Citation
Dancing in the street

Material Information

Title:
Dancing in the street danza Azteca as cultural revitalization and spiritual liberation for Chicanos
Creator:
Guerrero, Raquel Hernandez
Place of Publication:
[S.l
Publisher:
s.n.]
Publication Date:
Language:
English
Physical Description:
ix, 228 p. : ; 28 cm.

Thesis/Dissertation Information

Degree:
Master's ( Master of Humanities)
Degree Grantor:
University of Colorado Denver
Degree Divisions:
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, CU Denver
Degree Disciplines:
Humanities

Subjects

Subjects / Keywords:
Aztec dance ( lcsh )
Mexican Americans -- Dance ( lcsh )
Group identity ( lcsh )
Genre:
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )

Notes

Thesis:
Thesis (M.H.)--University of Colorado Denver, 2010.
Bibliography:
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 221-228).
General Note:
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Statement of Responsibility:
by Raquel Hernandez Guerrero.

Record Information

Source Institution:
|University of Colorado Denver
Holding Location:
Auraria Library
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
825218763 ( OCLC )
ocn825218763

Full Text
DANCING IN THE STREET:
DANZA AZTECA AS CULTURAL REVITALIZATION
AND SPIRITUAL LIBERATION FOR CHICANOS
by
Raquel Hernandez Guerrero
B.A., University of Colorado Denver, 2003
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Humanities
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
2010


2010 by Raquel Hernandez Guerrero
All rights reserved.


This thesis for the
Master of Humanities degree by
Raquel Hernandez Guerrero
has been approved by
Robert Carlsen
Sharon Coggan
Date


Guerrero, Raquel Hernandez (Master of Humanities, College of Liberal Arts and
Sciences)
Dancing in the Street: Danza Azteca as Cultural Revitalization and Spiritual
Liberation for Chicanos
Thesis directed by Associate Professor Christopher Beekman
ABSTRACT
This paper explores present-day manifestations of Mesoamerican forms of
dance and its relationship to the formation of Chicano spiritual identity.
Contemporary Danza Azteca has its roots in the pre-Colombian ceremonial and
fi I?*
public dance tradition that was an integral part of the religious, political, and military
foundation of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. After the Spanish Conquest,
Catholicism was forced upon the indigenous survivors and Native forms of religious
expression, including dance, were banned. The survivors came up with ingenious
ways by which to preserve their spiritual traditions by incorporating Native dance and
song into Catholic ceremonies and services. After 500 years, the result was a
transculturative-syncretic fusion of indigenous and Catholic belief systems expressed
through ancient forms of indigenous dance that resulted in what became known as the
Conchero tradition in Mexico. In the 1960s and 70s, Danza Azteca began to assume


popularity among politicized Chicano communities and was transformed into a
performative and spiritual tradition that nurtured both the political and spiritual needs
of a community concerned with gaining civil rights and respect, as well as serving as
a revivalistic- revitalization movement for Chicanos. For many Chicanos, this was a
newfound expression of cultural pride and the reclamation of long-suppressed or
forgotten histories. Today, Danza is moving forward in new directions and the future
of this ancient tradition is continuing to unfurl in fascinating ways. It is a testament to
the primary role of spiritual traditions in the creation of post-colonial identities and
how they continue to be created for modem colonized populations.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis.
I recommend its publication.
Signed
Christopher


DEDICATION
I dedicate this thesis to my husband John Semple, for his unyielding love,
boundless support, and passionate heart. To our unborn child; little one
I hope danza Azteca moves you to discover the beauty of your ancestors.
I also dedicate this thesis to my mother and father, Juanita Hernandez & Andres Guerrero,
whose passion for knowledge and intellectual liberation have always inspired me.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
Many thanks to Christopher Beekman for all of his helpful insights, suggestions, and
patience in working with me on this project. A special thanks to Robert Carlsen for
believing in me many years ago and who did so much to shape my academic path and
theoretical foundations.
Many thanks to my mother for her helpful insights and translation abilities. Many
thanks to my father for imparting the wisdom of liberation theology. A big thank you
to both my parents for instilling a pride in Chicano culture and beauty and for
reminding me what it means to be a Chicana.
Warm thanks also to Rachel Harding and Sandra Allen for giving me the opportunity
to guest-lecture in their classes which really helped my thesis evolve. Additional
thanks for their helpful recommendations and stimulating conversations.
Loving thanks to my husband John Semple for his assistance in the editing and
formatting of this thesis as well as for his commitment to keeping me focused and
grounded. I would not have finished this without you; many besos.
Finally, Id like to thank all the danzantes who were willing to share their knowledge,
wisdom and always inspire me with the brilliance of danza; it will be a pleasure to
continue to leam from and dance with all of you, my danza familia.


TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER
1. INTRODUCTION AND BRIEF OVERVIEW OF SUBJECT......................1
Theoretical Considerations......................................4
Vulnerable Methods............................................7
Unfolding Danza Azteca.......................................19
2. HISTORY OF DANZA: MESOAMERICAN ROOTS AND CATHOLIC
INFILTRATIONS..................................................23
Dancing in the Streets...of Tenochtitlan.....................23
Mexica Performance After the Spanish Conquest................38
Nahua-Catholic Hybridization.................................40
The Concheros, Children of la Virgen.........................58
Conchero and Mexica Styles...................................63
Danza, the Conquest, and the Centuries.......................66
3. SOY CHICANO, SOYDANZANTE: DANZA CHICANA.......................68
Danza Azteca and Its Introduction to Chicanos................68
Danza as Political Expression................................73
The Aztlan Homeland..........................................75
Aztec Imagery and Romanticization............................78
Danzantes and Gendered Imagery...............................81
viii


Mexicanidad and Chicanismo: Indigineity and Cultural Pride....82
Conquest and Ritualized Violence in the Aztec State...........84
Aztecs: Fallen Warriors.......................................94
Reclamation of Indigenous Identity as Necessary Process.......98
4. CONTEMPORARY DESCRIPTIONS OF DANZA AZTEC A CULTURE ....121
Palabras, Hierophanies, and the Construction of Sacred Space.121
The Dances: Meaning in Movement..............................136
The Mechanics of the Dance...................................142
Regalia......................................................149
Dances in Danza..............................................150
Ceremonies and Dates.........................................154
Rites of Passage.............................................157
Spirituality and Commitment..................................158
Changes in Meaning...........................................161
5. DANCE AS REVITALIZATION AND MYTHIC IMAGININGS..................164
Duality, Contradictions, and Continuity......................164
Revitalization Movements.....................................170
Chicano Danza as Revitalization Movement.....................178
Danza in Illo Tempore........................................188
6. CONCLUSION.....................................................192
ENDNOTES.............................................................196
BIBLIOGRAPHY.........................................................221
ix


CHAPTER 1
INTRODUCTION AND BRIEF OVERVIEW OF SUBJECT
We are the people who leap in the dark, we are the people on the knees of the
gods. In our very flesh, (Revolution works out the clash of cultures. It makes us
crazy constantly, but if the center holds, weve made some kind of evolutionary
step forward. Nuestra alma el trabajo, the opus, the great alchemical work;
spiritual mestizaje, a morphogenesis , and inevitable unfolding. We have
become the quickening serpent movement.1
Dance is one of the oldest and most powerful forms of human expression. It
moves the human spirit unto itself, and it challenges the body to move in complex
ways. Sometimes these movements mirror a specific shape, or mimic an animal,
element, plant, or deity. A sense of spirit is imbued in the dances with notions of war,
love, humility and prideI am speaking here of the spiritual dances of indigenous
peoples. All of this movement and its intent can have a profound effect on human
identity; it can engender a sense of close community as well as transcendental states
in the individual. Movements can be simple and serene or frenetic and complex, and
it is this movement that so strongly affects the human spirit:
.. .dance is an activity very intimately connected with the human condition.. .In
dance, the only instrument used is the body itself: the dancer is at the same time
the creator and the bearer of the dance activity. The texture of dance is the
movement of the dancer, and no other media are necessary to reveal expression,
symbolism, and eventually poetry, non-verbally. Perhaps nowhere else has man
ever expressed himself so directly and completely as through dance.2
1


In this paper I will explore how contemporary Aztec dance, or danza Azteca, was
created; its direct roots in Mesoamerica; its purpose; and its specific link to Chicano
identity. As one dancer described it, la sangre llamathe blood calls. Why do
some Chicanos feel this pull of the dance on the blood and on their heart strings?
The term Chicano is a politicized one that gained prominence during the Chicano
Movement, or El Movimiento of the Civil Rights Era. Chicano was a symbolic way
for Mexican-Americans to self-identify and self-represent, as opposed to the
government designation using the term Hispanic. Chicano often means the bearer
embraces an indigenous heritage with pride. It is no coincidence that danza Azteca
became widely known in the U.S. during this time and that it became an expression of
indigenous pride. Yet if this is the case then how is it that Chicanos five hundred
years, a thousand miles, and paradigmatically removed from the Conquest of
Tenochtitlan are conceptually reasserting their links to the Aztec or Mexica people?
The term reasserting is used in a figurative way, as many Chicanos do not
necessarily have specific ties to the Aztec people, but may in fact be ancestrally
linked to any number of indigenous Mexican and North American groups. Some of
these other groups may have even been conquered by or were enemies of the Aztecs
at some point in time, so it is ironic that their descendants would now imagine an
identification with their ancestral conquerors. The answer is complex and lies in the
conundrum of a colonized identity and in the duality of being both conquered and
2


conqueror, humble and proud. Ines Hemandez-Avila, a scholar of Chicana and Native
descent and a life-long danzante [Aztec-dance dancer], sums up the motivation
behind identity reclamation and discovery in the following way: Many Native
American people who have been cut off from their traditions are hungry to recapture
their ways, or at the very least, have a sense of what they have lost.3 The second part
of her quote highlights how colonized peoples may be so far removed from the
practices and life-ways of their predecessors that an awareness of what they lost may
be missing from their memories to begin with. The story of the colonized is always
tragic. When cultural identities are taken away by force, such as with the Native
peoples of the American continent, there are tragic consequences. The cost of losing
ones cultureor not even knowing what has been losteventually causes social
crises within the culture. The process of colonization is complete when the
descendents of the colonized have no memory of the process and no memory of the
cultures that made up the core identity for their ancestors. The colonized are put
through a historical process of assimilation, acculturation, and amnesia. Can a
colonized people ever discover the history of their cultural identities if they are taught
to demonize and forget their cultural narrative? Yet the colonized nearly always seem
to find ways in which to resist these processes and Mesoamericas indigenous peoples
have a history of preserving their cultures through the use (and subversion) of the
Catholic church. The colonized would become experts at manipulating the tools of
their colonizers. The key for urban descendants of the indigenous, those far removed
3


by time and geography from the practices of their ancestors, is to somehow discover
and tap into this tradition of ingenious cultural preservation. Danza Azteca as it is
practiced today was formed through such a process of Catholic subversion and is now
made up of a fusion of Catholic and indigenous belief systems. For participants today,
the Catholicism through which it was preserved poses a problem because it is
representative of those initial colonizing forces and the pain and tragedy that
followed.
The Civil Rights Era ushered in a new form of ethnic pride and nationalism never
before seen in the Chicano community. Aztec princesses and warriors became the
cultural aesthetic that inspired Chicano youth. Through and through there was a spirit
moving in the community that said we are indigenous and we are native to this
land. Danza during this time was used for a specific purpose, grounded in the
politics of liberation and nationalism. It is clear today however, that danza as a design
maintains integrity, but its purpose is often adapted to the needs of the times and of its
practitioners. Ultimately this paper will try to address the question of how danza
transforms participants identities as Chicanos and as spiritual beings.
Theoretical Considerations
This paper will present a historic and ethnographic overview of danza Azteca. It
will explore the Mesoamerican and Catholic roots of danza, how the Chicano
4


movement influenced danzas emergence in the United States, and analyze danza
through theoretical frameworks of revitalization movements and the production of
sacred centers, sacred space, and cultural and spiritual renewal. Mircea Eliades
theories on such renewal and the production of sacred spaces shed meaningful light
into a near-universal desire of indigenous cultures to renew their belief systems and
spiritual identities and re-center their sacred spaces. It is no coincidence that danza
Azteca aesthetically and emotionally hearkens back to a perceived golden age at the
height of Tenochtitlans empire, a time and place before chaos and conquest. Danza
Azteca encourages, at least in part, a renewal of that sacred time and place. At the
heart of this spiritual and cultural revival is the historical process of what Mary
Louise Pratt terms transculturation, that phenomena which begins in the contact
zone. The contact zone can be described as a specific time and place in which
cultures clash and struggle for power and must culturally negotiate with each other.
Such a space is often the result of an invading and occupying outside force. In
Mesoamerica, when the Spanish invaded and occupied the land, the stage was set for
this process to unfold in its own unique and often painful way. The belief systems and
customs of the dominant culture is almost always imposed, sometimes brutally and
forcefully, but the belief systems and culture of a population are not easily stripped
away, no matter how violent the imposition of the new belief system is. Though the
conquered may be forced to acquiesce to their usurpers demands, they cannot be
forced to give up their cultural identities, and this is especially true of spiritual
5


identities. The process of transculturation is more deliberate than a mere fusion of
beliefs and carries more agency then the concept of syncretism allows for.
Transculturation is the process in which a conquered population actively selects
portions of the dominant culture to assimilate and incorporate with the purpose of
preserving their own original belief systems. Through the subversive and
preservationist processes of transculturation, belief systems may change over time,
but the underlying foundations can remain the same. In Mesoamerica, the indigenous
populations subverted Catholic thought in order to preserve their own theologies and
religious identities. The religious belief systems were themselves markedly
entrenched in ideas of world centering, world renewal, and agricultural regeneration.
The beliefs were manifested on every level of life, and ultimately were played out
through the bodies of the Mesoamerican populations. Through transculturation, these
foundations were often preserved continuously up until the present for many rural
indigenous peoples today. For urban mestizo populations, they may wait until the
time is ripe, and the social climate shows a need, that traditional ways of their
indigenous ancestors may be revitalized and resurrected, albeit in changed and
sometimes invented forms. Anthony Wallaces theories on revitalization movements
serve the purposes of this study well, in that a culture under stress will turn to older
belief systems in order to heal the problems of the present. Danza Azteca has been
revived in a modem form today but is based on the foundations preserved through the
centuries.
6


