<Sandra Garner is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Comparative Studies, The Ohio State University>
This article explores the rapid growth of participation in Aztec dance in Mexico, the increasing transnational movement of Aztec dancers, and the mixed receptions experienced by dancers in their efforts to forge networks with indigenous communities on a global level. Examining a discourse of conquest that has been reinvigorated and re-circulated over centuries, I suggest that this may be thwarting Aztec dancers’ alliance-building efforts raising important questions about indigenous identity, appropriation, and insider/outsider status.
In contemporary central Mexico, Aztec dance is a common and publicly visible activity, an accepted part of the everyday social fabric of Mexican life. On any given evening dance troupes can be found practicing in public squares. During the weekend and holidays, dancers in full attire with headdresses of long pheasant and peacock feathers swirl to the rhythmic beat of the drum with the rigorous turns, dips, and steps of the dance. These ritual dances regularly occupy settings as diverse as weekend markets and ancient archaeological sites. The dances are so familiar to the public in central Mexico that even at large fiestas, such as the annual festival in Querétaro, which attracts ten thousand dancers and hundreds of thousands of onlookers, they receive little media attention.
These performances are not produced solely for tourist consumption. Participation in this revitalized indigenous religious practice is growing rapidly. While estimates from the 1940s suggest that approximately 5,000 people in Mexico City were practitioners, by the 1990s this number had increased to ten to fifteen thousand in the city and an estimated 50,000 dancers in the valley of Mexico (Rostas 1991:11, 17 and Vento 1994:59). Mexican scholar Yolotl González Torres calls Aztec dance a “restoration movement” that is intended “to revive an idealized form of Mexica culture”—a sort of “neotribalism” (1996:11). The danza is a mix of performativity, religious practice, and reclamations of an indigenous past; a socio-political-religious movement that holds considerable appeal for the Mexican imaginary.
My initial introduction to Aztec dance took place not in Mexico, but at the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in south-central South Dakota in the summer of 1992. It was here that I first met Duende Verde, a young, self-proclaimed Aztec dancer, at an annual Sun Dance ceremony. Over the next fourteen years, he returned again and again to South Dakota. We watched his family grow to include a companion and three children, two of whom were born at a Sun Dance. His participation was tentative at first. He began by observing, and eventually he participated as a dancer in the ritual. Over the years, he also brought increasing numbers of Aztec dancers to this northern plains American Indian ritual. In 2000, in honor of the new millennium, members of La Mesa de Tradición de la Virgen de la Soledad performed la danza during the rest breaks of a Sun Dance. The dance was performed inside the Sun Dance arena at the request of the Lakota Sun Dance Chief. Duende Verde’s presence at the small South Dakota Sun Dance reflects a much larger movement of Aztec dancers who regularly cross national borders to share their dance and to participate in Native North American rituals.
In the U.S., although Aztec dance has a long history of practice in the southwest, dance troupes are emerging in larger metropolitan areas, such as Minneapolis and Philadelphia. This is particularly the case in areas where there are substantial Chicano and/or Mexican immigrant communities. Dancers from Mexico frequently visit these destinations. The dance is becoming more publicly visible as well and it is frequently performed both at American Indian events such as ceremonies and powwows and at multi-cultural festivals across the country. Aztec dancers in Mexico not only travel north; they are also making inroads in Europe and Asia. For the most part, these are temporary border crossings made for the purpose of performance, not settlement. Further, Aztec dancers in Mexico invite and attract the participation of spiritual leaders from around the world. For example, Arvol Looking Horse, a Lakota spiritual leader and the keeper of the sacred pipe, and the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, have both traveled to Mexico to engage in religious rituals with the leaders and participants of Aztec dance.
What are we to make of the rapid growth of both participation in Aztec dance in Mexico and these frequent border crossings? In Transforming Modernity: Popular Culture in Mexico, Néstor García Canclini argues that while tourist brochures may market Mexican people as particularly spiritual, in practice “belief is subsiding” and popular culture is becoming increasingly secularized as a result of modernity (97). In his analysis, the remaining vestiges of the ritual “serve as a means of communication and symbolic production around a relationship to the unknown that social development has commercialized but has not been able to replace.” (96) The claims of Aztec dancers tell another narrative, one of spiritual renewal. Participants claim that the dance practice is necessary to create harmony between man and nature “by moving certain natural forces” (Shank 1974:58). Does the tremendous growth in the number of practitioners indicate a growing belief in the spiritual instead of in the rituals described by García Canclini as “empty of meaning”?
Theorist Linda Bosniak observes that “cross-border relationships have always existed, but their intensity has accelerated to the point that most of us are embedded, irremediably, in various fields of interaction that traverse national borders” (2006:6). Bosniak points not only to goods, services, and information, but also to people and religions. In this era of globalization it is not surprising that Aztec dance and dancers are circulating with greater frequency on the international scene. Broadly, the transnational goings and comings of these dancers are determined by a perception that particular cultural groups will be receptive to the dance and/or spiritual ideology. One group includes enclaves of people of Mexican heritage that are interested in the actual dance practice. Other groups are targeted as they are perceived as sympathetic and potential allies, groups involved with similarly centered spiritual practices and/or those who share a common history of oppression. Most common among these are indigenous peoples from around the world.
These forays raise a number of interesting questions. How are we to think about the increase in Aztec dance participation? What is the purpose of the transnational movement? How successful are these alliance-building efforts on a practical, local level? How much cultural capital is transferable under the rubric of indigenous identity? In other words, does this claim afford one entry into and access to the ritual and practices of other indigenous peoples? Does the Aztec dancers’ participation in North American Indian ceremony and their efforts to take these rituals back to Mexico complicate the ways we think about appropriation? Is this eclectic mix of spiritual interests indicative of a “new age” sort of practice?
In this project, I rely on two ethnographic accounts: one from the 1940s by Martha Stone, an American living in Mexico who participated in the dance for over 25 years; the other is from contemporary dancer Inés Hernández-Ávila, a Chicana, Nez Perce scholar from Texas who began participating in 1979. My personal interactions with dancers (danzantes) are accumulated over fourteen years of brief yet intense engagement at annual Sun Dances in South Dakota, as well as a one-month trip to Mexico during which I traveled with dancers from La Mesa de Tradición de la Virgen de la Soledad.
I begin with a description and contextualization of the dance practice in Mexico. In today’s Mexico, the dance and its practitioners are shaped by a specific history and discourse about conquest, mestizaje, nationalism, and the recurring circulation of particular symbols and practices. Knowledge of this history and discourse contributes to an understanding of why and how dance participation in Mexico and transnational exchanges are growing. It also provides insight into why Aztec dancers often experience a mixed reception. In the second part of the essay, I examine specific instances of border crossings. Dance participants consider the 1989 ritual led by the Dalai Lama, the 2007 ritual led by Arvol Looking Horse (both at Teotihuacán), and the growing numbers of visitors coming to Mexico to participate as examples of the successful result of their comings and goings. Other interactions, such as the ejection of Aztec dancers from a Sun Dance in South Dakota in 2007, the appropriation of Native North American rituals by an Aztec spiritual leader at a gathering of indigenous spiritual leaders in 1997, and contestation over the presence of Aztec dancers at the UN Indigenous Day activities, point to the problematic aspects of these alliance-building efforts.
