OAXACA (AFP).- Aurelio Mendez has played the wooden chirimia flute, an instrument from pre-Hispanic days, for 40 years at Mexico's Guelaguetza festival, considered Latin America's biggest indigenous folklore and dance event.
The mustachioed 54-year-old musician is helping to keep local traditions alive in the annual festival held in the southern state of Oaxaca, home to one of Mexico's biggest indigenous populations.
"You can't lose everything," Mendez said, proud that more and more delegations from indigenous groups are joining the dance and cultural event every year.
Some 11,000 spectators attended Monday's music and dance performance in a circular amphitheater on a hill offering a picturesque view of the city of Oaxaca.
Fifteen ethnic communities take part in the annual festival, which mixes Roman Catholic and indigenous traditions. The event is also a chance to show off traditional crafts and foods.
The women dressed in the colorful Tehuana dresses that were made famous by Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.
Samantha Montano, 18, was proud to wear the flowery attire from the isthmus of Tehuantepec.
"It's a great feeling to be able to represent my community," Montano said.
The festival is held the two Mondays following the July 16 feast of the Virgin del Carmen. Before Catholicism was introduced, the festival was held to honor Centeotl, the corn goddess in the Zapotec language.
"This is an incredible festival. The dances and clothes are beautiful. It's a great experience," said Michael Gura, a 34-year-old US tourist from Arizona.
The current format began in 1932 but it divides people between those who see it as a showcase of Oaxacan traditions and others who deride it as a money-making masquerade.
Guelaguetza is a Zapotec word meaning "offerings that are given, gifts that are received."
"It serves to show the world part of our culture, our language and the views of our people," said Felipe Miguel, an indigenous education teacher who participates in the dance.
But Felipe said that many of his colleagues were unhappy with his participation.
"They call me a traitor, but I tell them that culture is very different from politics," he said.
Some 500 teachers tried but failed to block access to the venue on Monday to protest the event as well as demand pay raises.
Oaxaca, 470 kilometers (292 miles) south of Mexico City, is a state rife with social conflict.
In 2006, 13 people died in a revolt against then governor Ulises Ruiz that had started as a teachers' protest.
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