These five centuries obviously did not leave cultural identities unscathed, and the
urban descendents of indigenous populations, such as Chicanos, today express
feelings of having lost touch with their indigenous roots and culture due to years of
forced acculturation and coerced assimilation. Such historical processes can leave a
population feeling vulnerable, scarred, and lost, and the resulting societal ills are a
direct result of the processes of colonization. Danza Azteca can offer hope to such a
population, and the renewal of the foundations of older belief systems can foster new
and positive identities. The idea that their older traditions and belief systems can help
heal the present is a crucial component to a revivalistic revitalization movement such
as danza Azteca.
Vulnerable Methods
In anthropology, which historically exists to give voice to the others , there is
no greater taboo than self revelation. The impetus of our discipline, with its roots
in Western fantasies about barbaric others, has been to focus primarily on
cultural rather than individual realities. The irony is that anthropology has
always been rooted in an Iunderstood as having a complex psychology and
historyobserving a we that, until recently, was viewed as plural, ahistorical,
and nonindividuated.4
As a researcher it is important to disclose my own background and associated
biases because I have approached this project in a more personal way, though the
tendency is to treat ethnographic work as depersonalized and other to the self.5 In
7


the tradition of Ruth Behars mode d'emploi of anthropology I will disclose that my
relationship to danza is more than academicit is deeply personal, and it is a
connection that continues to grow. When I began to study this project in earnest I
took a class meant to help students prepare a research design for the hypothetical
purposes of getting our studies funded. The students and the instructor could not
agree on whether my project could really be defined as true anthropology. Half of
them believed my project was starting off on an overtly biased footing because I
already had opinions on and a very personal relationship with the subject, and that
made my proposal suspect. I remember leaving with the impression that only an
academic from the dominant culture could study this subject in an objective manner.
Yet it is important for colonized peoples to study their own cultures, because the
perspective we bring is not simple or essentialized. Hernandez-Avila sees such study
as the complex perspectives of those from the contact zone (to borrow Mary Louise
Pratts definition); she says, I am reinscribing what Pratt calls a contact perspective
that is multilayered, and though shifting, aligns me at once with segments of the
native community who are under study and with sectors of the academy who
undertake that study.6 Part of the problem with classic anthropology is that it
continues to train students to believe that Anglo is the standard of objectivity
because everyone else qualifies as other. If one is an other academic, their
objectivity is immediately questioned. This raises the question of objectivity to begin
with, and why this concept is the end to aspire to. Academics such as Behar,
8


influenced by ethnopsychiatrist Devereux, question why subjectivity and
vulnerability are not as valuable, when they may hold the key: Devereux.. .believed
that observers in the social sciences had not yet learned how to make the most of their
own involvement with their material. What happens within the observer must be
made known... if the nature of what has been observed is to be understood.7
The other half of the class seemed more interested in the personal connection1
think it is what made the proposal more real to them. Some students suggested that
it would be helpful to me if I kept information about my personal experience of danza
out of the study, and to even omit the fact that I am a danzante at all, so that it seemed
more objective even if it really was not. Of course, this project was never about
funding; it is about using academic research to learn more about my own history as a
Chicana and as an urban indigenous person. I did not realize it at the time, but I
wanted to study danza because I was beginning to find myself through danceit
really was about a personal journey. On a certain level, it is a study about how people
find themselves. I think all spiritual journeys begin that way. Through introspection
of my own experience of danza, I found a way to understand why others were called
to dance as well, and what it really means to their spirit. Danza is a personal subject
to its practitioners because it implies a way of life and a certain way of looking at the
world, and it means something different to everyone. Even some of the basic
philosophic principles can have vastly different meanings depending on the dancer.
According to Behar, doing anthropology on your own group is about being both the
9


observer and the observed, and that it requires a keen understanding of what aspects
of the self are the most important filters through which one perceives the world and,
o
more importantly, the topic being studied.
Another reason I wanted to undertake this study was so that I could more fully
immerse myself in danza. When I first found danza I wanted desperately to be a part
of it, and yet I did not feel worthy of it; I did not feel that I was Chicana enough to
really be a part of it. At the time I was afraid to fully step into it because I was afraid
that the other danzantes would find out that my apparently strong Chicana identity
was in fact wavering from years of academic indoctrination and cultural assimilation.
What I did not realize until years later is that many danzantes shared my sentiments
in their own search for identity. So, I participated in danza ceremonies and in danza
off and on for the past eight years, not always understanding why I was there, but
always having a deep desire to be a part of it. At times I even resisted, which felt like
I was resisting myself, but danza would not let me go. One question I always ask
interview respondents is the question of why they were called to danza. One
respondent summed it up in a beautiful and succinct phrase, la sangre llama," (the
blood calls). Many of the dancers expressed similar motivations for joining; some
would say it was the drum that called them when they heard it, akin to following a
heartbeat that they had forgotten they had lost. Others explained it was as waking
from a dream to reality, they did not find danza, danza found them, it called to
them, and yet another described it as a genetic memory, that when you join danza you
10


are not learning the danza, you are remembering it. I often found my own motivations
and feelings reflected in theirs. The idea of danza as a remembered and not a learned
tradition may strike one as strange, but it is an odd feeling that came over me the
moment I started dancing. I have never had a mystic experience, but I could not shake
the feeling that I was doing something I had done before, as though amnesia was
being lifted. Regardless of how danza is experienced by participants on esoteric
levels, on still another level, danza is a way to reconnect; culturally it is a way for
Chicanos to discover themselves as Chicanos, and to experience a feeling of
belonging within a community, and that is what it has been for me. As one danzante
told me years ago, its kind of like that video where theres this little girl whos a
bee, shes dressed like a bee, and shes just wandering around by herself and then at
the end she finds a whole field of people who are bees. I was like that when I found
danza, I was like, wow, I found my people, I found myself!9 As a Chicana who was
sent to predominately Anglo Catholic schools, and whose immediate family was a
thousand miles from any extended family, I admit that in many ways I was missing a
connection to my own culture, community, and a sense of spiritual identity. When I
was called to danza it was the beginning of a new journey. Danza functioned to
consolidate my own identity as a Chicana and as a human being in this world. To
study danza from an academic setting then was an additional way to learn more about
who I was and where I came from; a way to learn about a history and a philosophy of
life that I would not have otherwise known, but one I have come to learn is my right
11


nonetheless. Chicana/o danzantes such as me understand what it means to be twice
colonized and twice-removed from indigenous identities. Like our Mexican
counterparts our indigenous identities were suppressed, but unlike them, our Mexican
identity has also been subject to attempts at extinction.
Every ethnography is sensitive and danza is no exception. As both the researcher
and as an active participant in danza I am representing it from my own experience
and researching it as an academic. This makes my interpretation open to criticism
both from fellow academics and fellow danzantes. My loyalty is questioned in one
case while my objectivity is scrutinized in the other. I am beginning to understand
precisely why Behar uses the term vulnerable to describe her approach. Hemandez-
Avila also brings up an important issue of responsibility when reporting on your own
culture: when does it become self-serving and how can a researcher present it
respectfully if the sake is only academic? Where are the ethical considerations in
relation to the excitement of discovery, and what price is paid for the revelation of
danzaor any ceremony?10 Is it really right to disclose sacred information when
those who preserved danza through the ages risked life and limb to keep it hidden and
protected? In addition, Hemandez-Avila brings up the issue of cultural appropriation
and how the over-description of Native practices can lead to appropriation by non-
Native people.11 This in turn brings up issues of who has a right to such sacred
knowledge and who is considered Native and who makes those determinations.
Indeed, such questions of who qualifies as a Native person have created rifts in many
12


communities, such as the rift between Native people who were bom on reservations
and those who were bom in urban areas. In my experience of danza I learned that
danza conquers the heart of some spectators in such a way that they cannot resist, and
if they feel called to dance they must follow because somewhere in their heart they
have a memory of it and it is the Creator calling them to dance, and they should not
be kept from it. I have met the occasional non-Native danzantedanza can call to
anyone. Danzantes who feel called to the tradition regardless of their descent have a
strong sense of the history of danza, how it was preserved, and ultimately of the
brutality of colonizing processes. Danza has taught me that having an awareness of
colonizing processes is instrumental in being a danzante, and anyone who would
come in from the outside without this awareness and without the capacity to
understand the colonizing experience would be incapable of devoting the necessary
commitment to a danza circle. In light of how Native practices are easily appropriated
and manipulated by dominant cultures it is understandable that there are no simple
answers to such questions and danzantes are right to be wary of information being
released to the general public and of whom a dance group allows in. I want to be able
to convey the beauty and passion that is danza, but when is certain information too
much information and when does it become a betrayal, as Hemandez-Avila calls it.
When I attended ceremony and offered my prayer while simultaneously making
academic observations on the activities going on around me? When I am in a
ceremony, where do I draw the line? I want to pray and live the tradition yet always
13


in the back of my mind I am taking mental notes as I am trained to do academically.
As a researcher and an informant how can I be the most ethical observer?
In this light the study of danza may well be easier for a white scholar to
undertake, as neither their loyalty nor objectivity will be questioned. Yet there is a
depth of meaning and of voice that would likely be lost. I say this because
Chicanas/os are in a position to understand the experience of cultural loss and
renewal in a unique way, having the continual experience of waves of both
simultaneously since colonial times. To approach this study as a Chicana, I hope to
shed light on its beauty, pain, and function in a way representative of the Chicano
experience. The importance of this native anthropology has helped to bring about a
fundamental shiftthe shift toward viewing identification, rather than difference, as
the key defining image of anthropological theory and practice.121 hope to be the best
ethical observer I can be and in both representing and reporting that I am able
maintain my connection as a Chicana whose primary mode of prayer and spiritual
experience today is through danza. Not all danzantes agree with following the
tradition of Western academia, as it is not generally seen as representative of how
Native people learned through their spiritual experiences as well as through their own
methods of working with and learning from the earth. We must be wary of carrying
such lines of thinking to extremes however, as it can easily slide into self-othering
and self-essentialism which can result in limiting and reductionist perspectives that
take autonomy and agency away from Native peoples. For the purposes of this study,
14


it is also important to remember that the Aztecs themselves had an institutionalized
method of education that shared some similarities to Western methods. Through
danza I am beginning to slowly understand how spiritual knowledge is attained and
through study I am beginning to learn how my ancestors both learned from and taught
each other in traditional ways. Yet, as a colonized person who has been trained in the
Western academic process it would be disingenuous of me to try and divest myself of
that as it is a part of what makes me who I am. 1 certainly hope I am making the best
of it in studying my people and so I offer my apologies to any danzantes who
disagree with my methods. The Western academic method, for better or worse, has
been the primary vehicle in which I was able to learn the history of colonizing forces,
and ironically, though a tool of the colonizer, was the means by which I have been
able to stave off my own assimilation and conquest, and so I learned to use it to best
of my abilities to do just that.
As an undergraduate I realized that danza would make a beautiful subject for
study. I started practicing danza as a member of a womens group. This alone made
our group unique and open to criticism from a tradition that is often male-dominated.
As a Chicana feminist I found the idea of a womens danza circle appealing. In this
space I knew that I would not have to prove myself to machos. I knew that in this
circle I would be accepted, and I was. I did not appreciate it at the time but our group
was at the forefront of the changes and transformation that would take place in danza.
Our circle was something of a novelty. This is not to say that other women have not
15


teamed together like ours did since then, but there is a new generation of groups
coming out that are deliberately devoid of traditional male leadership; there is a new
generation of dancers coming out that have been trained to respect but also question
the authority of traditional leadership. My womens group was small but proudly
named Olin Cihuatl Yoatl, or Cosmic Movement of the Women Warriors; amicably
dissolved several years ago, although we have kept in contact over the years though
friendship and occasional ceremonies and sweat lodges. A couple of the women
embarked on additional paths of indigenous mysticism and spirituality. I focused on
my academic life but always wished to return to danza when the time was right. I
always felt our group had stopped at a time when I beginning to feel a real spiritual
connection and develop a spiritual identity, something I had never experienced with
my Catholic background. I was just beginning to explore the tip of the iceberg of
danza when our group dissolved. I could have joined another group, and I did attend
various ceremonies hosted by other groups, such as Grupo Tlaloc, the most prominent
danza circle in Denver, but I was afraid I would not find as welcoming a space for
women, and for a Chicana as assimilated as 1.1 fostered connections to danza yet
maintained a distance over the years. I learned about the history of danza, the history
of the Aztec state, and of indigenous realities through academic studies. I returned to
danza with a deeper appreciation of its background and also a realization that I had to
embark on an additional path of learning, one that could only be learned through the
practice of danza itself. In addition to my initial exposure to danza eight years ago, I
16


began practicing danza regularly in the past year and I have immersed myself with a
couple of overlapping circles that do not operate under traditional hierarchies. This
circle is again open and welcoming to anyone who wants to learn and experience
danza; this includes members of other indigenous tribes, two-spirit (GLBT) peoples,
as well as non-indigenous peoples. I have noticed the distance I once felt has closed.
In a sense, I have approached this study from both etic and emic positions over time. I
undertook this qualitative study by looking at notes and observations from several
years back as well as participant observation in the past year in ceremonies,
velacidnes (night-long ceremonies), marches, many informal interviews and eleven
formal taped interviews. In the interest of preserving the privacy of participants
according to the standards of human subjects research, I will not disclose the names
of individual participants. It is no secret that Denvers danza community has gone
through some tumultuous times in the past decade and has experienced some changes
in the past few years. Some of these have caused danza to become a locus of
negativity which has resulted in some people leaving it entirely. I will discuss these in
a generalized sense because this negativity has caused changes in danza that are
important to this study, and it may reflect a greater tension in power roles between the
sexes. I will say that as a Chicana feminist danzante that I do tend to side with the
women. In no way do I wish to disrespect the people or the tradition of danza as it is
something that all danzantes, including myself, hold very dear. It makes up a core of
being and of community. It is part of who I am, it is part of who all danzantes are.
17


Like so many spiritual ways of life, danza is a vulnerable subject but that is also what
makes it so appealing and so beautiful. Its vulnerability must be protected and in no
way do I mean to exploit it for the purpose of academic research. My true goal is to
learn more about it and the history of its beauty and complexities so I may better
understand danza as a danzante. My second goal is to be able to produce a work that
other Chicanas/os can access, and perhaps spark their interest enough so they too may
seek it out so, in the danza spirit of Conquista, it may conquer their own heart.
I approached this study from an interdisciplinary standpoint, so this paper is not
bound to the particulars of one discipline. The methods I have employed are based in
the foundations of ethnographic research and anthropology but I have also
incorporated the philosophy of religion, religious studies, sociology, psychology, and
history. As this study was undertaken through qualitative research and participant
observation it is necessary to add that the qualitative element adds a level of meaning
unobtainable otherwise. In some cases I have paraphrased respondent answers but in
order to fully express the emotions and meaning of respondents I have used verbatim
quotations whenever possible. The names of my respondents have been changed out
of respect for the privacy and the protection of those who were kind enough to offer
their time, insights and descriptions of their personal experiences of danza and what it
means to them.
Within this paper the terms Aztec, Mexica, and Nahua are used interchangeably.
It is important to note that all three terms denote an umbrella of Northern and Central
18


Mexican indigenous ethnicities. The Aztec state was founded by those who self-
identified as the Mexica-Chichimec but this term has come to be representative of a
conglomeration of Chichimecs (itself a generalized term denoting the nomadic
warrior tribes of northern and central Mexico). It is good for the reader to remember
that all these terms carry a sense of generality with them. Aztec is used in many
academic readings, though many danzantes prefer Mexica as a term of self-
identification. Nahua is representative of the people of Northern and Central Mexico
who spoke dialects of Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. Depending on the texts
and time periods of the sources, all three are used depending on the context.
Unfolding Danza Azteca
Fast forward to the twenty-first century: a scene opens on a danza circle opening
the directions to begin a performance for ceremonial purposes. The fragrant copal
(Mesoamerican incense made of pine resin) smoke is smudged over each participant
and a caracol (conch shell used as a wind instrument) is blown while the drum is
beaten and each direction is saluted and appropriate salutations are made to the spirits
and winds of each direction. The dancers are bedecked in sumptuous feather
headdresses full of macaw, pheasant, or turkey feathers. The trajes (dresses,
loincloths, and clothing) are equally elaborate, some made from natural leathers and
animals skins, while others are made from metallic fabrics such as taffeta and lame.
19


The costumes are decorated with Aztec symbols denoting deities, cosmic religious
concepts, animals, elementals, plants and flowers. The dancers are a microcosm of
military organization and the capitan leads the circle in their first dance, while the
accompanying positions of sargento (sergeant), soldados (soldiers), and Malinches
(smoke bearers) and others all fall in line and conform to the dance. In a mirror image
of cosmic movement the dance begins in a clockwise direction around the altar. There
are children dancing in the circle as well as elderly men and women. The sound of the
cascabeles (rattles attached to the legs) beat together loudly in time with the drum in
the center of the circle. The altar in the center holds the copal incense, the smoke pure
and bright white, and the prayers of the circle are carried on the pillar of smoke that
reaches to the heavens. With a mixture of jubilant pride and respectful humility, the
dancers are reminded in their movement, prayers, and daily life to follow the danza
principles of Conquista, Conformidad, and Union, or Conquest, Conformity, and
Unity.
Let this serve as a basic introduction to the structure and design of contemporary
danza Azteca. The underlying concepts and meanings within danza and how they
have changed through time as well as how danzas purpose has been adapted to the
needs of modem practitioners will be visited later in the paper. I will begin with a
historic overview of danza Azteca and how Central Mesoamerican belief systems
were preserved through the processes of syncretism, transculturation, and subversion
of the conquerors belief systems. Chapter Two describes danza as it was practiced in
20