La danza de la conquista, The Dance of Conquest
One of the first things that my host Duende Verde said when I arrived in Mexico was that he was happy his conquest had finally been successful. Finding this statement odd, I asked for clarification. He explained that he had traveled to the Sun Dances in South Dakota for many years in order to initiate an obligation of reciprocity. In his Aztec dance practice, networks between communities are established when participants from one community travel to another community to participate in the dance. The host community is then obliged to travel to the visitor’s community to participate in their dance. These exchanges occur frequently and establish large networks of alliances between dance groups. Duende Verde referred to this exchange as conquest.
The discourse of conquest has been associated with the history of Mexico since Spanish conquerors first read the words of the Requerimiento, a document outlining the justification of their invasion, to the indigenous inhabitants they encountered. Conquest, both as ideology and practice, is central to the historical narrative of Mexico. Subjugation was required not only on a physical, political, and economic register, but conquest, as articulated in the Requerimiento, was specifically related to religion. This declaration of the Catholic Church drew its charge and legitimacy from a sacred genealogy. The King and Queen of Spain and the Pope were designated as the final human authorities on earth because they were the chosen descendants of the one true God, creator of “Heaven and Earth” (Rubios:1510). Declaring the land to be under divine dominion, the conquerors expected all its inhabitants to surrender without resistance to this supremacy.
Yet, a strong argument can be made that the concept of conquest was not introduced by the Spanish. In Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire, historian of religions Davíd Carrasco outlines a 1500-year history of engagement with the mythic figure of Quetzalcóatl/Kukulcán, “the supernatural source for legitimating of military activity and the institutions of warfare” by at least three distinct cultural groups (2000:143). Quetzalcóatl/Kukulcán was central to numerous civilization centers, establishing a lengthy historic engagement of indigenous peoples with the “God of War” prior to the arrival of the Spanish.
The prominence of the Quetzalcóatl figure in Aztec society has figured significantly in the narrative of the Spanish conquest. One school of thought links the defeat of the Aztec empire with the Aztec belief that Cortés was the mythic figure Quetzalcóatl returned.1 Carrasco argues that this perspective does not give enough weight to the “insight that the conquest of Tenochtitlán was less a conquest than it was a revolt of dominated peoples.”2 Indigenous peoples who had been conquered by the Aztec joined forces with the Spanish in order to overthrow their oppressors.
Carrasco also argues that the recurring circulation of symbols such as Quetzalcóatl/Kukulcán points to a Mesoamerican practice of improvisation, innovation, and adaptation. This practice provides a lens for thinking about Aztec dance and the way that its practice today has been shaped both by the Spanish conquest and modernity. A great deal of evidence from central Mexican archaeological sites suggests that the practice of dance, like the recurring symbol of Quetzalcóatl/Kukulcán, had circulated across multiple cultures for centuries as well. The earliest ethnographic accounts of Aztec dance come from Bernal Díaz del Castillo, historian and member of Hernán Cortés’ earliest campaign, who describes, for example, the ritual dances the Aztecs performed for Moctezuma (Carrasco 2000:214). Evidence from the Díaz del Castillo chronicle The Conquest of Mexico further suggests that Aztec dance was an important cultural expression at the time of conquest. While there would be little debate regarding the importance of these dances over a significant period of time prior to the Spanish conquest, scholars do not agree about either the impact of conquest on these practices or how today’s practices relate to those of the pre-Columbian era.
Many scholars, such as Yolotl González Torres, argue that the practices of the pre-conquest period were wiped out as a result of the conquest. She writes that “the organized religion of the Mexica State and its astronomical, mathematical and historical knowledge disappeared” and the contemporary presence of these dance rituals is the result of a “revival of the spiritual values of the ancient Mexican culture” (1996:5) in response to “deep transformation[s] in Mexican society” over the last thirty years (1996:3). For González Torres, the contemporary dance practice does not demonstrate a continuity of practice; it is a relatively recent phenomenon, a response to modernity.
Other scholars advance the idea that there are core elements of the dance—discourses, symbols, and practices—that have a pre-conquest origin (Kurath 1946:387, Correa 2000:436). A number of mythologized historical events occurring during the decades immediately following the conquest, ethnographic accounts from the colonial period, and the revitalization of the practice during tumultuous historical eras (such as the War of Independence, the Mexican Revolution, and the social movements of the 1960s) suggest that Aztec ritual dance was never fully eradicated. Rather, practices and symbols were revitalized and recirculated via the processes of adaptation, innovation, and improvisation.
Certainly, the most famous of the mytho-historical accounts is the narrative of the appearance of la Virgen de Guadalupe to Juan Diego, an indigenous man, in December of 1531. This indigenized Mary figure has become not only the symbolic icon of the nation of Mexico, but “the popular Queen of the Americas” (Dunnington: 1997:8). The yearly December 12th festival at the Basilica of Guadalupe draws contemporary Aztec dancers as one of their annual pilgrimage sites. Another event that is less well known outside of Mexico is the battle of Calderón Pass, which also occurred in 1531. This event is associated with the naming of Aztec dance as “the dance of conquest” and was identified by one dance group that I visited in Mexico as the origins of their dance lineage. A number of scholars (Correa 2000:439, Rostas 2000:12, and Taylor 2005) offer descriptions of this battle between the Christianized and pagan Indians. González Torres provides this narrative:
[A]t sunset there were still no victors or vanquished. Before the sun went down the horizon, darkness fell, and on high, in heaven a white and shining cross appeared, and at its side the apostle Santiago riding on a white horse. Astonished to see such wonder the combatants put down their arms and between embraces, they made a peace covenant and to the shout of ‘[É]l es dios’ (He is God), the Indians recognized the Christian cross as a symbol of their new faith, performing a dance as a proof of their veneration…(1996:20)
Since then, these dances have been called “dances of conquest.”3 475 years later, the September 14th date of the battle is commemorated by a popular annual festival in Querétaro that draws huge numbers of dancers and Mexican spectators.
