The guelaguetza, a traditional form of sharing in Oaxaca, has crossed the border north into San Diego County, California, and become an annual festival for the Zapotec immigrant community. Over 5,000 people, including a reporter for the North County Times, attended the 11th annual Guelaguetza celebration held on the campus of California State University San Marcos a few weeks ago. It was organized by the Coalition of Indigenous Communities of Oaxaca and a Chicano student group.

The reporter observes that the celebration, including music, dance, foods, arts and crafts from Oaxaca, serves as a cultural anchor for the Zapotec residents of the county. “We like to come because it’s music from our culture,” according to one San Marcos resident. The festival also introduces others, such as the reporter, to the culture of that section of southern Mexico.

The reporter tried to gain an understanding of what the Guelaguetza festival was all about. However, a spokesperson for the festival declined to explain what it meant. “You can’t define Guelaguetza. You really have to know what it means to completely understand it,” the spokesperson told her.

So the reporter talked to others in the crowd to figure out what it all means. “In essence, the term Guelaguetza is of Zapotec … origin and refers to giving and receiving. It encourages people of different regions to share among themselves,” she learns. She describes how performers during the festival threw small gifts, food items in a basket, to people in the crowd. Her feel-good conclusion to her story is to hope that “we’ll all remember to share and give to others of what we have plenty.”

Sharing and gifting among the Zapotec is a bit more complex than the reporter realizes. Ralph L. Beals, in a 1970 journal article, “Gifting, Reciprocity, Savings, and Credit in Peasant Oaxaca,” describes in some detail the nature of giving among the Zapotec. The article has no trouble explaining terms related to giving.

Beals defines “gifting” as the free giving of gifts, either goods or services, without any expectation of their being returned. The Zapotec give gifts, usually food, in a relatively spontaneous form of gifting. The single ethnographer, he observes, receives gifts spontaneously. The workman in the field may be invited to share the meal brought out to another worker by his wife, the little old lady who peddles vegetables and fruits from door to door may be given tortillas by people who have bought nothing from her, and strangers passing by may be given gifts of small objects or fruit.

Despite the lack of expectation of reciprocal gifts, in fact there is often something given in return for this kind of gifting, though it is not calculated. The return may be a favor sometime in the future, some of the receiver’s time, or good feelings and continuing informal social relationships. Gifting is an expression of friendliness, and repayment—in some way at an unspecified time in the future—will keep the friendship going.

“Ritual gifting,” according to Beals, is a much more formal type of giving, still without expectation of return, that occurs in ritual relationships such as between godparents and godchildren. The contrast with spontaneous gifting is that the occasions and the natures of the gifts are specified by tradition, and a failure to meet those cultural stipulations of ritual gifting would be a serious breech of social standards that could lead to anger and hostility.

“Guelaguetza” are quite formal, ritualized exchanges among the Zapotec—the opposite of gifting. Those ritual exchanges include both labor and goods, and detailed accounting is kept of the exact value of the goods and the precise amount of labor given. Records of the guelaguetza gifts are kept for decades so that they can be correctly balanced out by reciprocal gifts, which must be returned in value and kind, with cash used to make up any differences.

These guelaguetza gifts could be better described as interest-free loans, and the giver views the “gifts” as a type of savings which can be retrieved on demand. Guelaguetza contributions are requested of relatives primarily. When they are requested from non-relatives, guelaguetza exchanges do not involve any expectations of special social relationships, and there is no implication of friendship.

Rereading Beals, it is no wonder that the spokesperson for the festival demurred in trying to explain the concept to the reporter. Better to let her gather her own good feelings of generosity among the Zapotec than to confuse her with the complexities of freely given gifts, ritualized gifts, and carefully calculated reciprocity.