Mesoamerica and how Aztec concepts of the body fit into the dualistic and
regenerative cycle of life and death, sacrifice and renewal, in both war and
agriculture, that made up the core of their spiritual beliefs and practices. This chapter
then moves into how danza was practiced post-Conquest after all Aztec religious
practices were banned by the Spanish and how through dance and song they were
able to fuse with and subvert Catholicism in order to preserve their own indigenous
belief systems. This chapter ends with a section on the Conchero form of danza and
the role of the Virgen de Guadalupe on this historical process. Chapter Three follows
the history of danza Azteca and takes a look at how it is has manifested in
contemporary urban Chicano communities in the U.S. and how the politicized nature
of the Chicano movement has been something of a mixed blessing for danza. The
dualities and tensions within danza are explored such as those between men and
women, between Chicanos and Mexicanos, between traditionalists and the politicized,
between the performative and the ceremonial, and humility and pride, among others.
Chapter Four describes danza Azteca as it is practiced today. It looks at how sacred
spaces are built, the mechanics of the dance, and how danza engenders a strong sense
of group identity. Chapter Five analyzes danza in light of the theoretical
considerations of revitalization movements and cultural renewal and regeneration.
The issue of why danza continues to be a necessary part of the community and why it
will likely continue to thrive in the future albeit in adapted ways is explored. Finally,
danza is considered on more esoteric levels in that it appears to touch deeper
21


yearnings of the human psyche to regenerate mythos through transcendent means.
22


CHAPTER 2
HISTORY OF DANZA: MESOAMERICAN ROOTS
AND CATHOLIC INFILTRATIONS
Dancing in the Streets...of Tenochtitlan
Prior to the Spanish Conquest dance was an integral part of the political,
spiritual, and ceremonial sphere of the Mexica state. It was often on display for the
entire community. At some point most community members would participate. There
were always public festivities in preparation or in performance, and some festivals
would overlap with others. Each month had its own special fiestas, performances, and
sacrifices. Each demographic played important roles in ceremonial public spheres
depending on the festivity and/or deity being honored, although most centered on
perpetuating the warrior culture. Although the warrior culture was the hub of the
religious performance life of the Aztec, agricultural fertility was equally important.
The role of women in dance and spectacle showcases the importance of agriculture to
the Aztec empire but these roles also show how war and agriculture were combined in
the Aztec psyche in an ongoing cycle of cosmic duality emphasizing death and
rebirth: We Eat the Gods and the Gods Eat us... the dynamics of the Aztec cosmos
included the need for gods to ingest and be nurtured by human substances, a kind of
divine cannibalism of human beings. The cosmic jaws that populate the body of the
23


earth goddess must be flexed and fed, in other words, irrigated with human blood, in
order for the fruits of the earth to grow and feed human beings. '
Aztec public spectacle and ceremony included dance, song, poetry, and music in
the main plaza and temples, as well as sometimes being taken to the streets and
barrios of the city. The spectacle also could include human sacrifice. Ixiptlas, or deity
impersonators, often selected from prisoners of war, were paraded through the city
from time to time throughout the year before their sacrifice. Ixiptlas learned the
special dances and performances of that deity and were literally seen as the physical
embodiment of that deity and were treated as such.
Generally speaking, preHispanic dance served to imbue the entire community
with an ongoing spirit of mysticism. Dance helped celebrate and create warriors as
well as further the agricultural cycle. Dances were seen as a form of sacrifice unto
itself, and were used as a vehicle to propel the dancers into a trance.
Secular dances were a large part of public festival, and were the time when the
whole community would celebrate in the streets with dancing and singing. Some were
of a sorrowful nature but most were festive, merry, and the flirtatious ones facilitated
wooing and courting. These were often accompanied by court jesters, acrobats,
masked performers, and a multitude of floral decorations and adornments.14
Training for the dances began early in life and between the ages of twelve and
fifteen. Many children were sent to cuicacallis, or houses of song. These schools
were for the children of the poor as well as those of the elite, and they also housed the
24


Aztec priesthood. The cuicacalli provided sacred training regarding Aztec religious
and historical concepts through dance and song:
Instruction began an hour before sunset, when the boys and girls.. .were taught to
sing the sacred songs of the people and to dance the various ritual dances long
into the night. These songs contained the most important mythological and
historical information about the culture and its worldview. The songs praised the
gods and told of their sacred history, the meaning of life and death, and the
responsibilities humans had to carry out for the deities. This was a powerful
cohesive social experience for Aztec children and their families, who learned and
relearned the sacred teachings, dance steps, and stories of their community.15
Indigenous forms of dance often channel elements, natural forces, animals, or
other aspects of the natural world and the earth. Mesoamerican dances are no
exception, and in addition, incorporate conceptions of the celestial cosmos and
underworlds as well. As the earth can be vital, beautiful, generous, and abundant, it
can be equally ugly, murderous, and barrenMexica concepts of the earth were
always centered on this duality of life-giving death and its place at the center of the
universe. Mexica dance and public ritual can be described as a dance of this cosmic
duality. This sense permeated every aspect of daily life and contributed to a
communal culture of mysticism and such concepts were the springboard and focal
point of transcendental states. Mesoamerican cultures developed a religion based on
the spiritual unity of the cosmos; that saw mans existence in spiritual terms. Its ritual
actions symbolized and broke the boundaries of matter and spirit through techniques
such as human and animal sacrifice, masked dances, or privation, blood sacrifice, and
hallucinogens that induced trance states.16
25


The physical act of dance was an important conduit between the earth, the
underworld, and the celestial realms. All the elements of the natural world were
deeply interconnected with the other realms. Life and death; a metaphorical
consumption of the earth (and by extension of the gods) was a reciprocal and often
sacrificial act. Dance and ritual brought about a transition into a cosmo-magical space
of reality. Ritualized body movements were a form of aesthetic autosacrifice, an
individual and communal offering that sometimes preceded the ultimate sacrifice of
ones life. Though it may appear as ritualized violent chaos to some, the ritual, daily,
and emotional life of the Mexica was stringent and deliberately ordered; however,
within this strict life and the narrow aesthetics of ritual, dance, and sacrifice, the
emotional expression of the people flourished:
... in the cool nights of the high plateau, by the light of the resinous torches, a
collective ecstasy would seize upon the crowd as it sang and danced, every
movement and attitude obeying the law of ritual, at the foot of the pyramids
whose heads rose into the darkness. There in the communion of song and
rhythmic movement to the beat of gongs, the crowd found release for the
passions of its violent soul; and this without overstepping the boundaries of
social duty. This self-controlled civilization, which imposed such a continual
discipline upon all, and particularly upon its upper classes, had the wisdom to
provide a permitted relaxation under the eyes of the gods for the repressed
forces. Poems and music, rhythm and dance hour after hour in the red glare of
the torches in the great square of the holy city this was the liberation that the
system offered for a while to the impassive men of whom it asked so much.18
Although the combination of religion and state is not uncommon globally or
historically, in Tenochtitlan the extent of sacred public ritual and dance in
conjunction with the body of the polis as sacred space was taken to awesome levels. It
26


is impossible to imagine the great city existing without the attachment to the dualities
of the cosmos, the deliberate construction of sacred space, and the public
manifestations of these ideologies.
Dance and public performance and display by the Mexica was integrally linked
to ideas of sacred space, flowery war,19 human sacrifice, excoriation, and deity
impersonation to result in renewal and regrowth based on the agricultural cycle. The
human body itself was conceptualized as being created from maize, and maize
production was important to the survival and growth of the Tenochtitlan axis
mundi.20 Within this sacred center, the human body was perceived as the most
pervasive type of sacred space where elaborate ceremonies were carried out.. .a
potent receptacle of cosmological forces, a living, moving center of the world. The
Mexica seem to have placed an extraordinary amount of faith in the power of the
human body to communicate with the divineeven to become divine. In the realm of
public ritual, the heart (the humor or soul aspect known as teyolia), liver (ihiyotl), and
head (tonalli) held the greatest power, and for the ritual of public sacrifice these were
vital forces that would have manifested an intense impact on the spectator and
performer alike. The Aztec body housed these three souls, or animistic entities that
operated independently of each other yet maintained a three-way balance for overall
physical and mental health.22 Tonalli, residing in the head, was a warm rational
aspect of the soul, similar to the energy of the sun. Hair was considered sacred in that
it prevented the departure of tonalli, and for a warrior to capture the hair of another
27


'S ^
warrior was to imbue the captor with that much more sacred force. Tonalli was also
called the shadow and carried the ability to leave the body through spiritual action
or from bad intent. Teyolia, the primary entity and found in the heart, was linked to
knowledge; it animated the being and shaped a persons sensibilities and thinking
patterns.24 Teyolia was found in all living creatures and the teyolia of a man was
linked to the teyolia of his maize, to the point that a persons maize seeds were
removed from his property upon death, otherwise, they would die with him.25 This is
the same energy that fed the gods through sacrifice, and the energy underwent a
transformation into a winged creature after death, only departing the body upon
death.26 The third part of the soul, ihiyotl, resided in the liver, and can be described as
a dense breath breathed into the person in the womb and again at birth by divine
feminine forces. Ihiyotl acted as an entity that emanated from the body in air or gas
form and could create positive or negative influences depending on the nature of the
person exuding it. Ihiyotl was the emotional soul that harbored all intense feelings
such as love, hate, sadness, appetite, greed, and warrior passion.27 While Aztec body
movements in dance took on many forms, Gertrude Kurath describes the movement
most commonly associated with public ritual. Mock combat dances between captive
warriors and their captors usually opened the ceremony and took the form of quick
jumping and lunging, with bloody consequences. Priests were also involved in mock
battle dances but these generally did not end in bloodshed and were more
lighthearted. Although these mock battles generally took place right before the main
28


event, sometimes they would take place at the close of the ceremony as well.
Hopping and crawling was characteristic of animal-impersonating dances; these
tended to be rapid and lively. Kurath expounds on the dance of the ixiptlas and
describes something akin to the ecstatic experience: fast, frenzied dances and
distorted postures, done by the captives in a trancelike state. Immediately before
their sacrifice however, a calm appears to have descended on the deity impersonators
who tended to walk and move slowly and symbolically, although at other times of the
year they carried themselves in this regal manner as well. Other dances she describes
focused on processional dances with larger groups. Some were performed as rings of
performers which surrounded the frenzied dancing ixiptla with their own closed
dancing circle. Another was done by performers from two different towns as they
made a double-file, rapidly dancing line. She also describes open round and
serpentine dances in which both commoners and elite would take part; the
29
movements were medium-paced with lots of leaps and runs.
The amount of teyolia and tonalli within selected performers was said to be
greater than most, and that they were closer to the divine sources of these energies.
These were the energies that were on display and performed through public spectacle,
through the bodies of sacrificed warriors, and through the bodies of dancing deity
impersonators. Such bodies, as sacred centers unto themselves were part of a greater
macrocosm, the sacred center of place. For the Aztecs at the height of their empire,
their axis mundi was manifest in the city of Tenochtitlan, and specifically at the
29


Templo Mayor. Their migration myth that involved the transgression that took place
between Huitzilopochtli and his sister Coyolxauhqui at Coatepec (Serpent Mountain)
had direct consequences for sacred space within Tenochtitlan.30 The Templo Mayor
was the recreated space of Coatepec, complete with the Coyolxauhqui Stone,
symbolic of the mangled body of Huitzilopochtlis sister (the moon) who was
symbolically thrown to the bottom of the temple in her defeat. Her death and the
death of her brothers, the four hundred southerners at the hands of Huitzilopochtli
(the sun), was a cosmological act that would be repeated in the sacred space of
Templo Mayor for many years to come. It would become the model for the treatment
of mass sacrificial captives: For the Aztecs, the mythological events that took place
at Coatepec were not just frozen in the past but regularly reenacted in constant
31
revalidation of the divine sanction to perform acts of war and human sacrifice.
This model, this moment of creation out of war would have far reaching effects on the
city, as its very mythical creation was predicated on an act of war, and so it would
transform the city into a symbolic sacred battleground. Furthermore, it is through this
destruction and creation, the triumph of the brilliance of the sun over the darkness of
the moon, the Huitzilopochtli myth, that cosmogenic creation takes place.32 Although
the Templo Mayor was the primary center for Huitzilopochtli, the patron god of the
Mexica, who transported them out of their wandering and self-perceived inferiority to
a state-organized society, there is an older deity. Tlaloc, god of life-giving rainfall and
of the watery underworld, was said to be the indigenous god of what would become
30


the Tenochtitlan landscape. In a sense, Tlaloc gave the Mexica permission to settle on
that land; Huitzilopochtli directed them there, but Tlaloc allowed them entry.
Huitzilopochtli was responsible for directing victory in battle and Tlaloc was
responsible for the rains that would lead to agricultural success or ruin.33 The Templo
Mayor was a locus of veneration of both gods and contained dual temples. A duality
is hereone of cosmic renewal through warfare and sacrifice, and another of
agricultural renewal from rain facilitating the rebirth of maize. The two of these
combined in a single temple has been the source of debate but there remains little
doubt that the meaning, the source of the sacred housed within this temple was a raw
and powerful force for all the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan. Moreover, it is within this
sacred space that the most important public rituals and spectacle occurred. Whether it
was deity impersonation, mass sacrifice, or fertility-based festivals, public ritual
almost always involved some form of dance and the ritual costume that accompanied
it. Dance was inextricably linked to ritualized Aztec spectacle and was often taken
into the streets to bring the performance of life, death, war, and rebirth to the literal
doorsteps of the everyday people. In a city built with the purpose of being the
quintessential center of the world; with the Templo Mayor acting as the umbilicus of
the city, of the land connected to the cosmos; with the bodies of the people acting as
vessels of the sacred center, microcosms of the macrocosm; one can start to paint a
picture that when public ritual was carried out, it was a powerful force that served to
re-center and renew the performers, the city, the land, and the spectators alike. The
31


Aztec cosmos was performing in the bodies of the Tenochtitlans citizens, and the
performances took on forms that emphasized the severe duality of that cosmos. To
dance in these spectacles was to dance as part of the cosmos. Two public rituals (out
of monthly rituals throughout the year) serve as examples of how dance and spectacle
served to symbolically renew and re-center the cosmos and the growth cycle through
the blood and flesh offerings of dance and sacrifice, all within the sacred city, the
sacred battlefield of Tenochtitlan.
The first of these rituals is the festival of Cuahuitl Ehua performed for Tlaloc in
the first month of the year, and involved the sacrifice of weeping children in seven
different places in the sacred mountains (Tlalocs earthly domain) of Tenochtitlan.34
Kurath tells us this festival was for both rain and atmosphere and also included
reverence and offering to the gods Quetzalcoatl and Chalchiuhtlicue as well as to
Tlaloc. The children, called human paper streamers, were costumed in dark green,
35
black, red-striped, and light blue, adorned with pearls and taught special dances.
Their costumes recall the dress and color of Tlaloc. After the dances, offerings, and
prayers, a sacred and weeping procession led the children into the mountains where
they would make their final offering. Afterwards, warriors and their captives carried
out a mock battle and performed sacred dances with each other, culminating in the
planting of the chicahuaztli [rain stick or long rattle] by the captors, symbolic of the
act of sowing.36 Childrens tears were essential to receive the rains of Tlaloc, to
ensure sowing of all crops would come to fruition, but the performing priests did their
32


duty with sadness and grief themselves, and did not go back to the killing site. In
addition, the tears and grief experienced by the priests was echoed in the grief of
Tenochtitlans citizens; the songs being sorrowful and tearful.37 Tears flowed from
everyone like rainthe rain necessary to renew and re-grow the crops. Tlaloc needed
the tears of children in order to replenish the sacred rains for all crops but especially
for the most sacred staple of maize, for only from death could life be reborn; only
from grief could there be rejoicing.
A second example of the importance of public spectacle to the citizens of
Tenochtitlan is the festival of Ochpaniztli. This celebration was held in honor of the
goddess Toci-Tlazolteotl, who resided over plant and human fertility, birth and
agricultural harvest. For eight days, silent dances were performed in four circles,
these being characterized as handwaving. An adolescent girl impersonating the
goddess performed mock battles and was paraded through the marketplace while
male and female clergy devoted to Chicomecoatl danced around her. After consoling
by the priestesses, she was led to the temple where she was sacrificed and flayed by
priests, one of whom dons her skin. Another priest, symbolizing Cinteotl, Tocis son,
wore the girls thigh skin on his head as a cap, a symbol of rebirth.38 The priest as
Toci, with two captive warriors, dashed through the city performing mock battles and
dances for all to see. Captives were sacrificed at dawn by the priest impersonating
Toci at the Temple Mayor. Dancing ensued with Cinteotl, Itztlacoliuhqui (the god of
frost), and Toci, all in the presence of the king. On the last day, handwaving dances
33