A strong anti-Hispanic sentiment arose during the Mexican War of Independence (1810-1821). During this period there was a significant movement focused on the retrieval of a pre-conquest past. For example, during this period the popular “Indian-Aztec” lodge of the Rites of York, a Masonic organization was founded (González Torres 1996:5). Later, a distinct Mexican national identity coalesced during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) when political leaders mobilized the concept of la raza cósmica (the cosmic race). Characteristic of this Mexican nationalism was the revitalization of an indigenous past, pride in the new mixed race (the mestizo), and a glorification of the culture’s spiritual basis (Morris 1991:371). It is clear from works such as José Vasconcelos’ La Raza Cosmica (1925) that revolutionary nationalists did not wish to recuperate Mexico’s indigeneity; rather, the mestizo was identified as a member of a new race destined to create a new civilization that would reflect the racial and spiritual uniqueness of the Mexican people. Combined with the earlier agenda of La Reforma under the guidance of Benito Juárez (the only indigenous national to serve as President of Mexico) during which the power of the Catholic Church was severely curtailed and the boundaries between the civic and religious were remapped, indigeneity was seen as foundational to yet distanced from Mexican nationalism. González Torres describes this as a “schizophrenic situation” that “persists to the present” (1996:7). During this era, dance performances were promoted and some dance troupes were financially supported by the government. By the mid-twentieth century, the rituals of la danza were frequently noted by scholars such as ethnochoreologist/musicologist Gertrude Prokosch Kurath, who observed that “[t]here are few Fiestas in Central Mexico without at least one group [of Aztec dancers]” (1946:387).
This broad array of evidence strongly suggests that the dance was never completely stamped out. This does not mean, however, that the practice remained unchanged. Each of these historical moments shaped and influenced the practice, each marking the dance in a unique way. Semblances of these influences can be seen in the variety of dance troupes and styles exhibited by contemporary practitioners. For example, the dancers I visited made a distinction between concheros, whom they also referred to as traditionals, and the culturales (or culturals). For them, the concheros/traditionals practice is closely associated with Catholic Church. The use of the concha (a guitar-like instrument introduced by the Spanish) and dance regalia modeled on monk’s robes (though more brightly colored) point to the influence of Spanish Catholicism on post conquest expressions. Yet, the dancers consider the knowledge transmitted by these practitioners to be “traditional,” most closely resembling that of the pre-conquest era. The culturales or the “Mexica” (Rostas 1991) are associated with those who are reclaiming pre-conquest Aztec cultural practices (such as the regalia and use of the drum) that had been suppressed by the Spanish. But, critiques have been made that reclamation has, in some cases, become reinvention and that these groups are not always “traditional.”
Scholar González Torres identifies three different groups within the practice: the Movimiento Confederado Restaurador de Anáhuac (MCRA), la Tradición, and the Reginos (1996:8). She links the MCRA to governmental projects of the 1920-1930s designed to create a Mexican national identity. She notes that many of the group’s public activities were sponsored by the government; such projects were also described in detail by Kurath (1946) and Stone (1975). This group is characterized by their particular disdain for the Spanish and among their projects of reclamation is the revitalization of the Nahuatl language. González Torres sees these groups as deeply implicated in the Mexican national project. She describes members of la Tradicion as concheros and, like my informants, claims they “have a very old tradition.” (1996:20) Finally, González Torres links the third style, the Reginos, to author Antonio Velasco Piña whose novels, in particular Regina (1987), are tremendously popular in Mexico. In these novels the protagonist Regina is born in Mexico but travels to Tibet as a child to learn “esoteric matters” and practices which she eventually brings back to Mexico. Her function, like that of the Reginos, is to open the spiritual puertos (ports/doors) around the valley of Mexico in order to usher in the era when Mexico will take its rightful place as the spiritual center of the world (González Torres 1996:24).
During my travels, none of these distinctions were as clear as they are described either by participants or scholars. One dance troupe under the direction of Captain Xochiyaocuiatl (Xóchitl) was described to me by numerous informants as exemplary of the conchero/traditional practice. Yet, the members of the group speak of concepts associated with the MCRA and are building an altar at the foot of the Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhualt mountains outside of Amecameca, the birthplace of Regina. Their efforts focus on opening the spiritual puertos at this location. Prior to groundbreaking at the Amecameca site, Xóchitl spent a decade leading dance ceremonies at Teotihuacán “to open puertos” (doors/ports) of spiritual energy as described in the Regina narratives.
Xóchitl’s story also provides insight into the lives of many of the people who are involved in the practice. Her name comes from Nahautl, the language of the Aztec. A retired school psychologist, she is well-educated, multi-lingual, and from a middle class background. She does not claim an indigenous identity, but self-identifies as mestiza. She frequently traverses the U.S.-Mexican border and participates in Native American rituals (including the Sun Dance) during her visits. While she consciously rejects aspects of capitalism, particularly the personal accumulation of goods and money, as part of her devotion to the practice, she does engage in the market economy. She accepts invitations to the U.S. to speak about and demonstrate the dance, but she is also likely to be found cooking in a small Mexican restaurant owned by a family member in Texas. These diverse labors financially support the building of the spiritual center and altar at Amecameca and reflect the transnational movement of spiritual ideologies and practices. Although centered in the Aztec dance practice, the spiritual center houses two sweat lodges and the main altar includes icons of Aztec, Lakota, Hindu, and Tibetan origins. Xóchitl claims the dance practice is a “way of life” and that all of her efforts are devoted to the practice and to her deeply held belief in the power of the sacred.
The Dance, Embodied Knowledge:
Conquest as Submission, Domination, and Reciprocity
While this brief contextualization of Aztec dance points to a continuity of practice across centuries and cultures marked by conquest, mestizo identity, and nationalism, further examination of the dance and its related practices is necessary to identify recurring symbols and practices. Scholars such as Deirdre Sklar argue that “embodied knowledge is as important as verbal knowledge in cultural communication” (1999:17). She notes the way that “[s]oma [body] and symbol weave together and act as mnemonics for each other in the emergent process of performance” and suggests that “[s]oma cannot be separated from symbol without robbing that meaning of power” (1999:18-19). In this section I look to the important intersection between the embodied or somatic practice and symbology of Aztec dance.
The ritual of the dance begins with the establishment of a center in the form of an altar. Sacred items and offerings (such as bread, fruit, and flowers) are smudged with the smoke of burning copal and symbolically offered to the four cardinal directions - east, west, north, and south - before being placed on the altar. Once the altar has been set, dancers move into a formation of concentric circles facing the altar. A dance leader moves to the west of the altar and begins a sequence of dance steps during which he/she approaches the altar and retreats several times and marks the four directions, again east, west, north, and south, by first the right and then the left foot. This opening sequence is performed at the beginning of each dance. The leader then moves into a series of steps for a particular dance and the other dancers follow the movement. A dance may last from several minutes to as long as twenty to thirty minutes. Several general observations can be made. First, each sequence consists of a series of two dance patterns, first danced in one direction, then repeated in the opposite direction to make a series of four sets of movement. Each dance is concluded by a repetition of the opening dance sequence. The leader then passes a rattle to another leader in the group who begins yet another dance. This sequence of events repeats until the leaders determine that the dance is concluded, at which time the dancers circle around the altar, share words with each other, and partake of the offerings that have been divided among them.
