Taste authentic Mexican food and celebrate all things Oaxaca at Guelaguetza in the Garden!

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PHOENIX (Desert Botanical Garden) - The sounds, art and flavors of Oaxaca are coming to Desert Botanical Garden on Oct. 1-2, and it’s sure to be an incredible experience for the whole family.

It’s the celebration of Guelaguetza, a cultural festival that takes place every July in Oaxaca, Mexico.

“It’s the people of Oaxaca’s celebration of a bountiful harvest,” says Amber Salazar, the Garden’s assistant director of event services. “They celebrate by sharing music, traditional attire, cuisine and artistic wares, with each region coming to help pass on their traditions.”

Guelaguetza at Desert Botanical Garden

Sharing culture and traditions

It’s the first time the Garden is hosting a Guelaguetza.

“It’s an opportunity to share this culture and traditions with a wider community in the Valley who might not be familiar with them,” Amber says.

The event is organized by Elizabeth Hernandez and Ricardo Santiago, a mother-son duo from Oaxaca who moved to Phoenix from Los Angeles a few years ago. Throughout their time in the Valley, they discovered a sizeable Oaxacan community here.

July in Phoenix is not an ideal time for an outdoor festival like Guelaguetza, which is why Ricardo and Elizabeth shifted it to October.

“They thought it would be a fun opportunity not only to create a sense of home for the Oaxacan community here in Phoenix but also to connect the community by doing a version of the Guelaguetza festival,” Amber says.

Oaxaca is comprised of eight regions and home to 16 indigenous groups, each with its own language, customs and traditions. Guelaguetza, which means “offering” in Zapotec (a family of languages spoken in Oaxaca) and is generally understood to mean giving and receiving, highlights that diversity by showcasing customs, dances and music from each community.

Calendas, music and dancing!

Guelaguetza would not be the event it is without a calenda, a special parade of dances featuring men and women in traditional garb. There will be four calendas at the Garden, two each day. To describe a calenda as vibrant is an understatement. And it’s not something you simply sit back and watch. You get to be part of it!

“It’s the people of Oaxaca’s celebration of a bountiful harvest. They celebrate by sharing...
“It’s the people of Oaxaca’s celebration of a bountiful harvest. They celebrate by sharing music, traditional attire, cuisine and artistic wares, with each region coming to help pass on their traditions.”(Desert Botanical Garden)

“The calendas are going to be a ton of fun,” Amber says. “I think it’s an overall very colorful and joyful experience.”

In addition to the calendas, Guelaguetza at the Garden also features music by Lico Music Academy (catch a preview at Music in the Garden on Sept. 30), as well as a variety of performances throughout each day.

“We’ll see a day jam-packed full of music and dancing,” Amber said.

“Land of Seven Moles”

Oaxaca, a foodie’s dream, is known as the “Land of Seven Moles.” Mole comes from the Aztec word for sauce - molli or mulli. So, if you’re saying mole sauce, you’re being redundant. (Kind of like monsoon season.)

Mole is not your average sauce. There are dozens of varieties, all with different taste experiences. Yes, mole is an experience. It’s just one you happen to eat.

Some mole recipes call for as many as 30 ingredients, including, in many cases, chocolate. According to Taste of Home’s Hazel Wheaton, moles, some of which can take days to make, usually combine five types of flavors: Chilies, sour, sweet, spices, and thickeners, like breads, nuts or seeds. Everything is ground to a powder, which is then used to make a paste. That paste is combined with water or broth and then simmered down until it’s nice and thick. Good mole is not runny. The overall flavor is layered and complex. You might not even taste the chocolate that caught your attention a few sentences ago. (We saw your eyes light up.)

The food you can try at Guelaguetza will be as authentic as it gets. Elizabeth owns Las 15 Salsas a West Phoenix restaurant, which, as you might guess, specializes in the flavors of Oaxaca.

You can sample authentic Oaxacan food and beverages at Guelaguetza in the Garden.
You can sample authentic Oaxacan food and beverages at Guelaguetza in the Garden.(Desert Botanical Garden)

The beverages

And don’t forget to pair your meal with a Mexican staple agua fresca. It literally translates to fresh water in Spanish. It is water blended with fruit — lighter than fruit juice but more flavorful than infused water. Throw in some ice, a bit of sugar and maybe a splash of lime juice, and you have the ideal refreshing drink for a warm Phoenix fall day.

For the adults 21 and older, taste another Oaxacan specialty: Mezcal. Some people confuse mezcal and tequila, and they’re not entirely wrong. Tequila is a type of mezcal. So, all tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. Tequila is made from blue agave. And the methods for making it are pretty standard.

Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from any kind of agave. And there are hundreds of species. Just think of the combinations!

Mezcal is also created by hand by mescaleros who have different processes, like vintners. And much like two vintages from a single winery can have different flavors, mezcal can vary from year to year, even if the agave is from the same farm.

The art

No festival would be complete without art. The mercado at Guelaguetza will feature the work of six Oaxacan artists.

“Anything from textiles to pottery to basket-weaving, " Amber says. “It’s going to be a unique opportunity.”

Celebration of the past for the future

Guelaguetza is more than a celebration. It’s a community coming together to honor its cultural diversity by sharing everything that makes them unique. It’s ensuring that traditions of the past have a home in the future. And it will be fun. So much fun!

Can you think of a better way to spend a weekend?

Guelaguetza is included with a Garden membership and general admission.

When: Oct. 1-2, 12-6 p.m.

Guelaguetza at Desert Botanical Garden is Oct. 1-2.
Guelaguetza at Desert Botanical Garden is Oct. 1-2.(Desert Botanical Garden)
Desert Botanical Garden | 1201 N. Galvin Parkway, Phoenix