were danced by all-elite dancers and the king, spreading seeds, while Toci and the
priests left the scene scattering feathers and singing songs for Toci.39 This ritual
performed many functions for the community: first and foremost, dressed, painted,
and adorned as the goddess, the girl became the goddess to all involved: priests,
public, king, and to herself. She regenerated the earth and planting cycle and ensured
a healthy harvest, but she also tied agricultural renewal to the renewal of the warriors
and the renewal of the state. Carrasco tells us that she was constantly being
entertained and her spirits were to be kept happy or it would portend a bad year in
harvest and war. After the girl returned to the temple she was led to the tlatoani, the
great speaker or king, to consummate the relationship between vegetation and the
polis in a Mesoamerican form of hieros gamos,40 Moctezumas powers... are
elevated by the juices of the earth and his seed is scattered within the heart of the
plant she embodies. 41 When her skin was taken and worn by the priest, he became
she, and she symbolically rebirthed new life through her death. When the
impersonator of her son Cinteotl donned her thigh skin, he was reborn from her.
When they paraded through the streets, the effect on the citizen was extremeand
not always pleasant, for fear and awe were instilled in the populace: Then he, who is
a she-god, appears before the populace with the nobles/warriors spreading the
imagery of the complete metamorphosis of a teenage girl in the covering of a strong
warrior.. ,42 Carrasco also says that as the new Toci met her son, she spread her
arms and legs, in a symbolic embrace of her son, which may be symbolic of the
34


original Culhuacan princess the Mexica symbolically married to Huitzilopochtli,
which helped to birth the original political structure of Tenochtitlan. After the girl
went through the streets, she was bedecked with an extensive array of paint, feathers,
leaves, etc., to form a second skin to her original one. At this point, her
transformation was completeShe who was sacrificed to pay the debt, is now the
sacrificer who collects it back. She is now dressed to kill others as four captives are
brought before her (him). She slays them by opening the chest cavities and extracting
the hearts.43 As the ceremony came to a close, Toci and her warriors had a final
military skirmish and when she arrived at the temple, her skin was removed from the
priestthe metamorphosis was complete; the vitality of the plants was renewed, and
the warriors were prepared for their next encounter.44
These are only two of the twelve major public performances that occurred in
Tenochtitlan at the height of the empire and they are two of the most salient as they
involve the rare sacrifice of children and a young woman, and they also strongly
exemplify the Mexica worldview. I use these as examples not of brutality but to
highlight the sense of duality even more strongly, as these examples mark these
concepts of how life and death are reciprocally linked in a cycle in which each begets
the other. In order for life to triumph, death must also flourish.
Death was conceptualized as a form of debt repayment. Ones life could only be
maintained out of the life it had to take from the earth, primarily in the form of water
and maize, so when eating to live one was actually taking death into ones body: the
35


death of plants, animals and water the body used to subsist.45 It is also important to
note that according to Mesoamerican belief systems, the afterlife of most peoples was
dependent primarily upon the way in which they died, although one could certainly
choose a life with a high likelihood of gamering the type of death necessary for a
positive afterlife, such as that of the warrior. The multiple souls of the individual
could inhabit different places at different times, with the head soul (tonalli)
sometimes staying with the surviving family while the heart soul (teyolia) could
travel to its final destination. Both the realm of the sun, Huitzilopochlti, and the
watery mountain paradise of Tlaloc were ideal places to go. Infants who had not yet
ingested anything besides breast milk (and so had not ingested death) were not held to
the same requirements of debt repayment as everyone else and so they were given
their own celestial realm unique to them.46 Common people who lived uneventful
lives and died common deaths were relegated to the generally unpleasant underworld
of Mictlan, and it was wise to avoid such an afterlife if one could. To die as a warrior
on the battlefield, or as a warrior on the sacrificial altar, or as a woman giving birth,
were all conceptualized as warrior deaths that are a sacrifice to the earth, and their
deaths bring life. Theirs were the most honorable deaths whose reward was the most
exquisite of afterlives in which the deceased was transformed into a butterfly or
hummingbird, forever following the sun across the sky and drinking nectar from
flowers. If the death included transformation into a deity, as an ixiptla sacrifice, the
sacrifice was made even more profound. Those who died as an ixiptla, as well as
36


those were seen as divine beings on earth such as the tlatoanis or high ranking elites
who held some amount of divine rank, also had some amount of their souls make a
journey back to the deity they represented or were seen to have come from. In death,
this portion of their souls was literally melded into that deity and became a part of
that god.47
Most festivals involving sacrifice predominately involved the sacrifice of male
warriors, many of whom were gathered from flowery wars, in which two states
would agree upon a time and place to hold a battlefield skirmish for the express
purposes of obtaining prisoners of war to be used in public ritual for each state (see
footnote 20 for additional detail). The concepts of cosmic dualities based on life-
giving death were not unique to the Aztec polis and were at the core of belief and
religious practice across Mesoamerica. Indeed, for many contemporary indigenous
communities, the conceptual matrix of this belief system has changed little since the
Conquest. Indeed, studies of contemporary Mixtec Nuyootecos in Mexico
demonstrate that the belief systems of life giving death and debt repayment still hold
strong. The Nuyootecos conceptualize these ideas as covenants with the natural world
in which Earth and Rain suffer to feed people, and in return people must feed Earth
and Rain with their bodies at death. In this way, death became a condition of
agricultural production and civilized life... One man prayed, Here we lay down our
48
bodies, and thus/ Give us to eat and take us in again
Many festivals carried on for extended periods of time, and even overlapped, so
37


the citizens were always in preparation for or in the throes of one public ritual or
another. Although each performed a specific function and had a complexity of
meaning specific unto them, they all reinforced fertility, renewal, and re-centering of
the landscape, the centrality of maize, the polis, and the warfare/death that was a part
of each. Out of death, out of sacrifice, out of dance, the sacred center was renewed
and rebirthed in a constant cosmic battle.
Mexica Performance After the Spanish Conquest
After 1519 there was little time to document these ceremonies, rituals, and
dances, as the culture of the Aztecs bore the brunt of Spanish colonialism. Being the
largest and most powerful center at the time, and having such a huge amount of
resources streaming in from peripheral tribute states (gold being most precious to
Spanish eyes), Tenochtitlan quickly became the focal point of European conquest and
submission. The Mexica would have little time to practice their religion before
European changes were implemented to their culture and way of life. In short, the
Aztec cosmos would be severely shaken and the four cosmic trees at the comers of
their conceptual universe were uprooted. This cultural conquest occurred over the
whole of Mesoamerica, yet pockets remained in the hinterlands that were able to
resist the cultural takeover in subversive and ingenious ways.49 As for the Mexica,
being the focus of initial Spanish Conquest made resistance much more difficult and
38


painful. Dance, due to its strong association with public ritual, sacrifice, and ritualized
warfare, was outlawed soon after the Spanish proclaimed dominance. Indeed, public
dance was the catalyst for the first bloody clash between the two forces. Severe
consequences were meted out for infringers: the feet of dancers and the arms of
drummers were severed as punishment. Musicians were often punished by maiming
or severing the body parts associated with their instrument; decapitation often
followed. The Codex Azcatitlan depicts Pedro de Alvarados massacre of the
musicians which followed the abovementioned formula. Interestingly, it was this
famous massacre which led to the initial expulsion of the Spanish from Tenochtitlan
and almost destroyed the plans of Heman Cortes, who was away at the time on an
expedition.50 This massacre and the subsequent battle was the flashpoint of the
official war between the Mexica and the Spanish. Fascinatingly, the dance that
frightened de Alvarado to his decisive action was the Netecuitotilo, Merit with
Work, a secular dance of heavily jeweled and feathered men (wearing little else),
holding hands and dancing in a circle whose songs were of a pious character and
with them they begged water, bread, health, victory, peace, and sons.51
It was within the sacred space of the city that the most important public rituals
and spectacle occurred. Whether it was deity impersonation, mass sacrifice, or
fertility-based festivals, public ritual almost always involved some form of dance and
specialized costume that accompanied it. Dance was inextricably linked to ritualized
Mexica spectacle and was often taken into the streets to bring the symbolism of life,
39


death, war, and rebirth to the doorsteps of the citys residents. In a city built with the
purpose of being the quintessential center of the world; with the Templo Mayor acting
as the umbilicus of the city; with the bodies of the people acting as vessels of the
sacred center; one can imagine that when public ritual was carried out, it was a
powerful force that served to re-center and renew the performers, the city, the land,
and the spectators alike. The Mexica cosmos was performing in the bodies of the
Tenochtitlan citizens, and the performances took on forms that emphasized the
duality of that cosmos.. .to dance in these spectacles was to be a part of the cosmos.
Nahua-Catholic Hybridization
The aftermath of the Conquest left the city of Tenochtitlan destroyed and the
Mexica people ravaged by siege, starvation, and disease. The axis mundi having been
brought to its knees, the friars could now go forth and proselytize in full force. Mass
conversion would be no easy feat, however. The priests learned that in order to gather
the souls of the Mexica into the fold of Christianity, they themselves would have to
relinquish some control over the meanings and concepts intrinsic to the Christian
religion. While the ritual face of the Mexica was forever changed, Spanish
Catholicism in the New World was likewise transformed from its Iberian roots as
well. A cultural transaction, or transculturation, occurred between the Natives and the
priests in this temporal and spatial zone of contact.52 When the friars first arrived, the
40


Natives were seen, at best, as innocent, impressionable children who had been led
astray; it was the job of the friars to fill these empty vessels with the love and word of
the Christian god. At worst, they were evil devil-worshippers who quenched the thirst
of their gods with human blood. Unfortunately for the Church, the Natives proved to
not be the malleable children the friars had initially hoped for. The friars would have
to enter into a dialogue with the Native peoples in an attempt to understand the
collective identity of the people whose souls they wished to save and dominateand
it is within this dialogue the most interesting phenomena would occur. Given the
circumstances and the Natives distrust of the Europeans, entering into this dialogue
was no easy task. The Nahuas resisted, actively and passively. The indigenous
population was decimated by disease, overwork, and dislocation. A powerful colonial
order based on an economy of exploitation was institutionalized... The friars
understood that the indigenous Nahuatl language, as well as an understanding of
Mexica cosmology and ritual, were the keys to reaching the hearts of the people, and
they realized the power that Mexica elite and rhetorical speech had over people. If the
friars could use this same power of words, but for Christianity, they could gain
control over Native thought and behavior. The friars hoped to manipulate the system
by adapting to it.54 Based on their understanding, the friars invented catechistic
dramas that drew on the Natives earlier affiliations with public dramas and
performances. They attempted to establish a Christian presence without eradicating
local traditions and beliefs, studying and utilizing the very customs they were
41


supposed to be supplanting.55 It was not long before the Mexica began to manipulate
and transform the Passion plays and Christian rituals into actions that echoed their
own Native mystic passions. It was in this new arena of ritual performance that the
Mexica were again able to express many of their old beliefs and traditions. The friars
were not able to subvert the Mexica ritual system easily, and found the traditions they
were trying to impart to the Natives being subverted instead. It did not take long for
church officials to become suspicious of the dramas, dances, songs, and Nahuatl
translations of sermons and holy doctrine. Various Catholic councils gathered to
discuss how regulation and revision of the practices should occur. The Council of
Toledo in 1565 banned all performances, dances, and plays that occurred during
services.56 The Third Mexican Council of 1585 called for stricter regulations of the
use of masks and dances in church, and suggested all dances be moved outside of the
church and done only under close supervision. Only if profane dances and
representaciones during religious festivities adhered to Church doctrine and useful
devotion would they be authorized by the Council.57 These bans were aimed at all
Mexica performances of song, dramas, and dances inside the church and even
included bans on friar-authored works such as songs from the Psalmodia and
catechistic plays. Mosquera notes how the Councils went further and banned sacred
texts and sacramental effects from falling into the hands of Natives.58 Although they
attempted to strictly regulate the dramas and dances that did occur, they could never
ban the performances altogether. Most likely, the Church found itself with a dilemma:
42


on the one hand, they were aware of how the Natives were textually subverting
Christian doctrine through the use of Nahuatl, using the catechistic dramas to replay
their own beliefs and dualities, and using the sacramental effects such as the host and
holy water in versions of their own rituals; but they also realized that to completely
cut them off from these practices (were that even possible) would likely sever the
superficial link to Christianity the friars had worked so hard to create. The cofradias
(cofratemities, or religious brotherhoods) initially installed by the Spanish in order to
encourage the conversion to Christianity soon became bulwarks of Native practice
and belief, thinly veiled in Christo-centric practice. Moreover, the cofradias helped
establish, or ensure the continuity of, indigenous religious leaders:
The cofratemities in Mexico had a cohesive influence on the preservation of
communities, but most important, they offered a platform against which the
community itself could protect and hoist its own cults... There is abundant
documentation that reveals much activity with retablos and representaciones
made for festivities related to sanctioned cults; other attempts were persecuted or
penalized.59
The result was a conversion in name only, due to the fact that the Church made
extensive use of Mexica concepts and so the underlying tenets of Mexica order
remained largely unchanged.60 To this very day, cofradias continue to thrive in some
parts of Mesoamerica, and they continue to have the same preservationist effect of
indigenous religion as they did five hundred years ago. Robert Carlsens research on
cofradias of the Atiteco Maya in Santiago Atitlan is an excellent example of how
indigenous belief systems could remain largely intact through the use of Catholic
43


impositions. To keep a balanced perspective however, James Lockhart says that to
look solely at whether the Natives were either resisting or assimilating to the new
culture and religion is to lose sight of the broader picture. He points to the nature of
Mexica religious systems as one that had the ability to incorporate the religious ideas
of the conqueror as well as the conquered.61 The pre-contact Mexica had a history of
incorporating the religious identities of both those they had conquered and those who
had conquered them, assimilating outside elements into the ritual identity of the
state.62 While the Mexica deities were likely recognized and respected by their
tributary states, the conquered were not expected to dismantle their own system in
favor of Mexica-specific deities like Huitzilopochtli. The Mexica conquerors imposed
their own god(s) in addition to, rather than replacing, the local deities, and the Mexica
god often had many attributes familiar to the conquered people, and was thus easy to
assimilate.63 The Mexica method of conquest did not necessitate the type of cultural
denial from those they conquered that the Spanish attempted to impose.
Iberian methods of conquest employed heavy-handed ideas of good and evil and
tried desperately to make the Natives deny their religious identities that were steeped
in the duality of the life cycle. The friars would have to convince the Mexica first of
all that the nature of death was inherently evil (of the Devil) and the nature of life was
inherently good (of the Christian God). The duality of life and death was eminent for
the Mexica, but these universal forces were not attributed with moralistic concepts.
The Spanish were morally invested with the assignment to prove to the Natives that
44


they had been worshippers of death, and hence evil. If the Mexica could be convinced
of this, then they would be in the subservient position of trying to atone for their
previous sinsspecifically that of human sacrifice. If the friars could convince the
Native populace that they had behaved evilly, then they would have a humble and
spiritually broken people on their hands, one less prone to resistance and easier to
pacify (this pacifism being essential to the economic consolidation of New Spain).
Due to Mesoamerican methods of conquest, the old Mexica ways of incorporating
their conquerors religions both helped and hindered the Spanish attempts at
conversion. This form of religious adaptation was a way in which the Mexica could
preserve their old core concepts of earth and its dualities, while at the same time
becoming devout Christians. The Spanish religious authorities spoke mainly in terms
of the instruction or indoctrination of the Nahua, rather than their conversion.
64 This method of adaptation was often mistaken for Mexica passivity, receptivity,
and the righteousness of the Christo-centric religion, however. Mexica methods of
adaptive resistance buffered the cultural conquest, but it would ironically be
interpreted by the conquerors as proof of their spiritual and intellectual passivity and
inferiority. The following passage from Motolinia in regards to why the Natives were
unsuitable for deaconization is telling:
Yet there is another reason for the refusal to grant the descendants of pagans
ordination, and this has absolutely nothing to do with the constancy or otherwise
of their Christian convictions. It is a natural trait of most of the Indians.. .in that
they lack the ability to command and to direct; they prefer to be ordered and told
what to do. Being possessed of humility and a spirit of subjection, which I have
45