The four directions and the circle are potent and related symbols repeatedly enacted during the dance and its associated practices. Scholars and practitioners note that symbols of the four directions and the cross are virtually identical. They also suggest that this similarity facilitated the adaptation of the Aztec symbol of the four directions to the Catholic symbol of the cross. Taylor argues that the sign of the cross and its overlay with the four directions is central to the “cultural landscape” of indigenous people in central Mexico. He also relates the symbol to the concept of conquest and observes that it “is treated as a gift from God with which to conquer his enemies” (2005:967). This interpretation is supported by the circulating discourse of mythologized historical events such as the battle of Calderón Pass (see page 9).
Hernández-Ávila relates the symbol of the concentric circles to one of the primary functions of the dance, the “reintegration of the self and a reintegration of the self in relation to the community and to the cosmos” (2005:360). On an individual level, the dance functions as a vehicle for a dancer to attain a transcendent state. Scholar Susanna Rostas suggest that “metaphorically it is a battle for inner ascendancy” (1991:11-12). Dancers frequently discuss the ways that their participation teaches them to sublimate their crass human desires and weaknesses to a spiritual power. Hernández-Ávila considers self-discipline as central to the practice and relates this to its name, la danza de conquista, which she says refers to the conquest of the lower self via a personal sacrifice to the dance (2005:370). This notion of discipline also shapes the relationship between the self and the community.
The formation of dancers in concentric circles is an example of what dance theorist Jane Desmond calls “kinesthetic semiotics” (1997:33). Desmond notes that the movement of dance not only “signals group affiliation”, but the arrangement of bodies is also a “physical embodiment of [the] social structures” of the group (1997:35-36). In la danza, participation in the dance identifies the individual dancer as a member of a particular group referred to as a mesa. Each mesa carries a flag or banner (estandarte) that documents the name of the mesa and their particular genealogy, history, and patron saint and/or Aztec deity as well as the underpinning philosophy of the dance practice: “Conquista, Conformidad, Unión” (conquest, conformity, and union).
Each mesa maintains a rigid hierarchy that is articulated in militaristic terms to identify the chain of command. The general is the highest ranking person within the group and has final authority. This position is predominately a hereditary one, transmitted from father to eldest son. A general may in fact oversee a number of mesas in a loosely formed confederation where captains oversee the practices of individual mesas. Generally, captains earn their position as a result of extensive experience and commitment to the practice. They are expected to have extensive knowledge about the songs, dances, rituals, and spiritual meaning. Sergeants also earn their rank as a result of experience and their task is to maintain discipline within the group. The remaining dancers are referred to as “soldiers of the light.” The physical location of a dancer’s body during the dance in this arrangement of concentric circles reflects their position within the hierarchy. Those closest to the center and altar are individuals who have achieved a high ranking within the mesa, while those furthest from the center are the lower ranking members.
According to Hernández-Ávila’s model, the reintegration of the individual within the cosmos is the final set of relationships evoked by the embodied practice of the dance. A central claim of the dancers is that the ritual opens doors of energy fields whereby communication with “other levels of the cosmovision” can take place (Correa 2000:449). Not only does the dance embody a specific symbology linking the movements to particular life cycles, deities, and stories, but the movements of the body are claimed to unleash a particular energy which is necessary for the continuation of the cycles of life (González Torres 1996:12). It is this understanding of the purpose of the dance that motivates efforts to build networks of relations between mesas and the complex of ritual pilgrimages undertaken by dancers throughout the year.
The annual festival at Querétaro commemorating the 1531 battle at Calderón Pass is an excellent example of the success the dance practice has achieved in building networks of relationships within Mexico. As a result of what Hernández-Ávila calls a “system of mutualismo” (2005:369) or the practice that my host Duende Verde referred to as “conquest,” the numbers of dancers drawn to this festival is staggering. I attended this festival in 2006 as an invited guest of a Chichimeca general, Don Manuel Rodríguez, one of the primary sponsors of the event. Rodríguez traces the lineage of his confederation of mesas to the 1531 battle and identifies their patron saint as none other than the apostle Santiago, whose apparition during the battle caused the indigenous people to lay down their arms. Santiago is also identified as the patron saint of both the conquest and the dance (González Torres 1996:23).
The ritual began at midnight on September twelfth with an all night vigil (velorio). During the night, dancers arrived, many of whom were from mesas engaging in this reciprocal understanding of conquest, and they were formally introduced to Don Rodríguez. This introductory ritual consisted of groups approaching and kneeling before the General, awaiting recognition. A speaker for each group related the genealogy and lineage of the group and asked for permission to participate, ritually putting the group under the authority of the General. Gifts that the group brought, such as candles, fruit, fresh flowers, and breads, were offered while the General’s women ritual leaders smudged the group with copal. Permission to enter the dance was granted when the General offered the dancers a coded handshake, a clasping of hands around the thumbs as each kissed the other’s hand, sealing their mutual obligation.
Throughout the night, alabanzas (songs of praise) were sung to the accompaniment of the concha while offerings were made for the ritual. The primary offering, which was constructed throughout the night, was a large cross approximately 8 feet wide and 25 feet tall covered with xotol cactus leaves called cucharilla, loaves of bread, flowers, and fresh fruit. The proceedings were solemn and, although there was personal conversation as dancers greeted each other and caught up on the latest news, the attention was focused on the songs and offerings. At dawn the dancers retired for a short rest.
On the morning of the 12th, the dancers reconvened and moved into a processional formation in order to carry the main offering, the cross, to the local church. This early weekday morning processional drew a considerable crowd of spectators and the local police stopped traffic on the major city thoroughfares so the dancers could cross the streets without becoming separated. The square in front of the church was also filled with spectators, including local school groups. Upon arrival, the cross was blessed with holy water by the parish priests and raised in front of the church.
That evening the dancers, dressed in full regalia, gathered for a grand procession throughout the streets of downtown Querétaro. It was only during the evening procession that I began to grasp the number of dancers involved in this ritual fiesta. Previously, I had only had contact with the confederation I was visiting and was unaware that many other federations were simultaneously participating in similar rituals. When arriving at the designated meeting point where the evening march began, I was overwhelmed by the number of dancers, whose appearance was credited to the networks of conquest.
What appeared to be chaos was actually a well-organized event, as different confederations had pre-arranged meeting and assembling points. As the procession got underway the confederations and mesas danced in their groups, one after another. This configuration formed a line, 5-8 persons abreast, that was over a mile long. Each group was lead by mesa leaders who were charged with performing a variety of spiritual functions that involved opening, moving, and purifying the energy. Like the embodied hierarchy reflected in the concentric circles of the dance, the procession likewise is conveying information about the hierarchy of the group.
