There aren't many opportunities in Utah outside his own home for Jeronimo Bazan-Alavez to speak his native Zapoteco — an Indigenous language whose dialects are spoken in southwestern Mexico.

But Saturday morning, Bazan-Alavez spoke in Zapoteco as he welcomed dozens of people to La Guelaguetza — an annual celebration of the Indigenous cultures and traditions from each of the eight regions in Oaxaca, Mexico. The nonprofit Oaxaca en Utah has organized bigger and grander annual Guelaguetza celebrations since 2020.

This year was the first time Bazan-Alavez spoke Zapoteco in front of so many people. Although he speaks the language daily with his wife, who is from the same town in Oaxaca, and his children, he uses Spanish and a little English to communicate with everyone else.

"I'm very proud to speak this language," he said in Spanish. "There is a new generation of people who are still conserving it, who still speak it. But unfortunately, it's already disappearing because the younger generation doesn't want to speak it, or the parents don't want to teach it to their kids, or they're ashamed to speak it."

"It's important to conserve it because it's our culture, our roots," he continued.

It's that pride and drive to conserve the culture that is visible throughout the Guelaguetza, from the wide variety of gastronomy options and artisanal items to traditional dances, larger-than-life paper-mache figures and "toritos," fireworks shaped like "little bulls."

"The Guelaguetza, as you all know, is a festival that unites us as Mexicans and where we share our rich culture and celebrate our identity," Mexican Consul Eduardo Baca Cuenca said in Spanish. "The Guelaguetza is more than a party; it's a moment in which we connect with our roots and preserve our traditions. Through the music and the dances and the gastronomy, we remember the importance of our Indigenous communities."

Ramón Ramos assembles large figurines at La Guelaguetza at Heritage Park in Kaysville on Saturday.
Ramón Ramos assembles large figurines at La Guelaguetza at Heritage Park in Kaysville on Saturday. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Maribel Maldonado, president of Oaxaca en Utah, moved to the U.S. from Oaxaca over two decades ago. But she's made sure to pass down the culture to her now adult children, whether that's cooking traditional foods like mole amarillo, performing Oaxacan dances or sharing the Guelaguetza with Utah.

"There wasn't a Guelaguetza here, although it has been celebrated in other states," she said in Spanish. "This year, specifically, a lot of Americans got involved. ...There are Mexicans and Hispanics here, but also a lot of Americans — and that's really beautiful."

Oaxaca en Utah founder Norma Carver agreed. "I'm very proud to be Oaxaqueña," she said in Spanish, adding that her favorite part of the celebration is "the people."

For 17-year-old Daniela Lopez Alonso, being involved with Oaxaca en Utah has allowed her to stay connected to her Oaxacan heritage despite growing up in Utah.

"Where I grew up, there wasn't anybody besides my own family that was from Oaxaca. So we were a little closed off from everybody. Just getting to know more people from the same region as me, people that look like me — it's really inspiring. You could say it just makes me happy," she said. "My favorite part is just being able to spread our culture and show that we're so diverse just inside of the state of Oaxaca."

Left to right, Paloma Jensen and Lizette Villegas have their photo taken at La Guelaguetza at Heritage Park in Kaysville on Saturday.
Left to right, Paloma Jensen and Lizette Villegas have their photo taken at La Guelaguetza at Heritage Park in Kaysville on Saturday. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Angelina Suniga, who runs a gourmet ice pop business with her mother, said although the Oaxacan community in Utah is small, she hopes the Guelaguetza will allow more people to enjoy the culture.

"There's not a lot of us, so for our culture to be celebrated is really nice," she said. "Not a lot of people know about Oaxaca, and I feel like when people know about this place, they're interested to know more just about the culture and the food."

That appears to be the case with Silvestre Gutierrez. Although Gutierrez is originally from Mexico, he has never been to Oaxaca. However, he said the Guelaguetza is a good opportunity to learn more about Mexico's Indigenous culture and heritage.

"This is one of the most practical ways to introduce people to the culture," he said in Spanish. "Unfortunately, I'm from Mexico but I'm not as familiar with Mexico. I'm more familiar with the U.S. than my own country. I think this is a good way to bring us closer to the native cultures of Mexico."