already described, they would become vain and cave in under the pressures of
high office. They are not made to be masters but to be disciples, not capable of
being prelates but only to be members of the crowd and servants, albeit the best
in the world. For that role they are well nigh perfect. Meanwhile, I.. .have to
make sure they do not relapse or disobey.65
The question remains as to how the dynamics of resistance, adaptation,
syncretism, and assimilation or conversion really played out. Viviana Balseras
concept of hybridization points out the unpredictability of the cultural interactions
of colonizer and colonized and she borrows from Serge Gruzinski that This gives us
a better sense of the difficulties involved in the colonization of the imaginary.. .and a
better sense of the possibility that the colonizer might not have always been totally
present to himself, and in full control of his discourses, as he strove to reshape and
control the will and desire of the colonized-to-be.66 Ravicz provides insight into the
dynamics of hybridization through metaphoric means and explains that the Mexica
made a spiritual journey from the tzompantliskull racks attached to templesto
Golgotha, the place of the skull, where Christ died.67 Ravicz metaphor does help
to understand the similarities between Mexica and Iberian religiosities: both are
steeped in blood, death, sacrifice and the subsequent rebirth of life.
It can be seen how the transition to the Christian religion and the amalgamation
of the Christian god into the Mexica pantheon would not have been difficult. The
assimilation of Christ into the Mexica psyche, however, is not proof that spiritual
conquest had been effected. Moreover, the ease at which Christ and his bloody
sacrifice could be incorporated actually reinforced the basic tenets of Mexica
46


spirituality: Christs ability and willingness to be sacrificed mirrored the actions and
motivations of the deity impersonators in Mexica public performance.68 The essence
of Mexica belief on the dualities of life and death then could remain largely
unchanged, especially in the realm of sacred drama. Louise Burkharts analysis of
how death was perceived and manipulated by the friars and the Mexica alike is
enlightening. For one, the vast difference in the concept of the body and soul could
only be mitigated by officially incorporating Mexica concepts of body and soul into
the new system. Using yolia, the Nahuatl term for the heart soul for instance, was
how the friars attempted to convey the concept of the Christian soul or animal9 The
primary difference is that there exists only one Christian soul and it is separate from
the body and the earthly realm. The Mexica had a multiplicity of souls, and the yolia
would both travel to the realm of Mictlan, the land of the dead, in the event of
deathbut also partially remain behind to lend life to the bones. Again, we see the
Mexica concepts of life-out-of-death remaining strong, and this idea of animated
bones would be further reinforced by Christian eschatology. Indeed, while serving to
preserve old Mexica concepts, the catechistic drama of the Final Judgment was a way
for the friars to convey European concepts of sin as best they could, as the Nahua
lacked any notion of punishment after death but they believed that human actions
could be responsible for a final destruction.. .friars may have found it more effective
to associate punishment for sin with the end of the world rather than with individual
death... [this] could have coincided with Mexica views of collectivity and may have
47


deemphasized individual salvation.70 The Mexica may not have had European
concepts of punishment and sin71 but their tolerance to pain and embrace of
mortification of the flesh helped make up for this. While Christian sensibilities
viewed their autosacrifice as a form of penance, the Nahua version gave life to and
renewed the world and was more closely aligned with the original sacrifice of Jesus.
Essentially, although the friars and the Mexica may have employed these
methods for different reasons, the end result is that the Mexica could still practice
some form of blood sacrifice nearly as regularly as they used to. The friars, seeing it
as penance for past sins, would have encouraged such behavior while denying that it
was a direct continuation of the very concepts they were trying to quash. The
following passage from Motolinia gives a window into Mexica devotion as organized
by a local cofradia:
All of them, both men and women belong to the brotherhood of the Cross, and
not only on this night, but on all the Fridays in the year and three times a week in
Lent they scourge themselves in their churches. They do this before the bell rings
for the Ave Maria, and many days in Lent they do it after nightfall. When they
are troubled by drought or illness or any other adversity they go about from
church to church, carrying their crosses and scourging themselves. But the
scourging on Holy Thursday is a notable sight here in Mexico.. .in some places
five or six thousand and in others ten or twelve thousand.. .women, children, and
the lame and the halt all take part... Some use wire scourges, and others make
them of cord, which sting no less than the wire ones. They carry a great many
torches of pine knots.. .which give a great deal of light. Their procession and
scourging is most edifying to the Spaniards who are present; so much so that
they begin either to scourge themselves or to carry the cross or to hold the
torches, and I have seen many Spaniards weeping as they followed the
procession. As they go along they sing the Pater Noster and Ave Maria, the
Creed, and the Salve Regina... after the scourging they refresh themselves by
bathing with hot water and chili pepper.72
48


This passage is rich with detail about the emotional and heady effect the mass
scourging had on participants and spectators alike. It brings to mind the similar effect
once had on the Mexica populace with the public ritual performances that centered
around dancing, singing, and sacrifice. The image of thousands of devotees beating
and bloodying themselves with wire and rope scourges by firelight would have no
small effect and it is no wonder that many Spaniards were inspired by Native acts of
devotion and autosacrifice. The fact that this massive public ritual was orchestrated
by a cofradia is another example of just how much power the actions of these
brotherhoods had on the ritual actions and motivations of the populace. It is likely
that the spectacle of blood, fire, song and spectacle hearkened back to the ritual
practices of the old days. Although the spectacle has a patina of Christian devotion, it
is unlikely that this sort of fervor and ecstasy was genuinely devoted to a new,
imposed religion, but rather it was being done to celebrate a much older belief. At the
very least, if not a deliberate action of collective subversion, then it was a
hybridization of Mexica worldviews celebrating Christian belief. The Nahua could
learnor even believeChristian doctrine via the catechisms without being
committed to the Christian ethos or world view.73 Motolinia also describes the
collective ritual action of the city on Christmas, which is suspiciously similar to the
Mexica New Fire ceremony. On Christmas the entire city would build fires in their
courtyards and on top of their roofs, so much that the town looks, at night, like a
49


starry sky.74 The fire-lighting was accompanied by singing and drumming
throughout the night. One could speculate that lighting the fires across the city
hearkened back to the once-every-fifty-two-year New Fire ceremony in which the
fires started in the chest cavity of a nobles son would spread across the city and
signaled that another Mexica century had successfully come to a close and the
world would survive another bundle of fifty-two years. The birth of Christ the
savior may have been interpreted or utilized by the Mexica in a hybridized form of
celebrating the reordering and rebirth of the cosmos.
Balsera finds evidence that the friars best hope of converting the populace in the
theatre of evangelization was ironically dependent on pre-contact methods of public
performance and spectacle and on pre-contact expertise in incorporating new deities.
Going back to the idea of autosacrifice Balsera makes a convincing case that the friars
were playing with fire when they utilized the catechistic drama of The Sacrifice of
Isaac. The friars attempted to use this biblical story as proof that the Christian God
did not require human sacrifice and hence was a benevolent and good godin
contrast to the Mexica deities who demanded blood sacrifice and flaying.
Unfortunately for the friars, the God of Abraham is really not depicted in this
catechistic drama as a deity who is truly benevolent, but instead as one who cruelly
tests his subjects. Moreover, he is conveyed as one who demands total and complete
obedience. Due to their history of human sacrifice, the Mexica audience would not
have understood this Catholic play in the same fashion as a European viewer would
50


have. They would have received it in a highly hybridized form, one in which gods
who demand complete obedience and human sacrifice are the norm, not the
exception. It would only have served to reinforce some basic tenets of Mexica
spirituality.75 Furthermore, Balsera strengthens her case by providing evidence that
the Mexica audience would have sensed a strong correlation between the God of
Abraham and their old god Tlaloc. Both had the capacity to demand a very
emotionally trying sacrificethat of their children. The connection would have been
particularly salient to the Mexica because unlike their Spanish counterparts, the
Mexica had a very real and recent understanding of the dynamics of child sacrifice.
For the European, human sacrifice was a literary device; but for the Mexica, it had
been a reality. Tlalocs ceremonies caused the populace and the priests of the Mexica
nation much tears and heartache, yet they carried on. Likewise, the near-sacrifice of
his only child Isaac causes Abraham the utmost sorrow and pain, yet he carried on
and did not stop until the angel of God stayed his hand.76 In addition to his obvious
similarities to Tlaloc, the fact that Abrahams god demands sacrifice and then revokes
his demand at the last minute to test him alludes to another god: Tezcatlipocathe
similarities would not have gone unnoticed by the Mexica. Abrahams god is testing
obedience, and Abraham cannot win unless God allows him to. Abraham has no
power here, and his God seems less benevolent, merely more powerful. It is power
that Abraham fears, the ability to give and take away at any given moment, .in
spite of such faith, the depiction of Abrahams immense sorrow.. .also reveals the
51


inordinate suffering provoked in Abraham by the violence of the deitys command. In
the pain inflicted upon loyal worshippers, the god of the spiritual colonizers seems to
resemble the arbitrary god Tezcatlipoca.77 Of all of the gods in the Mexica pantheon,
Tezcatlipoca is the strangest and most unpredictable. He is the epitome of duality and
ambiguity and extremely powerful, and he demands abject loyalty from his followers.
In addition, this catechistic play suspiciously omits Gods one benevolent action in
the story: his promise to Abraham that his seed will bring forth generations of the
chosen. Omitting this reward only served to reinforce Mexica concepts of divinity
because Abrahams god did not have to reward Abrahams loyalty; Mexica deities
like Tezcatlipoca likewise had no obligation to reward the Mexica, and the closest
thing to a reward was to not visit them with hardship. The Mexica would have had a
much deeper understanding of the nature of god and of the universe from this play
than any Spanish audience could have comprehended, because this story was Mexica
reality:
.. .the God that emerges in the dramatic text.. .becomes Nahuatized, hybridized,
somewhat other to itself. By being depicted as not having given up forever the
demand for human sacrifice, if only just to test the obedience of his creatures, He
is not radically differentiated from the violent, frightening preHispanic deities of
the audience to whom all had also to be offered unhesitatingly in order to keep
78
cosmic time alive.
During the time the catechistic dramas were being presented there was another, at
times overlapping, drama taking place. The Cantares Mexicanos (Catholic songs of
faith translated into Nahuatl) were experiencing their own hybridization and
52


revitalization and gaining popularity among the Native elite. This was due in part to
Friar Sahaguns attempts to harness songs to help in the proliferation of Christianity
in his Psalmodias. Unfortunately for Sahagun, these songs with direct roots in pre-
Conquest ritual became popular among the Mexica elite for wholly unchristian
reasons. The nature of the songs themselves expressed the importance and discipline
the Mexica placed on ceremonious flowery language and the links to the warrior way
of life and ancestral communion and rebirth. Furthermore, the meanings of the songs
may have been subtly subverted by the Mexica scribes in the translation into Nahuatl.
Bierhorst tells us these dances and songs served the purpose of being ghost
songsmusical performances in which the ghosts of ancestors were summoned
through song, to fight with them and to ensure victory over their enemies.79 Not only
were the songs heroic but many of them sing openly about the Conquest, and tears
and sadness were commonplace. These songs seem to impart a particular desire to
return to the old ways but the likelihood of such a possibility depended on the song
and while some have the optimistic edge of ghost warriors to accompany it others are
openly defeated, tragic, and fatalistic. Pre-Conquest songs were often part of larger
rituals where mock battles were performed, some of them historical and
commemorating military conquest; others cosmological, although the historical and
mythical battles of the Mexica were often inextricably conflated. Pre-Conquest, these
songs would have been significant in calling the ancestors to join the dancing
warriors in their mock battles and war dances, to gain spiritual assistance to vanquish
53


their enemies in flowery wars. After the Conquest however, these songs and the
dances took on new meanings. Bierhorst suggests the impetus for a revitalization
movement occurred immediately after, and perhaps during, the Conquest, and it was
in this time period that most of the Cantares were composed. Whole series of songs
were devoted to historic battles of once-victorious Mexica where the enemies
vanquished were the Tlaxcalans, Huexotzincans, and Chalcans: all groups who
aligned with Cortes forces in the siege of Tenochtitlan.80 Revitalization may be
defined as the process wherein a culture in danger of being supplanted asserts itself in
a modified form, challenging its oppressor insofar as it dares. Ecstatic rituals, the
anticipated return of ancestors, and the promise of a mystical deliverance are among
the recurring.. .elements.81 The volador dance, for example, has a strong link to the
Cantares as a primary tool for revitalization. Volador dances before the Conquest
likely had calendrical and ghost-dance implications. It was a dance the Spanish
banned from time to time, being unsure of its true meaning.82 The pre-Conquest
meaning of the volador has been linked to the Xocotl Huetzi ceremony performed in
Tenochtitlan, but also having much older links in western Mexico and maintaining
01
correlations to the maize harvest, warfare, and sacrifice. The pole the dances are
performed on also has strong links to the poles found at the centers of guachimontes
(Central Western Mexican ceremonial sites) found in the Teuchitlan tradition as well,
and may symbolize an axis mundi. After the Conquest, the volador dance, with four
attached flying dancers, symbolic of the four directions, descend from the top in a
54


circular pattern around the pole until the bottom is reached. Their movement is
described as a whirling or flying as flowers or birds.85 The Cantares call down the
ancestors through song, and flowers, birds, hummingbirds, and butterflies are
metaphors for warriors flying and falling to earth. It is believed the volador dances
are representative of the ancestors coming back to join their living brothers in battle.
The songs sung to the voladores depict images of eagles floating down to earth
(eagles are classically symbolic of warriors), and previous leaders and the names of
kings like Moctezuma and Cuauhtemoc are often intoned. Although the volador
dances are a particularly salient example, the Cantares accompanied many other
dances, many of them in church. Although Burkhart does not wholeheartedly agree
with Bierhorsts interpretation of the Cantares as concrete evidence of a true
revitalization movement, she agrees that the Mexica were harnessing their old songs
in resistive ways certainly unforeseen by and very problematic for the Church:
The friars had consigned all of the Nahuas revered ancestors to the abyss of hell,
not only because all pagans belonged there but also in an effort to break the
moral authority invested in elders and ancestors. In this context, the most striking
aspect of the Cantares is their association of the Nahua ancestors, dead, rulers,
and heroic warriors with the heaven of the Christian God. Pagan past is united
with Christian present; the discontinuity represented by the Conquest is denied.
The old values of warfare and sacrifice continue to be asserted. The impact of
Christian morality is negligible... the poets who composed these texts...
accepted the Christian heaven and hell as simple geographic loci for the dead far
more readily than they accepted the idea of moral punishment. Cosmography
87
changed before ethics.
Again, we see the Mexica worldview persisting in the face of the new religion
through adaptation and hybridization. The friars longed to impart their version of
55


spiritual truth to the Natives, but in order to do that they would have to utilize
Native concepts to convey their message. Their ultimate goal was to kill all Native
belief, yet the only way to convince the Natives to buy into the new belief system
would be to keep at least part of the old belief system intact. In an ironic twist, the
friars were grudgingly and/or unwittingly encouraging Native belief systems while
trying to suppress it at the same time. The Natives may have wondered if their
conquerors were entirely sane.
In the Cantares, the Mexica heroes and tlatoanis of old were associated with the
Christian heaven as opposed to the Christian hell (as demonstrated in the above
quotation). This lends merit to Bierhorsts suggestion that these were indeed a form of
ghost songs which symbolically called down the ancestors to join in battle alongside
their living descendants. The songs are rife with descriptions of celestial battlefields;
the afterlife of their old mlers is a specifically Mexica paradise of battle. The area
where the drum lies, and the area where the ghost dance occurs, is called the
huehuetitlan, and it transforms: with the arrival of ghost warriors, it assumes the
character of a miniature paradise and may be called the flower house, the flower
court, the cavern house, the moxcoacalli (house of cloud comrades?), or the home of
God.88 In calling the warrior ancestors down through Christianized versions of
Mexica realms of the dead, it is important to note that these ancestors were bringing
not only their warrior selves, but their celestial paradise with them. The Mexica had
combined the Christian paradise with their own concepts of a glorious warrior
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afterlife. In bringing the celestial battlefield with them, the ghosts of the ancestors
were preparing for a glorious battle with the conqueror, one in which the old city of
Tenochtitlan would be reborn as a celestial battlefield and paradise through the songs
and dances.
Again, in keeping with Burkharts line of thought, we can also look to Friar
Sahaguns Psalmodia as an excellent example of how the friars efforts to harness old
beliefs could backfire. Bierhorst posits that that the Cantares and Psalmodia were
interchangeably influencing the other. Moreover, Sahagun obviously borrowed
imagery from the Cantares to cater to Native tastes, but it is likely that he did not
realize that the imagery loved by his Native converts was ghost-song imagery. In the
case of the song about the three Magi (likely authored by Sahagun or one of his
aides), we see that the friar borrowed too much imagery, and in so doing was a
contributor to furthering Mexica beliefs, In the magi song in the Cantares (Song 55),
the native singer is mainly interested in getting the three (warrior) kings killed on the
presumed battlefield of Bethlehem so that he can produce them as revenants; then, by
analogy, he moves promptly to the business of producing ancestral Aztecs. In this
case we have Christian heroes that can only be transformed into Mexica warriors
through the act of Mexica-style death and rebirth. Indeed, in the segment to follow,
we can even see the possibility that Jesus as the baby messiah is a warrior as well. An
abridged section from Song 55 serves as an example:
LV Here begins a jewel song concerning the nativity of our lord Jesucristo. Don
57