The number of people that lined the route of the procession was larger still. As the participants weaved throughout the city streets, spectators armed with cameras and videocameras jumped out of the crowd to take pictures. The procession lasted about 3 ½ hours and ended at the main church and zócalo (square), where the crosses had been raised earlier in the day. Each group finished by literally dancing into and through the church. Participants explained to me that this was a symbolic act of re-conquest: the dancers were taking back power from the Catholic Church.
The following two days were spent in dance. Many mesas filled the square, spilling over onto side streets and alleys. From early morning until late at night, confederations conducted their individual ritual dances in multiplicity. The succession of dances lasted for many hours before dancers took a short break, after which they resumed dancing again. A processional routine was followed every time a mesa entered or left the square, always including the reconquest of the church. The ritual concluded on the 14th as priests offered a special mass for the dancers.
Of the many festivals that dancers attend, five hold particular significance. These comprise a ritual complex of pilgrimages to specific sacred sites undertaken by dancers each year. The participation of dancers at these festivals is not the result of networks built through the process of reciprocity as described at Querétaro. Rather, participation in these events is the result of individual pledges known as promesas. Dancers are not the only participants of these pilgrimages as they coincide with very popular Catholic religious commemorations. The dancers are only a portion of a larger Mexican public who participate. These significant pilgrimage sites include: Amecameca during Lent, Chalma, associated with Pentecost; Tlatelolco in Mexico City; Naucalpan, the site of Our Lady of Los Remedios; and the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe during the December 12th commemoration of her appearance. These sites form a symbolic circle around the valley of Mexico, mapping a sacred geography of a past and future spiritual center of the world by marking the center and four directions. Dancers articulate their participation as the re-conquest. Their reclamation, even if temporarily, of these sacred sites imbued with meaning is a source of empowerment.
The first pilgrimage of the year is to “El Señor de Sacromonte” (Christ of the Sacred Mountain) in Amecameca on the eastern side of the valley of Mexico. It occurs in February and is associated with Ash Wednesday and Lent. On top of the “Holy Mountain” (Sacromonte) is a small church that houses a Christ image and the belongings of Fray Martín de Valencia, a famous Franciscan friar and one of the first priests to arrive in the area. These belongings are claimed to possess miraculous powers. The church is built upon an important Aztec site, a cave that is associated with the Aztec deity, Tlaloc (González-Torres 1999:7).
The second pilgrimage takes place in late May or early June and is associated with Pentecost. The destination is the site of the Christ of Chalma and it is related to the southern point of the sacred pilgrimage cross. This site was once an Aztec cave where the Otomí lord Oztocteate was worshipped. The image of this deity was reputed to have magical healing powers, but during the 1530s it was destroyed and in its place appeared a cross with a black Christ. The numbers of people participating in this pilgrimage are exceeded only by those to the Basilica de Guadalupe.
After setting the first two directions, on July 25th and 26th the dancers make their pilgrimage to the center, Tlatelolco, which at one time was the site of the great market of Tenochtitlán and today stands in the center of Mexico City. It is historically important as the site of two massacres. The final assault Hernán Cortés mounted on the Aztec began with a seven-month siege of the capital city during which water and food supplies to the population were cut off. In August, Cortés and his troops entered the city, razing it section by section. The final stand at Tenochtitlán was made under the direction of the Aztec ruler Cuauhtémoc in the district of Tlatelolco, where an estimated forty thousand Aztecs were killed. As such, Tlatelolco is associated with the final mass violence of Spanish conquest. 447 years later, Tlatelolco was the site of yet another massacre. In the 1960s, student demonstrations erupted in Mexico City in reaction to worsening economic conditions. Ten days before the 1968 Olympics were scheduled to begin, police and militia entered the square at Tlatelolco and opened fire on the demonstrators, killing 300 and wounding many more. And, like the other pilgrimage sites, one of the oldest Catholic churches (whose patron saint is Santiago) was built on the Aztec sacred site dedicated to Xipe Toltec, known as “the ancient Sacred Being Who Accepts the Sacrifices of the Flesh” (Hernández-Ávila, 2005:371).
The fourth pilgrimage, which goes to the sanctuary of Our Lady of Los Remedios, occurs on September 10th. This site is built on a hill in Naucalpan, now a suburb of Mexico City, on the western side of the valley. This is the first pilgrimage site that honors an icon of the feminine, the Virgin of Remedies. It is associated with another historical event from the period of the Spanish conquest. One year before the fall of Tenochtitlán, the Spanish were driven from the city on the night of July of 1520, referred to as La Noche Triste, “The Sad Night.” The myth tells how the Spanish were saved that night because of the aid given by the Virgin. But, her small wooden image was lost on the hill that night. It was found a decade later by an indigenous man, Juan Ce Cuautli. There are numerous miracles associated with the discovery of this icon. A hermitage was built for her in 1550. González-Torres notes that her image was frequently taken to Mexico City during the 17th century to be displayed during processions. She observes that for centuries this Virgin was as popular, if not more so, as Guadalupe (1999:8). This symbol began losing some of its appeal during the War of Independence because the Spanish, nicknaming her La Conquistadora, took the image and carried her into battle for protection.
The final pilgrimage of the year takes place on December 12th and coincides with the national Mexican holiday honoring “Our Lady of Guadalupe.” The famous Basilica located on northern side of the valley of Mexico marks the site of the apparition Guadalupe, which is also associated with the Aztec worship of Tonantzin, the earth goddess (Stone 1975:25).
Scholar Edith Turner identifies a number of characteristics that contribute the “spiritual magnetism of a pilgrimage center” (2005:7146). These include: sacred images, miracles of healing, sites of apparitions and locations of historically significant events. Considering these characteristics, the sites venerated by the Aztec dance pilgrimage complex are particularly potent and compelling. The images, miracles, apparitions, and significant events that circulate in regards to each site are important not only in Aztec cosmology, but Catholic cosmology as well. For example, each is a site where Spanish conquistadors built a church on top of an important Aztec site, a fact that “the concheros are very aware of” (Rostas 1991:6). Meanings are layered and interwoven over centuries and across cultures. As such, these sites have both “a Catholic and indigenous signification” (Hernández-Ávila 2005:371). Each time a dance occurs at one of these sacred sites, participants consider this reclamation a re-conquest of the site, even if it is temporary.
The discourse of conquest permeates the Aztec dance practice and operates in multiple registers: as domination, submission, and reciprocity. This thread of thought circulates via the stories (such as the mytho-historical narratives) and symbols (such as the cross and circle) that successfully connect pre-conquest Aztec practices and symbols with the experience of the Spanish conquest, the nation-state of Mexico, the present, and the future. It shapes the individual’s relationship with the self, others within the community, those outside the community, and the cosmos. These are the sensibilities that shape dancers’ forays across national borders.
