Long ago, one of the weavers and our dear friend Marcos Bautista from Teotitlán invited us to his brother’s contentada, a Zapotec-style engagement party. Liz and I felt honored to have been extended an invitation and of course agreed, as we were going to be in Oaxaca at the time. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.
When we arrived at 7 AM there were already 100 people gathered in the canopied courtyard, which is usually a serene place with a few lazy dogs and some chickens running around. We took a seat as more guests filed in, and were promptly offered mezcal, the local alcohol made from agave. Since I can’t stomach mezcal even during normal drinking hours, I turned it down. Mostly everyone else took at least one small glass, as it’s a central part of all traditional Zapotec celebrations.
The purpose of the contentada is for the future groom’s family and friends to formally meet the that of the bride’s, and to present them with gifts. It begins with a procession comprised of the entire groom’s party, followed by a truck laden with gifts. The women each carried a five-foot candle decorated with metallic paper flowers. The candles towered over many of the women, especially the elderly ones, who tend to be quite short.
We walked all the way to the future bride’s house on the other side of the village, about a mile in total. When we arrived at the bride-to-be’s courtyard, which was much smaller than the groom’s, it was already occupied with about 100 members of the bride’s family and friends. We all crowded in regardless and another round of mezcal was had. The women lit the massive candles and then placed them before the ornate family altar, the likes of which can be found in every home in the village. Then the men brought in baskets of fruit and bread, piling them in a mountain in front of the lit candles.
By then it was 9 AM, and I was hoping for some of that fruit and bread to be served for breakfast. Instead, we formed two procession lines, organized by gender, and took turns greeting the family and friends of the future bride, and then blessed the gifts. An hour later tables were set up, which I thought universally meant food. At last we were seated, men segregated from the women, waiting for the first round of … more mezcal. Oof! Second round, more mezcal. Ugh. Third round, beer! Desperate as I was, I took one mostly for the liquid. Fourth round, another beer. Already feeling a little faint from one beer on an empty stomach, I turned it down. Finally, on the fifth round, giant platters of sweet egg-yolk bread and hot chocolate were served. I’ve never been so happy to see something edible! The sixth and final round consisted of giant crispy tortillas and a bowl of hot atole, which is corn flour mixed with water. I decided then and there that I really like atole.
We were supposed to go immediately back to the future groom’s house to continue the party, but Liz and I need a break and went to our hostel for a siesta. A while later, I wandered back to the party, just in time for lunch. Giant bowls of home-raised pork topped with spicy mole sauce, along with homemade tortillas, and of course, more mezcal. Thinking that the festivities must finally be coming to a close, I got up to leave, but Marcos quickly stop me. Where was I going?! There was still dinner to be had – and then music and dancing late into the night! Alas, this gringa did not have the stamina the Zapotec people seem to be blessed with, and I called it a night.
The next day we returned to Marcos’ house and much to our surprise, the party had continued into its second day. About 30 members of the family were eating bowls of chicharrón (fried pork rinds) with tortillas and salsa, and of course, more mezcal. We stayed for a a bit, and talked and laughed with them, watching the many kids and dogs running around. It was raining and the air was very fresh, and we felt like we had done our part, if somewhat abbreviated, to help celebrate the upcoming marriage.