Francisco Placido put it together in the year 1553.
Let him be prayed to, princes. Let loose your creations, your turquoise jewels.
Lets have jade jewels, god jewels your rosaries! Lets go with these and
pleasure the savior whos come to earth in Bethlehem...
Tinted popcorn flowers are scattering down. There! Gods creation has
descended to earth... As jewels, as plumes, the wise men, these kings, prayed to
the virgin, to Santa Maria. And what did they do? They went away bearing your
glory, True God, True Man! Lets all rejoice brothers. Yonder in Bethlehem they
lie destroyed, they, they plumes, the jadelike jewels, the princes, broken. And as
multicolored bracelet jewels those princes rose in glory to the sky. Weeping
songs are spinning down. Your precious ones, O God, are entertained with
flowers of sadness. As multicolored bracelet jewels those princes rose in glory to
the sky... My songs are shrilling like gold bells. 1 seek these braves of mine, these
Jewel Land dwellers. 1 thread their songs as jades: I recall them ...I sing my
sorrows, grieving. Where are the princes? Where are those eagle jaguars? Yes,
they went away to the place where all are shorn ...It seems this very moment
they've arrived here on earth, have come to Bethlehem. Ho! Let there be dancing
here.90
The Concheros, Children of la Virgen
As shown above, the use of Catholic icons, tools, and designs in no way entirely
divested the indigenous people of their own spiritual identities. Perhaps the most
salient example of this is the Virgen de Guadalupe.
In the year 1531 (just ten years after the Conquest) an Indian catechist, Juan
Diego, had a vision of a dark-skinned Virgin Mary on the hill of Tepeyac, speaking
Nahuatl and announcing that she had come in order to shelter the oppressed natives.91
In speaking to Juan Diego, she used phrases to describe herself that were similar to
those used to describe gods prior to the coming of the Spaniards. She said that she
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was In Tloque Nahuaque, the Lord of What is Around Us and Touching Us, the title
used by the Aztecs to describe their pervasive God.92 Furthermore, the hill of
Tepeyac was also the sacred mountain of the goddess Tonantzin, the mother of all
Mexica gods.
The Virgen de Guadalupe represents many things to the Mexican people. She is
used by the Catholic Church to bring the Indians into her fold. However, the many
syncretic connections between the Virgen de Guadalupe and Tonantzin are obvious.
Her dark skin helped to consolidate the loyalty of similarly dark-skinned indigenous
Mexicans, particularly at a time when indigenous peoples were being told that their
culture was inferior and that a lighter, European phenotype was the ideal. The Virgen
validates indigenous culture and beauty. Her face encompasses both great love and
sadness, and one gets the impression that her deep love for the Indian is reflected
alongside her sadness at the violence of the Conquest. She became a champion of the
indigenous, brown, and impoverished, and engendered an early nationalism among
the indigenous. She was later used as the patron saint of many indigenous political
uprisings as well as the protector and defender of poor peoples in the revolutions of
1810 and 1910. In this century, some schools of liberation theology have continued
this tradition of choosing her as the patron of liberation for the poor. She has the
Christian characteristics of a gentle mother, and yet she also has the indigenous
characteristics of warrior and a defender. Guadalupe is the epitome of hybridization
of both belief systems. Symbolically, she is the most powerful deity of the Mexican
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people. It is striking that it was Guadalupe and not Jesus who took on this role for the
colonized Nahua. Jesus, while representative of that original god sacrifice, was also
representative of man and thus of the common people who sacrificed their blood so
life could bloom. Perhaps his method of sacrifice so closely mirrored that of humans
that he could not be embraced wholeheartedly as a deity in his own right. Perhaps he
was revered and honored as the ultimate example of a warrior sacrifice. Regardless, it
was Guadalupe-Tonantzin, the great warrior-mother, that would win the hearts of the
Nahua people more completely.
The complex history of colonization, hybridization, syncretism and
transculturation between different religious philosophies, concepts of the body,
sacrifice, drama, and spectacle all clashed and mixed to create new philosophies on
life, death, and god. The history of the Mexica worldview persisting in the face of
Catholic dominance through adaptation and hybridization culminated in the creation
of what is today considered the Conchero style of danza Azteca. Taking its cues from
the Passion Plays of Christ and Catholicism, the Conchero style (though there are
many different versions of Conchero style) developed around a devotion to
Catholicism and a great reverence for the Virgen de Guadalupe. Before modem
Chicanos were dancing in the streets of the U.S., the Conchero form of danza, the
precursor to modem Aztec dance, grew into its own Catholic/indigenous hybridized
tradition that has continued for centuries and into the present.
The Concheros in Mexico developed a religious identity that is centered on the
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Virgen and her duality as both a European-imposed and indigenous-rooted goddess.
There are many alabanzas (spirituals) that are still sung today by danzantes in
Mexico and in the U.S. alike during velacion ceremonies, and more than a few are
dedicated to the Virgen de Guadalupe. The song Virgen Morenita, for example,
which honors the brownness of the Virgen and her connection to indigeneity and the
mother/warrior goddess Tonantzin:
Virgen Morenita, de Tepeyoacan, Que para el mestizo, Fue su majestad. De
Rostro sereno, Con manto de estrellas, Con rosas de invierno, Para las
doncellas. Tu que representas, la raza Indiana, Con la piel morena, Reina
Mexicana. Teres la Tonantzin, De un pais hermoso, Desde Cuahtemoctzin,
Imperio Glorioso. Morenita Hermosa, Con tu linda historia, Tu pueblo reposa, Y
eres tu las gloria. Que viva mi tierra, Tierra Mexicana, Valeinte y guerrera, De
alma Mexicana. [Bronze Virgin, of Tepeyac, for whom the mestizo was their
queen. Of the peaceful face, who wears a mantle of stars, with roses of
wintertime, for the maidens. You who represents the indigenous people, with
your bronze skin, Mexican Queen. You are Tonantzin, of the beautiful country,
since Cuauhtemocs glorious empire. Beautiful brown goddess, with your
precious history, your peaceful town, you are the glory. Long live my brave
Mexican land, the Mexican soul.]94
There are other reasons why the Concheros would have felt a strong connection
to the Virgen de Guadalupe: her indigeneity, based on her connection to previous
Mexica goddess(es), as well as her support for the poor, the oppressed, and the
Indian. She is both submissive and humble to the Catholic church on the one sidea
dutiful mother and obedient goddess to the Christian God; yet on the other hand she is
a warrior and an agent of subversion. The dancing style of the Concheros mirrors this
dualor conflictingpersona, and this persona of the conquered and colonized is
shared by the Concheros. Their dancing style is at once humble and strong;
61


subversive and sacred. They dance with their shoulders hunched over, but the body is
tight, not loose. The dance is done almost protectively, with the dancers eyes focused
downward.
In place of the drum, many traditional Concheros use the concha (their
namesake, a stringed instrument often made from the shell of an armadillo) and
mandolin as well as cascabeles (rattles attached to the legs) to keep the beat. When
drumming was made punishable by the Spanish, danzantes used strong beats on the
stringed instruments to preserve the music and beat of danza, and therefore the
concha is symbolic of the struggle to preserve danza, the ingenuity of its
preservationists, and the continuity of indigenous practices and belief systems.
Without the concha, danza would not have been preserved.
The sound of the concha is beautiful and sad at the same time in a lovely
combination of the angelic and weepy. An excerpt of an alabanza below reflects how
the Concheros were able to preserve the danza tradition. This particular alabanza
appears to have been written to honor the efforts of the Concheros but it likely has
much older roots.95 This beloved alabanza, titled Buenos Dias Paloma Blanca, is
often used in danzante ceremonies; it even has a specific use in honoring the sun as
dawn approaches, thus signaling the end of the all-night velacion. The use is highly
syncretic as an elder danzante pointed out that This alabanza, like many used in the
Mexican Catholic church and in the Azteca dance tradition, has an ancient history.
The Virgen de Rocio in Spain has been known for four hundred years as da Paloma
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Blanca .. This is one of the many examples of the syncretic nature of danza Azteca
in Mexico.96 Likewise, yet another popular alabanza, titled Soy Danzante is strongly
indicative of syncretism and rejoices in how the practice of danza was preserved and
guarded through the use of the concha, and by extension, of Catholicism,
Soy danzante por amor, A mis ritos y a mi dios, Es mi danza, esperanza,
Es bonanza, es pudor. Con mi concha Bailare, Con mi canto
evocare...Con mis pasos voy diciendo, Mis secretos guardare...[Vm a
danzante for love, for my rituals and for god, my danza is hope,
prosperity, and modesty. With my concha I dance, with my song I invoke
97
the spirit, with my steps I will be telling the secrets I will guard.]
In weekly ensayos (danza practice and prayer sessions) and ceremonies,
participants are always reminded of the struggle of the Concheros to preserve these
traditions and the sacrifices they made to do so. In one ceremony, a danzante capitan
exclaimed, People died for these traditions, they died for them! And we must keep
them alive! We must pass these ways on to our children, so that our grandchildren
98
may have them.
Conchero and Mexica Styles
Despite the continuity, over the years and across distances, danza has inevitably
diverged in style, interpretation, and meanings. The most obvious diversion is
between the styles of danza known as Conchero and Mexica. Concheros, as has been
shown, were the preservationists of danza, who kept it alive through the centuries
63


after the Conquest, substituting string concha instruments for drums and
incorporating Catholic ritual in order to ensure the continuation of their underlying
indigenous belief systems.
Conchero-style dancers tend to be more traditional, more rural, and decidedly
more Catholic. They have dedicated themselves to the Virgen de Guadalupe, and
more completely embrace saints days and other Catholic holidays. Their costumes
traditionally cover more of the body due to Catholic impositions of modesty. Certain
danzantesof the danza de tradicion styleare exclusively Catholic.
Mexico or Mexicayotl dancers, on the other hand, tend to be come from an urban
educated elite, and markedly attempt to stylize their danza and their rituals towards
what they understand as more indigenous belief systems, rather than focusing on
Catholic/European ones. Their costumes may appear more Aztec, and their
ceremonies may be more focused on indigenous deities, dates, and rituals. The
Mexico style grew out of the Mexican intellectual Mexicanidad movement of the
1920s and its attempt to instill a sense of pride in the indigenous roots, culture, and
history of Mexico. In many cases, however, Mexico-style danzantes will still honor
Catholic saints or the Virgen de Guadalupe; sing Spanish alabanzas, and use the
concha in their velacidnes. Most Mexico-style danzantes, and danza Chicana (a
Mexico style that developed on the U.S. side of the border) danzantes are accepting of
Catholic traditions and aspects. This is partly how the principles of Conformidad and
Union are put into practice, and their performances and ceremonies are visual proof
64


of the transculturation and syncretism that danza has undergone in the past five
hundred years. On the opposite end of the continuum from the danza de tradition
style, certain Mexica-style danzantes, however, reject all Catholic influences, in an
attempt to reject the religion of the Spanish conqueror and return to what is conceived
as a purely indigenous style, to the point of rejecting the concha in favor of the
indigenous drum or singing songs exclusively in Nahuatl.
In practice, however, the line between Conchero and Mexico styles of danza is
often blurred. The differences between the two may be superficially heightened for
political, cultural, or religious reasons; one dancer told me that the differences
between Conchero and Mexico styles have been magnified by the younger and more
nationalistic Chicanos in the United States that do not want to be associated with
Catholicism or any European practices. In Mexico the differences may be less
pronounced. For the most part, there appears to be more mutual respect among
danzantes for both styles of dance. Although the conversation tends to delineate
between two main types, the Conchero and the Mexico styles, one capitanljefe I
spoke with identified four different branches of danza that exist along a continuum of
indigenous and Catholic faith and traditions:
The Concheros who took it post-Conquest and hid it behind the Catholic faith
and allowed it to survive in times of severe repression. Then there is the danza de
tradition who are actually more hard-lined Christian and they would eschew
danza if it didnt relate to church, whereas the Concheros are actually saving it.
Then there are the Mexicanidad or Mexicayotl [Mexico-style] and they were
formed by intellectuals in the twenties but they didnt really foment until the
eighties and they followed Florencio Yescas, and the fourth branch that I identify
65


I call it danza Chicana, generally danzantes bom on this side of the border and
their danza has taken on other mutations, or metamorphoses, so instead of
dancing the quatro like they do in Mexico, some take Native American traditions
and go to Sun Dance...99
Though the centuries have produced the inevitable differences in styles, meanings,
and symbology in danza, there is not any rift or schism so deep that it prevents
danzantes of all branches and styles from coming together and sharing ritual time and
space, of being part of the family of danza.
Danza, the Conquest, and the Centuries
These ways, these belief systems, and the pageantry-filled practices that
expressed them, were developed in the ancient and ritually fertile ground of
Mesoamerica. The historical matrix in which danza developed and grew over the
years speaks volumes about the beauty of ritual and belief systems as well as the
resistive and adaptive nature of religious identities. The interconnectedness of life and
death intertwined to give meaning and legitimacy to a great and powerful empire, and
the profundity of these concepts were manifested in the very bodies of its citizens.
Those same notions survived after the Conquest and were adapted to lend new
significance and a method of resistance to a conquered nation and its decimated
populace. Fate had been both kind and harsh for the Mexica, and the belief systems in
which their daily lives were couched accepted this as the general nature of life for
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every human being. These belief systems and practices made them both proud and
fierce in the face of death and war, while at the same time encouraging humility in the
face of forces beyond their control. The Spanish did their best to tear the fabric of
religious identity from the bodies of those they now controlled, but the Mexica hearts
and mindstheir teyolia and tonallithe Spanish could never completely rule, and
certainly could not own. In the wake of destruction the symbol of the Mexicas
greatest mother warrior rose to the defense and for the protection of her defeated
people. In the midst of it all, during the golden age of Tenochtitlan and into the
colonial arena of the Church, danza would twist and adapt, bending and moving
through the swirls of time and into the present day.
The Conquest would leave an indelible mark on the descendants of all Native
peoples conquered and the processes of colonization had many negative long-term
effects on its descendants. Not the least of which was a deep sense of loss and
colonized identities experiencing an existential crisis. The Concheros had consciously
preserved danza Azteca for five centuries, and danza would make waves in early 20th
century intellectual circles in Mexico. It would catch fire when Mexicos neighbor to
the north, itself the homeland of many Mexicans and Chicanos, was experiencing its
own cultural revolt and renaissance of its colonized peoples: black, red, and brown. In
the 1960s the colonized would openly resist their institutionally-created inferior
status. Their struggles would bring about a renewed sense of purpose, self-respect,
freedom, and above all, the search for identity.
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CHAPTER 3
Danza Azteca... is oju
the Chicana/o movem
time period that Chic
collectively made co,
cultural traditions a
processes of conquest
SOY CHICANO, SOYDANZANTE: DANZA CHICANA
en said to have been introduced to the United States during
ent of the late 1960s and early 1970s ... it was during that
ana social activists, scholars, artists, and musicians
ncerted efforts to reclaim the indigenous histories and
nd practices they felt had been denied them through
and imperialism.100
Dahza Azteca and Its Introduction to Chicanos
Although danza was introduced to Chicano communities on a larger scale
through the Chicano movement, Huerta also notes that danza had been practiced in
U.S. long before the movement was popularized through the powwow circuit. Dr.
capitan and cultural anthropologist, also offers compelling
ssociated ritual activitiesthe spaces known as mitotes, and
titliztlimwere practiced in continuity before and after the
Enrique Maestas, a danza
evidence that danza and a
the dances known as mito
Conquest period up until the recent present:
Thus, mitote, as sites
identified in Spanish
de Vaca until the pre:
and development of f
Mexican and Texas
supported by an analy
documents as mitote
for the gathering of Native American dance societies can be
reports for Native peoples in Texas from the time of Cabeza
sent. They also were the site for the cultural reproduction
rehistoric and colonial Native American dance societies for
Indians. Therefore, Texas Indian cultural continuity is
sis of Indigenous ceremonies referred to in colonial
.. The presence of a general form of intertribal dance
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ceremony known as mitote suggests that an Indigenous form of traditional ritual
observance through body movement existed in a form that could easily be
transmitted and shared across nation and language differences. Danza Azteca has
traditionally filled this role...102
Maestas goes on to say that danza is the result of the transactions between the Native
Mexican and Texas Indian cultures with that of the Spanish colonizers, and that
ultimately, numerous characteristics in the social organization, equipment, and
sentiment of danza reproduce aspects of prehistoric culture in the modem expression
of danza Azteca. 103
In 1967, danza Azteca in its modem form was officially introduced to the United
States by Andres Segura, a danzante from Mexico, who formed the Xinachtli (seed
in Nahuatl) danza Azteca groups in Texas and California.104 Segura would come to be
one of the fathers of danza in the U.S., an elder whom danzantes recall with love and
respect. Another revered elder who helped introduce Chicano communities to danza
was another Mexican danzante, Florencio Yescas. According to one capitan, Segura
came from a more Conchero tradition of strict hierarchy and danza protocol, whereas
Yescas had previously broken away from the hierarchical Conchero tradition, even
spending time as a cabaret dancer in Havana, and Yescas followed the Mexica-style
vein of danza.105 Yescas was noted for his strong performative tradition; he wanted to
bring danza to the U.S. to showcase the beauty and power of Mexican history and
culture, and to instill cultural pride in Chicano youth. Segura was more concerned
with the spiritual lives of his followers and wanted to teach Chicanos about the
69