Transnational Movements and Mixed Receptions
Participants in the dance clearly conceptualize the spiritual as an arena of power and their participation in the dance is understood as a mechanism to both facilitate and consolidate this power. Analyzing these practices during the colonial period, Taylor notes that “[t]he travels of these images and of people to their shrines were meant to broadcast sacred energy from its dwelling places as well as to concentrate it there” (2005: 968). According to Carrasco, Mexico as the spiritual center of the world is a recurring “millennial theme” that has both Aztec and Spanish origins (2000). It is this narrative that motivates the majority of transnational movements by dancers. For the most part, these dancers are not engaged in a missionizing project. Their primary concern is to build networks of relationships that draw spiritual practitioners to Mexico to engage in ritual and ceremony, thus consolidating and broadcasting spiritual power from there. Secondary to this concern is a desire to learn the ritual practices of others in order to refine and augment their own practice. The others in this regard are groups that dancers believe carry ancient knowledge and wisdom similar to their own, such as Native North Americans and Tibetans.
In many cases Aztec dancers consider the results of their efforts as extremely successful. For example, on July 3, 1989 the Dalai Lama led a ritual at the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán at the request of dance leaders, who claim that the purpose of the ceremony was to open a spiritual door at that location. In 1992, Tibetan monks conducted a similar ritual in Mexico City which was attended by more than 40,000 people (González Torres 1996:25). As evidenced by the popularity of the “Regina” novels, the Tibetan connection is particularly appealing to the dancers and these rituals are considered very important.
Numerous Native North American spiritual leaders have also conducted ceremonies in Mexico. Among these is the Lakota spiritual leader Arvol Looking Horse, who has traveled to Mexico on a number of occasions. In 1996, Looking Horse began World Peace and Prayer Day in order to pray for peace and healing for the earth, and each year on the summer solstice people come together to participate in this ceremony at sacred sites around the world. Each year Looking Horse travels to one of these locations to personally conduct the ceremony. Since its inception, many Aztec dancers (among others) have flocked to sacred sites in Mexico, in particular Teotihuacán, in order to conduct simultaneous ritual with Looking Horse. This year on June 21, 2007, Looking Horse conducted the World Peace and Prayer Day ceremonies at Teotihuacán in response to invitations from dance leaders.
On what basis are the networks of relationships initiated and built? As noted earlier, my first introduction to Aztec dance took place when Duende Verde appeared at a Sun Dance in South Dakota in 1992. He cited the significance of this date, marking the 500 year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in “the New World,” as a primary motivation for his transnational visit. For Duende Verde, similar histories of oppression shared by his people and the indigenous people of North America provided a basis upon which an alliance could be built. He was quick to draw attention to the correspondences between Lakota and Aztec ritual practices and symbols. Both were ancient practices transmitted via oral traditions that were expressed through dance, song, and the drum. The symbols of the four directions and the circle were central to both practices. The practices of smudging, the making of offerings, the centrality of the sun, and the sacrifice and discipline necessary to these spiritual practices were referenced as similarities that could not be discounted. As such, in his estimation these commonalities became the basis for his entrée into the world of Lakota ritual.
Duende Verde also claimed that another factor influencing his decision to journey to South Dakota was to learn whether or not the practice of Sun Dance in Mexico had remained true to the Lakota practice. Twenty years earlier, a Lakota Chief and spiritual leader, Leonard Crow Dog, traveled to Mexico and conducted a Sun Dance there. Since that time, numerous Aztec dancers had been participating in the ritual and the one Sun Dance had grown and splintered into five annual dances.
The period of the early 1970s, when Crow Dog first traveled to Mexico to conduct the Sun Dance, was an important time for indigenous movements in the Americas because the emergence of new social movements was bringing issues of marginalized groups to the attention of the general public (Omi and Winant 1994:4). A prominent feature of these social movements was the centrality of identity politics. Hernández-Ávila, herself a Chicana participant in the dance, links the rise of interest in Aztec dance in the U.S. to the rise of the Chicano/a movement during the same years. She argues that the appeal of the dance was that it offered the Chicano/a “a mirror in which to see themselves connected to the north and the south, a reflection that allowed them to emerge from a categorical mestizaje to find their indigenous faces and hearts” (2005:365). Scholars such as González Torres (1996), Rostas (1991), and Vento (1994) also point to this particular time as one of change in la danza whereby participation in the dance reflected an effort to assert an indigenous identity.
Large numbers of the Chicano/a participants that Hernández-Ávila writes about travel to Mexico and many have taken up the dance, resulting in a tremendous growth of mesas in the U.S. The 1993 film about the dance, The Eagle’s Children, documents this transnational movement. In one segment filmed during the activities associated with the pilgrimage to Chalma, the seminal figure General Felipe Aranda is shown speaking to the dancers of his confederation, La Mesa de Tradición de la Virgen de la Soledad.4 He explains:
Our gathering here at this shrine of Chalma is an inheritance left by our ancestors. They came here to fulfill the obligation which you are now learning. They taught us the pilgrimage to this shrine to venerate the great Lord of Chalma. As their children, or as their relations, we make this pilgrimage to remember their customs. We do not know how and when these customs began. We can only speak with certainty of things since the birth of General Don Florencio Gutierrez and myself. We are pleased that Captain Don Andres Segura is teaching you our traditions in the United States - distant places which we do not know. That is all I came to say. I take my leave of you, praying that our conquering souls of the four winds will illuminate you so that some day you will be given the Truth here at the shrine of Chalma. I wish you luck, and good spirits, and health, so that your group, and other groups in those lands which once were Mexico, will continue to grow, so that one day we may see with our own eyes, before we close them, the fruits of your labor in those sacred lands where our brothers also live. He is god, my brothers. [sic]5
Aranda’s speech alludes to a sacred duty, a task that the dancers are meant to fulfill, one that will impact not only their personal lives but the energies of the cosmos as well. His acknowledgement of the captain Andrés Segura recognizes the transnational movement of the dance between Mexico and the U.S. He alludes to Catholic practices and discourse while signaling a connection to a distant past that pre-dates conquest. He calls into being a future when Mexico will re-emerge as the spiritual center of the world.
While Aranda does not make any claims about indigenous identity, it is clear that it is the basis for initiating many of the transnational networks. And this, as scholars such as Hernández-Ávila point out, is the source of much of the dance’s appeal. González Torres argues that many dancers are consciously constructing an indigenous identity for themselves “although they are so neither by religion nor race” (1996:5). Alliances built under the rubric of indigeneity often experience fissures as the ambiguity of the dancers’ status as indigenous gets called into question.
