Otomi Dominguez, a 62-year-old Los Angeles handyman, remembers the first time he and a few fellow Oaxacan immigrants gathered at Normandie Park near downtown to celebrate the Guelaguetza, a huge July dance festival in their home state in Mexico.
"It was casual, pueblo-style," Dominguez said.
That was in 1972. On Sunday, Dominguez joined about 10,000 Oaxacans and others who filled the Los Angeles Sports Arena for what has grown into a popular local version of the Mexican celebration.
Spectators wore traditional clothing from their hometowns: men in white trousers with red bandanas around their necks, women in intricate gold-embroidered dresses of black velvet and white cotton. Parents dressed their children in mini versions of the garb.
"Oaxaca is a very unique state in terms of food, culture, history, geography," said Ruben Beltran, the Mexican consul general in Los Angeles. "The seven different ethnic groups make one group, and they are united for the Guelaguetza. It's important for all Mexicans, not just Oaxacans, because the message is unity in diversity."
The Mexican festival is rooted in a centuries-old summer gathering in which people from all regions of Oaxaca state gather outside Oaxaca city to share their produce and wares. Over time it turned into a cherished cultural exchange, which today draws tourists from around the world to witness what many consider an impressive show of indigenous Mexican culture.
The L.A. version featured a brass band and youth troupes performing traditional Oaxacan dances. Outside the arena, lines of people snaked around food stalls selling everything from tlayulas, huge tostadas with black beans and stringy Oaxacan cheese, to seven versions of Oaxacan mole, a thick and spicy sauce.
Other stalls sold Oaxacan coffee, bread, fruit juices, books, magazines, videos, clothing and mezcal, the spirit some call tequila's tougher cousin.
Many who attended said they felt temporarily transplanted to their native state. "I'm far from my country, my home state, Oaxaca; here I get to see my culture, the food, the clothing," said Dalia Martinez, 30, a seamstress who wore gold earrings and an ornate dress her family in Tehuatepec sent her specifically for Sunday's event. "It's important we keep these traditions alive."
The festival was organized by the Federacion Oaxaquena, the regional Oaxacan group that's part of a consortium representing the local populations of Mexico's 31 states.
Ties with Oaxaca are so strong in Los Angeles, group officials said, that Oaxacan Gov. Jose Murat has attended the last five local Guelaguetzas.
Backstage, members of Grupo Folklorico Monte Alban, a Oaxacan dance troupe from Anaheim, ruffled their dresses and secured their hats and huarache sandals.
Taron Morris, a 17-year-old Buena Park High School student, was one of a handful of dancers who were not of Mexican ancestry. He said a Mexican American friend turned him on to Oaxacan dance.
"I'm learning a lot, what each step means, what the clothes represent," he said.