tradition so they could evolve spiritually by praying in the vein of their ancestors.
Each man provided a counterpart to the other, operating as two sides of the same
coin. Both men were fulfilling a mission of Conquista on Chicanos in the U.S.they
felt they had a duty to help Chicanos reconnect with their indigenous roots.106
Chicanos found both teachers appealing and in the end both were necessary to
completely capture the Chicano imagination with both the beauty of the performance
and nurturing of the Chicano spirit by danzas philosophies:
The sociocultural and material battles that were waged during the Chicana/o
movement created a moment, or perhaps a series of moments, that fostered a
reincarnation of danza as a possibility for continued relationships between
indigenous peoples of the north and those of the south, between Chicanas/os and
Mexicanas/os. It was within this context that... Maestro Andres Segura and
Maestro Florencio Yescas, began weaving their way into the spiritual, cultural,
107
and political consciousness of many Chicanas and Chicanos.
The differences between the two teachers philosophies led to some tension
between their students. Segura, who was instrumental in bringing the Conchero
tradition to the U.S., is also noted for having begun to document the changes in danza
in Mexico and even produced an artistic video in 1961 entitled El es Dios. This film
showed the transformations taking place in danza; it showed Concheros in ostrich
feathers and complete bodily coverage, he starts in Conchero regalia and it transforms
to Mexico in the film. It is interesting because Segura establishes an old-style
Conchero movement with ostrich feathers here, but in Mexico he was already
108
documenting the change [between Conchero and Mexico styles of dance].
According to a capitan I spoke to, Yescas was especially influential on a Denver
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dance leader who now leads a well-established professional ballet folklorico group in
Denver, Sabor Latino, that incorporates a great deal of beautifully stylized danza
Azteca. They often perform at schools and community events where their danza
Azteca is often specifically requested. However, some danzantes, particularly those
who followed Seguras philosophy, believe that danza is first and foremost a spiritual
tradition and not meant to be entertainment, nor to exploit the dances of the Mexica
people. Thus they are at odds with using danza in a performative, non-spiritual way. I
have visited both practice sessions and performances of Sabor Latino a few times in
the past year, to get a feel for how danza is treated in a performative setting. Although
its founder was one of Yescas first students who learned the methods and meanings
of the tradition well and has incorporated stylized versions of danza into his ballet
folklorico repertoire, I admit I was struck by the sense of danza in such a setting.
While a few of his students seemed to have knowledge of where danza came from,
and those few even participate in other danza circles and their ceremonies, for a
majority of the performers in their efforts for stylized perfection, danza had lost much
of its meaning. To be fair, the power of the dance remained, strongly enticing to
audiences, engendering something akin to a nationalistic sense of appreciation, but
the sense of prayer and reverence was missing. In its place was beautiful, perhaps
outsized showmanship accompanied by an odd sense of sterility. Movements were
perfected but the faces of most dancers reflected not the vigilant prayer of the
danzantes in the ensayos; but often a strong sense of competition and prideful
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individualism and a complete celebration of the warrior. In the absence of copal
smoke, or any altar at all, female energy seemed to take a side stage, and I got a
strong feeling of gender imbalance. Danza in this setting seemed to go against what I
had learned danza was supposed to be about: prayer and humility. This experience
gave me a better sense of why tension existed regarding the use and mission of danza.
Another danzante in the same situation (visiting a Sabor Latino practice session) told
me that she felt similar feelings. On the one hand, when balletfolklorico groups
incorporate danza into their repertoire they are adding a necessary indigenous
component to a show that is ultimately about engendering cultural pride and
spreading an appreciation of cultural beauty. On the other hand, danza Azteca was
protected for nearly five hundred years for the purposes of preserving an indigenous
cosmovision and belief system, and ultimately for the purposes of communing with
the divine. Reducing it to the level of pure entertainment is understandably
controversial.
These two elders, Yescas and Segura, took it upon themselves to teach several
key Chicanos the ways and meaning of danza. These students would in turn become
the respected capitanes and jefes that Chicano danza groups would later derive their
own tradition from. In a sense, it was a modem hierarchy of danza specifically for
Chicanos that would branch out into a viable community. Normally, the elders with
the authority to give palabra or to begin their own groups or advise younger dancers
all reside in Mexico. Most Mexican danzantes, especially Concheros, have
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connections to elders whose families may have roots in danza going back many
generations, some even as far back as the colonial period. It was the Conchero
tradition that preserved danza, and many of the Conchero groups were family-based.
However, with the two Mexican masters teaching and giving leadership roles to
danzantes in the United Statesa new hierarchy in a new spacea new tradition of
danza loosely based in the Chicano politics of the 1960s was bom. It is important to
note that its interconnectedness to Chicano politics is today seen by participants as
both a strength and a weakness.
Danza as Political Expression
Danza would become an integral artistic and spiritual expression for El
Movimiento here in the U.S. as well as the parallel Mexicanidad movement that
occurred earlier in Mexico. One capitantjefe I spoke with who has been dancing for
over three decades and was active in the Chicano movement and American Indian
Movement in the early 1970s, related it in the following way: Danza is one of the
cornerstones of Chicanismo for sure, it doesnt mean all Chicanos practice it;
nonetheless it is at least a brick in the foundation, it is an integral part of it, and it is
one of the strengths we rely on to develop ourselves. Mexicanness is Mexicanidad
and so danza is a famous part of Chicanismo', its part of the foundation of
Mexicanidad, and I dont think either would be complete without danza, they would
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be missing a big part without it109
In Denver, one foundational example of politics and danza in collaboration
occurred in the late 1970s when students of Yescas and Segura performed danza and
associated ceremonies at various parks in Denver to reclaim them for Chicanos,
renaming Lincoln Park to La Alma Park, Curtis Park to Mestizo Park, and Columbus
Park to Chicano Park. Danza was instrumental in the symbolic conquest of these
community spaces. These followed the New Fire ceremony of 1975, according to a
local capitan, the first New Fire ceremony held since the Conquest: [The year] 1975
was the beginning of the Mexica movement to reclaim our heritage.110 This was the
also the year Florencio Yescas was bringing the Mexica style of danza to the U.S.
Another danzante told me that the danzante must always remain humble; the
danzante must carry the people. When participating in protests for immigrant rights,
or against Columbus Day, or in honor of Cesar Chavez or Corky Gonzalez, I often
see the danzantes at the front of the protest, but he says that this is wrong: the
danzante must always be at the back and carry the people with the strength of their
prayer. The Concheros in Mexico operate this way. As explained in the book of
alabanzas regarding the song Vamos Caminando:
A spiritual pilgrim must also actively seek solutions to the problems of his/her
people and the world they live in. Ollin, or movimiento, is the path of the
spiritual warrior, the true pilgrim. We must seek to serve others in order to serve
ourselves. We must sacrifice ourselves before we ask others to sacrifice for us. A
true danzante must serve the needs of his/her people. A spiritual warrior does not
ask them to serve his/her needs.111
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Essential to an understanding of Mexican and Chicano nationalism is that it is an
assertion of indigeneity. Danza was instrumental in bringing this assertion about in a
visceral way. Many young Chicanos would be drawn to danza through their
connection and activity in El Movimiento. Today this connection is maintained in that
many dancers continue to be introduced to danza through educational networking or
political activism.
The Aztlan Homeland
The Chicano movement embraced and romanticized notions of an indigenous
identity for Chicanos. The national Chicano student advocacy/political group MEChA
(.Movimiento Estudiantil de Chicano de Aztlan) asserted in their bylaws that the
reappropriation of Aztlan was a goal. Aztlan, the mythical homeland of the
Chichimec-Mexica people and geographically idealized as the Four Comers region of
the southwestern United States (but politically imagined to include land lost in the
Mexican-American War and the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo), gained
prominence in the discussion of Chicano nationalism by the emergence of El Plan de
Aztlan.112 .. .El Plan bore a resemblance to the danza code of La Conquista. The call
for a re-creation of an Aztec spiritual homeland strongly correlated with danza
Azteca... The idea of Aztlan was a more radical response involving the quest for a
renewed sense of identityChicano identity.113 The Brown Berets, an activist group
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fashioned after the model of the Black Panthers, asserted that Brown Is Beautiful
and that Aztlan should be asserted and protected. One danza capitan reflected on his
close friendship as a youth with a Brown Beret and their discussion of how danza fit
into the politics of the time:
As for it being a political statement I have a friend that I look up to and so when
I was in high school he was one of the Brown Berets that helped us, and I was
telling him that we like to be completely non-political, and he said thats bullshit,
because it is political, so yes, anything we do in the public sphere is political by
its very nature of being public, so yes, its political because people see us do it
and they ask us questions, and if someone asked us to be present at an immigrant
march we would do that.114
Immigrant rights rallies often carry the presence and prayer of danza, not simply as a
response to current broken immigration policies but founded in the rhetoric of the
Chicano movement from the 1960s, with strong links to the concept of Aztlan.
Furthering the Chicano I danza interest in immigrant rights was that the very idea
of immigrant status was being challenged. Many Chicanos are descended from
ancestors who have been in the U.S. for generations, and some can trace their lineage
to when much of the southwestern U.S. was still Mexico; yet others can find both
Mexican Indian and Native North American ancestry. My own background for
instance, includes a grandfather from Monterrey, Mexico and a great-grandfather
from Guanajuato, Mexico, while on both of my grandmothers sides my family can
trace many generations back in Texas and links to Texas Cherokee as well as East
Texas Comanche. My father, a theologian and a Chicano activist since the 1960s, has
always been adamant that we were not immigrants and that ultimately, no Mexican
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could be an immigrant on land controversially taken by the United States. He also
raised us with the understanding that all Mexicans are indigenous to this continent
and that the concept of us as immigrants was nonsensical; a concept that could only
come about after Mexico ceded much of its land to the U.S. via the Treaty of
Guadalupe Hidalgo. One danzante explained migration in the following symbolic
way: Time is circular, there was never a beginning to time other than birth and
death. Time is astral, this planet is astral. The circle is female, inclusive, eternal, a
spiral, and infinite. The linear is male, but the spiral is the connection humans make
with the sky and the earth, it has no beginning, and that is the state of migration today
and migration then. We go in circles on this land, its the way it has always been.115
Seen in the light of continual back-and-forth migration between the north and south
of this continent by its peoples, the contemporary concept of illegal immigration
does not make sense.
Since the 1960s danzantes in the U.S. incorporated political agendas, if not
outright activism in their day-to-day life, but it is a different type of politicization
from that of the secular Chicano. It was a politicization steeped in esoteric
philosophies and spiritual belief systems, and the meaning of danzantes political
involvement has changed considerably over the decades. As one danzante expressed
to me:
I think if you want to do stuff about whats happening politically you have to
pray about it, and you have to live like a human being and live like an indigenous
person, your life has to be the protest. Im not going to not wear my traditional
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clothing, or eat my traditional food, you have to own all those pieces of yourself
and that in itself is a protest, your life becomes a protest to the conventional
world and thats more powerful than that 24-hour press access that you get
sitting in a parade [the annual March Against Columbus protest held in Denver]
that nobody gives a shit about... danza is about being a warrior, but a warrior of
the spirit, its a warrior against the conscious mind, you fight against that part of
you that limits you so you can become enlightened.. .To eliminate your
awareness of only your physical self and to understand your spiritual
connectedness to all things that exist.116
The idea of Aztlan as an occupied nation stemmed from the more nationalist sects of
Chicano intellectuals, and although radical, they were not without merit, especially in
the tumultuous time of the 1960s. Today these nationalist views of the Chicano
movement are not without critique by danzantes, as one expressed: With Chicano
politics, being Chicano is about being indigenous but today it is about controlling the
system but danza doesnt have the same goal. The goal [of danza\ is unity. The
politics of the Chicano movement need to change. When we started danza it was a
political statement but in the 1960s nationalism became a powerful movement in all
countries and it further divides us. As a civilization, we aspire to love, this is part of
Chicano politics too!117
Aztec Imagery and Romanticization
The political awareness of the Chicano movement would not have exploded
without a simultaneous cultural renaissance. Danza, with its powerful and sensual
romanticization of the Aztec, was a potent representation of that renaissance. Chicano
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art in the form of murals, music, and dance all reiterated the same messages: We are
beautiful and We are indigenous and We must fight to preserve our culture.
Aztec warriors with large feathered headdresses and dark-skinned Aztec princesses
would become household images. The colorful artwork of Mexican artist Jesus
Helguera was instrumental in romanticizing the Aztec to Chicanos, while at the same
time reinforcing traditional male and female gender roles and heterosexuality.
Depictions of the muscular Aztec male warrior Popocatepetl holding the beautiful,
soft, supine Aztec princess Ixtacihuatl are among the most famous of the images that
helped shaped a Chicano aesthetic. Such images are not necessarily true to indigenous
form and style, and the messages they conveyed to a culture starving for positive self-
representation are complicated. Included in this complexity is that they may reinforce
European standards of beauty and European notions of conquest:
My reading proposes a more ambivalent relationship to Ixtacihuatl, her
fetishization, the romanticization of her dead, sensual, Indian body, and the
equation of the earth itself with the feminine form... these paintings dramatize
scenes from Mexican myth and history: romantic tales of the tragic love of the
Aztec Princess Ixtacihuatl and her lover, Popocatepetl, of amor indio\ They
form a visual link between modem Mexicanos (and by extension Chicanas/os)
and the Aztec heroes of a bygone era... Helguera often combined Maxfield
Parrish sunsets with Indian princesses resembling Lucha Reyes and Dolores
Del Rio and settings that owe more to Tinseltown than to Tenochtitlan. His
paintings feature a muscular and active Aztec warrior carrying or mourning
the scantily clad and voluptuous body of an Aztec princess. The image
inscribes particular fantasies about essential Mexican identities: the male is
cast in the subject position, a virile and potent warrior; the female is an object
of (visual) pleasure, a voluptuous and receptive body. ... She is silent, passive,
and always desirable. Such an image reinforces the passive sexuality of the
Indian woman as put forth in the story of La Malinche as La Chingada
[literally: the fucked one]. In this case, however, Ixta is reclaimed in that
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she is the object of desire not of the white conqueror but of the brown warrior.
118
Yet she is still always passive, receptive, sexualized.
Chicano muralists and artists looked to these representations as models for their own
works, and danzantes, especially those trained in the tradition of Yescas in the
Mexica vein, lookedand lookto this modem stylization of the ancient Aztec in
which to base their proud cultural image. Images in the Helguera style, of Aztec
warriors and princesses, continue to be popular in Chicano culture, from murals to
tattoos to Aztec dance costumes.119
The danzante from this tradition of Chicano pride and nationalism aspired (and
aspires) to the aesthetic made famous by Helguera. It has even become a point of
contention between danzantes who feel that danza is a spiritual tradition to which
sumptuous trappings and plumage are secondary. I spoke to several who were tired of
the clothing and dance competition into which danza sometimes devolves. A
conversation between two danzantes revealed the following:
I feel that sometimes people dont honor it as a spiritual activity, they dont give
it respect, its not exercise, its an ofrenda [offering]. Its not a fashion contest or
a macho man contest about whose feathers are longer.
A lot of people have lots of regalia, and thats all they focus on.
But its a way of life. Sure you have the gear, but you have to remember that all