While the mestizo identity of the majority of the participants in la danza suggests an indigenous ancestry, it also draws attention to their non-Native lineage. The development of Mexicans’ mestizo national identity was a rejection of both aspects of this heritage in favor of the new cosmic race. As such, dancers are often rejected by members of contemporary indigenous communities who consider identity a matter of cultural affiliation and biological descent. For example, Sylvia Escárcega describes tense relations resulting from the presence of Aztec dancers at the United Nations’ indigenous people conference. One group that regularly attends is a dance mesa whose members have lived in Europe since the mid 1990s seeking the return of Moctezuma’s headdress to Mexico. She describes the reaction of other Mexican indigenous representatives:
They discretely laugh about their claims and question their reasons to struggle and for staying in Europe…They criticize them for the images of the Mexican indigenous peoples portrayed, their use of indigenous arts and knowledge, and their lifestyle, but moreover, for the object of their struggle: Moctezuma’s headdress instead of democracy and social justice. The concheros are not allowed to participate in the festivities to celebrate the UN Indigenous Day during the meetings…They do not have legitimate claims in the views of many,…because they do not come from any actual indigenous community (Escárcega 2003:13-14).
According to Escárcega they are only grudgingly accepted on the peripheries of the global indigenous movement seeking collective human rights and justice. They are considered mestizos who enjoy a position of dominant hegemony in Mexico and there is a strong sentiment that they are intruding by making claims to the limited resources that “authentic” indigenous people are struggling to obtain. These criticisms suggest that there is a line of thought that views the participation of many in Aztec dance as a form of spiritual appropriation.
During my work on this article, a dance contact from Mexico sent me the link to an on-line video Fire on the Mountain which has only recently been released. This film documents the 1997 gathering of indigenous spiritual leaders that took place at the Karma Ling Buddhist monastery in the French Alps. For ten days, “shamans from five continents” performed their rituals for one another and discussed their “common concerns.” The event had been organized to coincide with a visit from the Dalai Lama. The final day of the event included an interfaith ceremony with representatives from the world’s dominant religions, the Dalai Lama, and the indigenous leaders (Cherniak 2006).
The interactions and communications that took place at this gathering are representative of a particular indigenous discourse that has emerged during this era of globalization and transnational movement. Each group expressed concerns about the future of their respective cultures, which they perceived as jeopardized by an increasingly modern world where they continue to be marginalized and oppressed. Shared concerns about the future based on a history of oppression and violence served to create a potent bond of affinity. This counter-discourse emerged as a corrective to dominant cultural ideologies and practices and it is intensified by a perception that their beliefs, symbols, and practices have much in common. These are sentiments that are similar to those expressed by Duende Verde and numerous other Aztec dancers during trips to South Dakota.
Watching the film, I focused on Tlakaelel, the representative Mexican shaman, because I had heard his name on more than one occasion in relation to la danza. In the film, Tlakaelel is identified as Tolteca Chichimeca. In the film he speaks about the arrival of the Europeans 500 years earlier and the way that the culture of his people and their way of life was drastically altered by this arrival. They were, he says, “cruel with our forefathers.” They imposed their own Christian religion while calling the practices of the indigenous inhabitants savage and ignorant. But, there was always resistance. The words of this interview are superimposed as Tlakaelel performs his ceremony. But, the ceremony that he conducts is not la danza or any other ritual indigenous to Mexico. The ritual is a Lakota pipe ceremony, accompanied by a Lakota four directions song (Cherniak 2006:21:59). Later in the film when Tlakaelel conducts yet another ceremony, it too is Lakota in origin and involves a perfectly replicated Lakota altar. Anyone watching this film that is unfamiliar with Lakota ceremony would rightfully make the assumption that the ritual was of indigenous Mexican origin.
I admit that I was taken aback by what I considered to be a particularly serious example of spiritual appropriation. I wrote my friend Lisa who had sent me the link to the video and include her reply as written:
-hmmm, so funny i say the exact same thing to ollinka (my mexican boyfriend) yesterday too.....-about the Lakota songs etc. -but i can tell you (so it will make more sense;-):
-Tlakaelel, who smoke the Pibe is a Mexican Sundancer (and he along with Christino, the son of Don Faustino whos our Grandfather at the Sacred Mountain) brought back many Sundances near mexico city (also the one we have at the Sacred Mountain) -and Christino was send by his father to the Lakota people in Arizona for many years when he was around 15 years old (he´s 43 i think today) -so we and the mexican in the movie have adopted many Lakota ways (the Pibe etc.) -eventhough the Aztecas (Mexicas) used Pibes too. -so all sundancers in mexico (who i know of get a Pibe when they have danced 4 years)
one Sundance before the one we had in the Mountain this july needed singers, so many sundancers from our group (and me) went and sing Lakota Sundance songs to help them out...-so more and more mexicans sing Lakota songs. -so its "normal" i guess:-) -and nice for Wanbli too;-)
-only one sundance in mexico i hear of want to only have Mexica (Nahuatl language) songs....
-well, there seemed to be 3 different North American tribes pressent in the meeting: (-Mohawk i remeber) so i thought that these 3 had made an agreement to share their ceremony in Lakota language as to unify the 3 and i also thought that maybe Lakota was the most spoken language of all tribes and that was why??? -maybe u or Wanbli knows if that could be the case!!! -but it was very nice video/meeting and i hope they´ll continue the work to unify the natural people of the world so they stand stronger!!!! [sic]6
I noticed this appropriation of Lakota ceremony frequently while I was in Mexico. Numerous elders and high ranking members of la danza had sweat lodges and conducted stylized Lakota sweat rituals. The majority of the dancers that I met had either participated in the Lakota-style Sun Dances held in Mexico or had traveled to the U.S. to participate in various Lakota Sun Dances held throughout the west and southwest. To return to Carrasco’s description of the Mesoamerican penchant for improvisation, innovation, and adaptation, Lisa’s email conveys the sentiment that the adoption of the practices of others is normal and natural. There is no understanding that it may be problematic and evoke resentment from the people whose practices are being appropriated.
In spite of Aztec dancers’ claims of commonality and embrace of Lakota ritual, they are not always welcomed with open arms when arriving at Lakota ceremonies in South Dakota. At one Sun Dance I attended during the summer of 2006, tensions that had been mounting for several years surrounding Aztec dancers’ participation in the ritual erupted. When Duende Verde arrived, his companion had gone into premature labor triggered by the grueling overland trip from Mexico City to South Dakota. Five years earlier she had given birth to their first child at another Sun Dance and she was determined to repeat her experience. The Aztec dancers viewed the imminent arrival of a newborn on sacred ground as a particularly auspicious sign. However, a strong faction of the participants at the Sun Dance did not hold the same opinion. Throughout the day with the baby fast approaching, numerous dancers came to the camp and alternately cajoled and threatened the group. They wanted the group to leave. A local midwife with over twenty years of experience refused to help with the birth. The Lakota participants called the local hospital and asked that an ambulance be sent to the grounds to take the woman to the hospital, which she refused. Things settled down when the majority of Sun Dancers left the grounds for the Sun Dance tree. While they were gone, a healthy baby boy was born. Those of us who had known this family for years hoped that the drama had passed. However, this was not the case.
