Aztec dancing as a way to show up for the community
We’re dancing out until one in the morning. after we've danced from ten in the morning to two in the - afternoon.Louie Gutierrez
You can hear drums from blocks away, but you have to get closer to see the many different dance troupes, each in their own matching indigenous regalia - complete with bright colored feathers. Today is the coming of age ceremony for a group of 5 Latina teenagers. They have colorful feathers on their wrists and crowns made of corn husks on their heads. They’re all wearing white knee-length dresses and standing in the middle of encircling Aztec dancers.
Chabela Sanchez has been dancing in events like this for 30 years.
“Really it is kind of an Aztec quinceñera,” Chabela Sanchez says. “Our girls run from ages thirteen to seventeen.”
In addition to being a cultural rite of passage, Chabela says today’s ceremony also celebrates both the corn harvest and the summer solstice. It’s one of many cultural milestones each year hosted not by a family or church but by an Aztec dance troupe. There are five known Aztec dance troupes in San Francisco.
Especially in the city's Mission District - these Aztec dance troupes play a huge role in community members’ lives. And for some Mexican-Americans, Aztec dancing helps them feel connected to their indigenous roots.
“You were born in these traditions and this is what's going to surround you to the day you die,” Chabela Sanchez says. “You will be surrounded by the ancestors and prayer in this way. So we're gonna bless you with the ceremony.”
For the dancers themselves, fulfilling this role is a big commitment. Sometimes Aztec dancers get called at a moment’s notice to support families going through other life events like when someone is born or someone dies. Dancer Louie Gutierrez says heartbroken families request spiritual services when they're going through pain.
“Last night somebody texted me that one of the kids that grew up here on the street died,” Louie Gutierrez says. “So they wanted to do a ritual for them, you know, burn some sage.” For a ceremony, dancers typically have to work about 24-34 hours. There’s even one annual event, a Catholic tribute to the Virgin Mary - where Louis and his dancemates dance the entire day, every December.
“And we’re dancing out until one in the morning,” Louie Gutierrez says. “After we've danced from ten in the morning to two in the - afternoon.”
Like other dancers, Louie shows up for these events and makes time to practice at least once per week even though he has a full time paid job – Louie runs the popular Mission Bakery, La Reyna. Dancers like Louie perform all these late night celebrations, day-long events and last minute rituals in their free time. Showing up for their community is an unpaid job.
Louie directs his dance group— it's called Danza Azteca Coyolxauqui.
A lot of the neighborhood events they attend have many Aztec Dance groups performing at the same time. Among them, Chabela Sanchez’s group, called Danza Azteca Xitlali, the group that hosted that coming of age ceremony.
“But we're not the same style,” Chabela Sanchez says. “But when we're in ceremony, we dance together as one.”
Despite dancers seeming like equals in a performance, Aztec dance groups themselves are organized in strict hierarchies. Here’s how it works: Each dance group has a sergeant. That sergeant reports to a regional captain. And the captains? They report to the highest ranking position in Aztec dance - an Aztec dance general. That person is usually someone living in México.
Chabela’s husband Roberto - also a longtime Aztec dancer - says the strict militaristic order of command helps everyone dance in unison.
Roberto Vargo says, “Danza represents the cosmos and the cosmos has an order.”
The Aztec dance higher ups – those Generals in Mexico –- they’re the ones who set the rules and tone on how dancing should be performed and which events dance troupes are allowed to participate in. And for a long time, Roberto says elders have shied away from participating in political events or protests. This is true for many reasons.
“They don't want to align themselves with politicos because somebody could be cool one day and the next day not cool,” Roberto Vargas says. “So you can't be affiliating with people who are wishy washy so it's sort of like the spiritual mission is more important than any political.” Another big reason why many Mexican dancers have avoided protests- historical violence that has been etched into their memory. “Over there, they have memories of once again people being killed for that,” Roberto Vargas says. “You risk your life standing up against the government.”
Roberto remembers a massacre in the days before the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico that eyewitnesses say left hundreds of protesters dead after government forces opened fire on them. The tragedy and its aftermathsolidified for many Mexicans that protesting the government could cost you your life.
On top of that there’s been violence against indigenous people – including dancers – since colonization.
“During the early years of bringing the danza out to the public,” Roberto Vargas says. “People will get attacked and jailed and killed for practicing these traditions.”
But Chabela says that in the US- unlike Mexico- , many dancers see performing as an inherently political act no matter where they are because they are reclaiming their indigenous cultural identity. And even at overtly political events, many local Aztec Dancers don’t have the same fear of repercussions for participating.
Chabela Sanchez says: “For the most part, I think a lot of the groups do participate in community social justice events.”
For many Bay Area Aztec dancers, showing up for these events is just another way to show up for their community. Overall, the rituals, practice and event hosting take a lot of time and energy commitment. Louie says dancing has helped him put his energy into a positive direction. It’s an integral part of his life - it impacts his desire for a healthier lifestyle and his spiritual journey.“As you get older in Danza,” says Louie Gutierrez. “You learn to not make it 'work.”'
Louie is always keeping an eye out for the next generation of dancers to carry on this tradition. He knows it may be a while for younger dancers to fully understand how important a role these performances play in the lives of community members… and also in the lives of dancers themselves. And as long as there is a Latino community in San Francisco’s Mission District and beyond, Chabela is confident that the powerful draw of Aztec Dancing will continue to conquer the hearts of future dancers.
And as long as there is a Latino community in San Francisco’s Mission District and beyond, Chabela is confident that the powerful draw of Aztec Dancing will continue to conquer the hearts of future dancers.
Sebastian Miño-Bucheli produced the piece, Shia Levitt edited the piece, Marissa Ortega-Welch helped with tracking, with sound engineering by Gabe Grabin.