular customs of the Isthmus Zapotecs.

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