The next morning, the first day of the Sun Dance, the medicine man who is in his 80s and is in deteriorating health was too weak to leave his house. As the first round of dancing began without him, a number of people entered the camp of the Aztec dancers and forcibly removed the still-recovering mother, newborn child, and her other children from the camp. It was explained that the spilling of blood on the grounds (as a result of the birth) had made the medicine man ill. Upon hearing that his companion and children had been removed, Duende Verde and several other dancers quit the dance and left the grounds. They were horrified that they had offended the Lakota people. In reality, for years there had been a strong and vocal segment of participants in the Lakota ritual that looked on the Aztec dancers as outsiders and intruders, a sentiment that the Aztec dancers had not recognized.
Manuel Vásquez, a scholar of religion and social change, argues that in spite of analytic projections that globalization would result in religion becoming less important, in fact religion and religious practices are growing and becoming more public. Particularly noticeable are what he calls the “little religions,” practices that are “lived extra-institutionally” and are “very embodied and very much all about the senses.” According to Vásquez the “little religions” have a transformative power because the practitioner feels empowered by the practice (2007). This is an apt description of the Aztec dance practice and it helps explain the growth of the practice within Mexico. All of the dancers with whom I have spoken referred to the sense of strength and purpose that they receive as a result of their practice. Aspects of the practice that are articulated through the multiple meanings of conquest, such as discipline, commitment, sacrifice, and submission to authorities within the practice and the cosmos, are perceived as practical guidelines for negotiating the travails of life as well as providing a model for dancers’ relationship to others and the cosmos.
In contrast to García Canclini’s view of Mexicans’ diminishing spirituality, these practitioners are very invested in their belief that the practice has spiritual impact. This line of thought enjoys a lengthy genealogy that can be traced not only to the pre-conquest Aztecs, but to their predecessors in the Mesoamerican landscape, as well. These rituals are considered necessary not only to maintain balance and harmony in the world, but for the continuation of life itself. The symbolic production and circulation of this spiritual ideology has been consistently renewed over millennia and mobilized during eras of significant change and great social transformations (i.e. the Spanish conquest and the Mexican revolution).
Although Aztec dance remains a marginal practice in Mexico, it serves the Mexican imaginary as a reminder of their indigenous past. This heritage, as Hernández-Ávila observes, is perceived as heart-centered in contrast to the intellectually-centered traditions of the West (2005:365). Her comparison illuminates the way that the practice functions as a counter-hegemonic agent. The preponderance of mythologized historical accounts from the decades following the fall of Tenochtitlán, which are re-circulated via the practice, suggests that the negotiations of cultural change as a result of the Spanish conquest are still in flux. And declarations of reclaiming sacred sites once important to Mesoamerican cosmology and conquered by the Spanish Catholic conquistadors points to a shifting, revisionist historical narrative. While at one time the Spanish conquest was considered complete, Aztec dancers show that this is not so, and their acts of reconquest generate a new sense of agency. Today, scholars discuss the way that Catholicism has been indigenized in Mexico, not the ways in which Mexico has been catholicized. The descendants of the Aztecs and other indigenous people have left their indelible mark on this “major world religion.” The dominance of institutional Catholicism in Mexico is expected to become further destabilized as charismatic religious practices such as Pentecostalism grown in popularity (Vásquez 2007). Indigenous-based practices such as Aztec dance have contributed significantly to this movement.
While the future for Aztec dance in Mexico is bright, forays into the transnational scene have been met with mixed responses. The purpose of these global movements is to build a strong network of spiritual practitioners who will open and consolidate the spiritual power centers in Mexico. These border crossings have been particularly successful with prominent spiritual leaders such as the Dalai Lama and Arvol Looking Horse who are open to interfaith dialogue and practice. They have also been successful in Chicano/a communities across the globe. In these cases, the practice becomes a vehicle for the immigrant community members to express their identity. However, the reception received in indigenous communities at a local level has been mixed and often tense.
While claims of commonality are based on shared histories of oppression and marginalization as well as similar spiritual practices and symbols, they are not always strong enough to over-ride a sense of outsider status. In Europe at the United Nations’ indigenous peoples’ conference, indigenous representatives from Mexico identify Aztec dancers as mestizo and as members of the dominant class in Mexico. These accusations spread transnationally and are carried back to Native North American communities. Another factor is that Native North American people, particularly the Lakota, are currently experiencing a great deal of tension over the issue of who can and can not participate in ritual practices. Often, Aztec dancer claims of commonality are not strong enough to override the sense that they are outsiders. Further, the practice of adopting and improvising the ritual practices of others, such as the Lakota, does not help their outsider status. Native scholars such as Andrea Smith argue that “[t]he assumption that Native knowledge is for the taking” is yet another example of cultural genocide (2005:123).
The ideology of conquest that permeates the Aztec dance practice suggests that the transnational movement of dancers is not likely to end any time soon. Although this year (2007) Aztec dancers stayed away from the Sun Dance where Duende Verde’s family was removed in 2006, they are already making plans to bring another larger group next year. Vásquez predicts that the growing Hispanic population is going to change the face of religion in America. While he is speaking about change for the dominant Christian practices, the growing transnationalism of indigenized practices such as Aztec dance suggests that the face of Native North American religious practices will be changing as well.
Field research for this article was made possible by the Tinker Foundation Field Research Grant administered by the Center for Latin American Studies at The Ohio State University. My gratitude goes to Duende Verde, his family, and Xóchitl, who opened up their homes and lives for my extended stay. Special thanks go Sydney Hutchinson, Joyce Bishop, and Katey Borland for their valuable comments and editorial assistance which have greatly contributed to this work.
1. See Davíd Carrasco (2000) for a close discussion of this debate, particularly “When Strangers Come to Town” in Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire pp. 205-240.
2. Carrasco (2000) credits scholar Ralph Beal with this insight, 224.
3. González Torres (1996) is citing Gómez Pérez citing Manuel M. de la Mata, p. 20.
4. This is the same mesa that I traveled with during my visit to Mexico. Aranda passed away several years after this filming and his son Cuahtémoc, is now the general of the group.
5. The translation of the text is available on the film producer’s web-site at http://www.docfilm.com/mexfilms/tec/TECTEXT.htm. See The Eagle’s Children.
6. In order to clarify some of the references of the email: Pibe refers to the sacred Pipe which is frequently associated with the Lakota people, but is used by numerous other Native North American tribal groups in their ritual practices. She also refers to Wanbli a Lakota Sun Dance leader and ceremonial singer whom we both know.
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Figures Figure 1. Aztec dancers and hosts at the Black Hills Sun Dance, July 2000.
Figure 2. Raising the Cross at Querétaro, September 2006.