This feature originally appeared in Songlines #142 (Nov 2018) p105. Download a pdf here.
Alexandra Petropoulos visits the capital of the Mexican state of Veracruz for a performing arts festival that hopes to fix the state’s tarnished reputation
The long state of Veracruz, which hugs the curve of Mexico’s Gulf Coast, is slowly picking itself back up after recent political corruption and turmoil. After being exposed in multiple scandals, the state’s governor Javier Duarte, who had been in office since 2010, resigned on October 12 2016 and fled the country. The crooked governor was arrested in Guatemala six months later and extradited back to Mexico in July 2017, charged with everything ranging from replacing chemotherapy drugs for children to stealing roughly £28 million of public funds.
“He was the most corrupt governor in Mexico, and that is saying a lot,” says Enrique Márquez Almazán, the director of Instituto Veracruzano de la Cultura and mastermind behind the state’s first arts showcase, Encuentro Estatal de las Artes, held in the capital Xalapa on August 23-26. Since Almazán took office in 2016 – which is part of the governor’s cabinet – he has been trying to re-establish Veracruz’s place as a cultural hub of Mexico. “We went through a really dark period of insecurity,” he explains. Reeling from drug violence and political corruption, especially during Duarte’s term, the state was in tatters and even though the region is rich in culture, Veracruz was losing its reputation as an arts destination. (The Hay Festival, which hosted a sister event in Xalapa, eventually moved out of the state four years ago, citing Duarte’s inaction over violence against journalists as the reason – 17 journalists were killed during his term.)
Referred to as the ‘Athens of Veracruz,’ Xalapa is an attractive city nestled in the centre of the state in the foothills of Sierra Madre Oriental mountains. The colourful colonial architecture, galleries, museums, parks and university tell the story of the culture hiding underneath the corruption and news. In an attempt to bring that culture back to the foreground, the Encuentro Estatal de las Artes, showcases 20 artists and companies across music, theatre and dance.
All performances are free. “That’s my policy, it’s what I believe in,” Almazán says, stressing Mexicans generally don’t have extra cash to indulge in the arts (only four per cent of the population make 13,000 pesos, roughly £530, or more a month). To him, culture is not an indulgence, but a necessity. This makes for an impressively well-attended first edition.
Perhaps even more impressive is that it was pulled off in only 12 months from initial inception. Almazán had the idea for the festival after being invited as a delegate to the British Council Showcase at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2017. “I had the best time talking to the artists and fellow delegates, and I thought this would be great to do in Veracruz.” He knew his state was home to a healthy arts scene, but that artists didn’t necessarily have the right resources or tools at their disposal. “There are not enough ways to showcase what we do.” And so, he dreamed up Encuentro Estatal de las Artes in an Edinburgh pub and remarkably brought it to fruition in a matter of months.
Across four days audiences are treated to theatre, dance and music that represents the wide diversity of the region. Musically, there is everything from early music to a new folk boy band. In fact, the desire to showcase the full extent of the region’s diversity leads to an uncomfortable performance by a folk-rock band who sing in an indigenous language, Nahuatl, but are not quite up to the task.
But the star of the weekend is son jarocho, the jewel in Veracruz’s musical crown. The music is characterised by the guitar-like jarana and requinto and is a fusion of Spanish, indigenous and African influences. Lyrics are often humorous, and the music is usually accompanied by a percussive dance. Groups like Recoveco and Macuiles are updating son jarocho with other influences including salsa and rock, while there were more traditional forms of the music from Los Hermanos Carrillo or the impressive dance performance of Vívelo.
Edgardo Bermejo, director of arts at the British Council Mexico, is satisfied that the festival’s first edition was a success but cautious about the event’s future. “It will be crucial for the state authorities to keep supporting this project for future editions,” he says, explaining that the new political party, elected this July, is due to take office in December. Although the president-elect, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is leftist, Mexico’s political system has proved volatile in the past. Terms last for six years and officials are only allowed to serve one term, meaning that incoming governments often scrap the work of the previous government for no reason other than power politics and a sense of ‘legacy.’ As the incumbent president is part of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, which has ruled Mexico more or less since 1929, there are great expectations for López Obrador’s left-wing coalition Juntos Haremos Historia, and how much change the country can expect to undergo is still to be seen.
However, Almazán, who will also be handing over his office in December, is hopeful. “Culture should not be so political. I hope the next government is good, does better than me and for the good of the culture keeps these types of programmes.”