those things are sacred, some dancers dont take care of the spiritual selves and
120
then they wonder why their life is in the shitter.
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Danzantes and Gendered Imagery
Sometimes even the roles of Aztec warrior and princess are played out in the
relations between men and women within danza circles. In the U.S. this aesthetic has
perhaps contributed to the roles men and women play within the hierarchy of danza,
which tends to be very male-dominated. I have been told that in the Conchero
tradition, women are treated with more equality because they have such respect for
the Virgen de Guadalupe and Malinche. In the U.S. Mexica-sty\e tradition, some men
try to adhere to an aesthetic and ideological concept of the Mexican warrior as a
bastion of pride and strength, a nuevo macho for the 21st century; one who protects
women and children and fights for justice. This can quickly take the form of
paternalism and within danza, some women have opted out of these male-dominated
spaces altogether. Not only are the women insulted by such paternalism, but they also
express grave concerns about the spiritual sincerity of some of the men who are
exercising positions of power in danza. One danzante capitan even went so far as to
1 01
say that the climate became one of predation: economic, psychological, and sexual.
The sexual predation was especially used by some men, both young and old, with
positions of power, to sexually conquer women who were new to danza, and these
women likewise operated in a passive manner. It is possible that aesthetic images of
the warrior and the princess have far-reaching effects on a population that is eager for
self-representation. I have come across many female danzantes who are critical and
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wary of how the aesthetics of power have played out in danza.
A machismo-dominated danza culture is cited by many female danzantes as an
imposition of European models of gender relations, and that the Mexico-style
danzantes, in their attempt to create more authentic indigenous identities, are actually
drawing on European influences. The Mexico style of danza in the U.S. is not alone in
being critiqued for male dominationin Mexico, Mexico danzantes are described as
sometimes being even more rigorous in their approach than their northern
counterparts: The Mexico have produced a gendered imagery that is more male than
female, and possibly more powerful than that of previous scenarios or stage settings
because it does not compromise. It is not mestizo, it does not attempt to accommodate
Catholicism or the multi-iconicity of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Where in the past her
image dominated Mexican popular culture with its inbuilt Catholicism, now is the
moment of the Aztec, bedecked in huge feather headdress. In Mexico however,
the danzantes have had a much longer project of nationalism than the U.S., and in
Mexico, this nationalist project of Mexicanidad has been largely state-sponsored,
which is very different than what occurred in the U.S., where Chicanos have been
encouraged to assimilate to the dominant Anglo culture.
Mexicanidad and Chicanismo: Indigineity and Cultural Pride
Although the Mexico danza movements on both sides of the border are rooted in
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Mexicanidad, the U.S. manifestations of danzadanza Chicanalikewise attempts
to return to more indigenous roots, and is just as heavily influenced by Chicanismo.
The Mexicano is a product of colonization and acculturation to Spanish language and
culture, and so the project of Mexicanidad strove to reconnect the mestizo Mexican to
his indigenous history and instill a pride in it. The Chicano carries the legacy of
Spanish conquest as well as the legacy of Anglo conquest. In the same way the
indigenous peoples of Mexico were forced to adopt Spanish language and culture,
Chicanos have been pressured to adopt Anglo language and culture. The Chicano
movement encouraged a pride in mestizo Mexican history. In both cases, the earlier
Mexicanidad and the later Chicanismo, the issue of indigenous identity would
become a core piece in the foundations of both. For Chicanismo however, a pride in
Mexican culture and the Spanish language had to be established before a reclamation
of the past of their indigenous cultures and Nahuatl language could take place.
The quest for a new cultural identity and the construction of Chicano nationalism
was in part a response to the more assimilationist attitudes of Mexican-
Americans in the 1950s. Many Chicanos saw that their parents attempt to
assimilate as Americans had been in vain, and, worse yet, this was done at the
expense of their own Mexican cultural identities... danza Azteca provided an
extremely interactive and visible way to connect with Mexico, and it was
connected to a much larger danza movement that had already been going on in
Mexico for centuries.123
Iconographic romanticization of the Aztec during the height of the Chicano
movement worked on affirming that the indigenous Mexican cultures were something
to be cherished and revitalized. It is important to remember that in the U.S., many
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Chicanos were raised with only minimal awareness of their indigenous ancestries.
The information they did receive often consisted of overly simplified misinformation.
Children learning stories of their indigenous ancestors were told violent stories of
bloodthirsty Aztecs without the context of history. Chicanos (particularly danzantes
who were adopting Aztec music, dance, religion, and regalia) desiring to create pride
in their indigenous heritage had to reconcile issues of ancestry, history, and
cultureissues that continue to raise questions and debate.
Conquest and Ritualized Violence in the Aztec State
The Aztec is the most salient image of a Mexican/Chicano reclamation of
identity. However, it is likely that for many practitioners of danza Azteca their actual
links to the historical Aztec people may be weak or non-existent. Due to the processes
of colonization it is very difficult for Mexicanos and especially Chicanos to be able to
trace which indigenous tribes of the Americas they are actually linked to. So why has
the Aztec nation been the one that is so often chosen as the one to claim descent
from? According to every danzante I interviewed, it is because the Aztec is really a
generalized umbrella term for many peoples. It is a unifying concept, part of the
mystique of the danza principle Union, because danza is really hundreds of years
worth of amalgamation of the practices of many peoples in Mexico. The empire of
the Aztec was in actuality made up of many different peoples and there was a great
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deal of diffusion of religious philosophies and practices between the Aztec capital and
their satellite communities. The term Aztec, then, is akin to the concept of a
cosmopolitan indigenous Mexican ethnicity, or as one danzante informed me
regarding why danza follows an Aztec tradition and aesthetic:
I think the reason is because the Aztecs were the preeminent culture at the time
of the Conquest and the movements are Chichimeca and the philosophies are
Tolteca and the Aztecs are the evolution of those two processes, the melding
together of the desert dwellers of the Chichimeca and the sorcerers of the
Tolteca. Im Purepecha, which is from Michoacan, and the Aztecs never
conquered me until recently [through danza]. Aztec became the inclusive
umbrella term for indigenous people from Mexico, not to exclude but rather a
banner of unity, and I stepped into this tradition for the furtherment of our
community, it was what our consciousness could grab on to and weve been able
to latch onto it.124
The Aztecs were a highly complex, ordered, and stratified state societythe city
of Tenochtitlan at the time of the Spanish arrival was several times larger in terms of
population than any Spanish city of the time.125 Any state society that large will have
reached a point of stratification where every man, woman and child has a place. The
Aztec state was no exception and daily life for its citizens was highly regimented and
ordered.126 Part of Aztec life included human sacrifice within its own cultural, social,
military, and religious paradigms.
To this day, the subject of human sacrifice among politicized Chicanos and
Chicano academics is a controversial subject. Danzantes are no exception, and most
dancers have a strong opinion on the subject. It is inherently controversial, and a
subject that is not brought up frequently. Looking at the archaeological record and
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from the academic research on record (none other than a Chicano academic has put
out the most celebrated research done on the cosmovision of the Aztec peoples
including concepts of death and sacrifice), human sacrifice did occur. It does not
appear to have occurred in the exaggerated numbers the Spaniards reported seeing,
however.
Within the realm of anthropology the idea of making strong judgment calls on
cultural practices and belief systems of any people is generally unpopular, and goes
against the principle of cultural relativity, but in the realm of religious studies and
theology, moral issues must be addressed. In regard to the question of ritual violence
(particularly in the form of human sacrifice) and of the fact that the Aztecs were
heavy-handed conquerors in their own right again raises the question of why the
Aztecs have been the group chosen to be identified with, and also raises the question
of whether any remorse should be shown by modem danzantes. Can danzantes be
critical of European conquest when the indigenous culture they choose to identify
with was also historically based on war and conquest? These questions can be
illuminated by contextualizing the underlying political and belief systems in which
sacred violence occurred. How warfare and conquest was conceptualized in the Aztec
state and how it differed markedly from that of their Spanish conquerors will also be
examined, which ultimately makes a face-value comparison a knotty and difficult
endeavor.
As with any powerful state society, the Aztecs, as part of the Triple Alliance
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(three powerful city-states of central Mexico: Tlacopan, Tetzcoco, and Tenochtitlan at
the head), consolidated their power through conquests of their own, and through the
use of sacred violence. It is important to note that Aztec methods of conquest and
Mesoamerican concepts of warfare in general differed markedly from European
methods, so judging them on an equal plane is problematic. Complicating the issue
further is that Spanish methods of warfare and conquest differed from other European
states, in that Spain, after centuries of Moorish domination, adopted an Islamist
approach to war and conquest.127 The Spanish learned much about methods of
conquest from the Moors, so much in fact that they based their Requerimiento
documentparts of it word for wordon an Islamic document used in the invasion
of Spain.128 The Requerimiento was a charter of conquest drawn up to make the
invasion, conquest, and occupation of foreign lands appear more legal under Papal
and Spanish authority. (For a thorough description of these legal complexities, Robert
Williams, Jr.s The American Indian in Western Legal Thought is an excellent
source.) The Requerimiento's Latin text was supposed to be read aloud to the infidel
before the Spanish entered a territory, although the reading was often done before the
invaders had reached a community, or quietly while the inhabitants were still
129
sleeping, or before a ship had landed, or abridged into the cry Santiago!
Regardless of the method of deliveryeven if a translator had been present and the
Native peoples made aware of what was about to happenthe document informed
the Indians that they could either accept Christian missionaries and Spanish imperial
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hegemony or be annihilated.130 It also informed them that all resisters and their
families would be enslaved and subjected to every imaginable harm and brutal
punishment and that their suffering would be their own fault.131 The Spanish method
of conquest was a much more intensive style of conquest than that practiced by the
Aztecsthe Spanish method demanded abject obedience to the new rule and new
god.
So it must be remembered that while the Aztecs and the Triple Alliance were
certainly consolidating territory in Central Mexico, they did not have the same
purpose, lust, or tools of conquest as the Spanish did. They were not interested in
wandering outside their general region to conquer, and their process was not based on
annihilation. The Aztecs kept the basic political structure and religious structure of
their conquered cities the same, while requiring goods in the form of tribute. Tribute
was dependent on the size and resources of a particular community. The Spaniards
crossed oceans for the purposes of invasion, occupation, slaves, and gold, and the
ultimate result was genocide. They too demanded tribute, and in addition to large-
scale land and resource acquisitions, like their Islamic predecessors they enacted a
head tax, or tributo, on each conquered citizen, that was based on the Islamic system
ofjizya.132
It is important to understand that while sacred violence was directly tied to
warfare in the Aztec state, the number of people sacrificed was grossly overestimated
by the Spanish for the purposes of legitimating a claim to the New World under Papal
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legal rules regarding the invasion of non-Catholic lands.133 The Spanish had a vested
interest in exaggeration in order to bolster their territorial and legal claims. As
Charles Mann puts it:
Human sacrifice is such a charged subject that its practice by the Triple Alliance
has inevitably become shrouded in myths... The first is that human sacrifice was
never practicedthe many post-Conquest accounts of public death-spectacles
are all racist lies. It was indeed in the Spanish interest to exaggerate the extent of
human sacrifice, because ending what Cortes called this most horrid and
abominable custom became a post hoc rationale for conquest. But the many
vividly depicted ceremonies in Mexica art and writing leave little doubt that it
occurred... The second myth is that in its appetite for death as spectacle the
Triple Alliance was fundamentally different from Europe.134
In terms of Aztec warfare, annihilation of the other side was generally not the
goal. When battlefield skirmishes occurred, the ideal outcome for warriors of both
sides was not to kill the enemy, but to take them prisoner. One of the highest military
ranks was to become an ocelot warrior, one who had the distinction of having
captured four captives.135 In most cases, the rulers of conquered city-states were
allowed to stay in power after they were defeated.136 Often, the Aztec militarys
reputation preceded them, and many leaders would elect to join the empire rather than
face a battle. This is precisely why ritualized flowery wars would become
necessary: each state needed prisoners of war for ritual purposes, but during times of
political peace there were no prisoners available from legitimate battles. The flowery
wars were developed so each state could still obtain prisoners during times of peace,
as well as display military prowess and psychologically intimidate any opposition. In
addition, there were city-states that did not submit to Aztec rule, such as the Tlaxcala-
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Puebla kingdoms (a large empire to the east of the Triple Alliance), that would
periodically skirmish with the Aztecs, both sides collecting prisoners of war to be
1 77
used in ritual sacrifice later.
It is also important to look at the privileged life of the warrior in Aztec society.
Being a warrior was one way in which common families could reach the ranks of the
elite. The path of the warrior was something one began as a budding adult and it
required training and extensive schooling. It was essentially a chosen career path.
Many families would encourage their young men to choose this path as it bestowed
great honor upon any family, especially if the man proved himself to be a warrior of
great esteem. Aztec parents viewed their children as highly precious; this was not a
society that disregarded human life, especially that of their children. As a warrior,
the child would not only live an ideal life, but they would attain an ideal afterlife as
well. This was a society in which life and death were both embraced as that upon
which all life was built and the cosmos were centered. If a warrior was captured and
used in sacrifice the warrior would have seen this as his offering as befitting the
worldview in which he had been raised. Ultimately, all living things must give back
to the earth the life their own bodies took from the earth in order to live. In a form of
sacred debt repayment, the warrior who died on the altar would have a particularly
meaningful offering. The deity impersonators, or teteo ixiptlas (literally, living
images of gods) likewise gave their lives in a profound way as well. Seen as the
physical embodiment of that particular god on earth, they were virtually treated as
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such, and lived as gods on earth until their time came.139 Although history paints
pictures of unwilling victims being dragged before an altar, it is likely that as
Mesoamericans embedded with the strong belief systems that permeated the
population, for most, their sacrifice would have been conceptualized as their offering
and their prayer. The festival of Toxcatl is an example, in which a captive warrior
selected for his physical perfection is made into the teteo ixiptla of the god
Tezcatlipoca for a year. He is given servants, wives, and literally treated as a god on
earth for the year he embodies the deity. According to historical accounts, this teteo
ixiptla ascends the temple of his own free will, unaided and unshackled, walking to
his death. He symbolically shatters a flute on the steps, and is sacrificed.140
To look at the issue of human sacrifice the context of the religious experience
and the cosmovision of the culture and all the actors involved in performing the act
needs to be put at the forefront. David Carrasco has done this remarkably well in his
scholarship. I would argue that the religious system of the Aztec empire and its
people became so complex and sophisticated that human sacrifice was a logical step
in its complexity.
For Chicanos and danzantes who have been raised with Western mores and
belief systems, it is hard to separate ourselves from the question of morality, because
human sacrifice has often been used as justification for the civilized European
saving the savage people of this continent from themselves. Contemporary
danzantes, indoctrinated with Western belief systems but who are trying to change
91