The first time Veronica Valadez encountered a group of Aztec dancers, she felt an instant connection.
“I just really gravitated to them,” she said of the danzantes. “Something in me just woke up.”
She knew that day in 1996 she’d found her calling. With ancient Mexican roots, danza Azteca grew popular in the United States five decades ago as the Chicano movement inspired Latinos to embrace their ethnic heritage and question the Eurocentric norms forced upon them. Also known as danza Mexica, among several other names, the Indigenous tradition includes moves that honor the ancestors, the cosmos, deities and more. The instruments used during these presentations include the drums, flutes, maracas and shell ankle rattles called chachayotes. Angelenos often recognize these dancers by their elaborate regalia featuring feathers, beadwork and headdresses, though some say the muted look of leather and animal skins is more historically accurate.
Danza Azteca groups can be found throughout Southern California — at college campuses, cultural events and political protests. Once presented exclusively for religious purposes, these dances have become mainstays at public gatherings, be it a Juneteenth vigil in Boyle Heights, various Black Lives Matter protests across Los Angeles in June, and demonstrations for immigration and labor reforms that have taken place for decades. Fighting for social justice has become standard for these practitioners who argue that simply honoring their Indigenous heritage is a political act because Spain’s conquest of Mexico prohibited their ancestors from openly doing the same.
A student at UC Santa Barbara during her initial encounter with an Aztec dance group, Valadez has served as co-leader of such a circle, Resistencia Mexicayotl Chalchiuhtlicue in Ventura, for 17 years now. Also an artist specializing in Aztec symbols and imagery, she felt compelled to take part in this tradition because she knew little about her Indigenous heritage growing up.
“I didn’t learn about my culture and ethnicity or the history of my people in school,” said Valadez, a Chicano studies lecturer at Cal State Channel Islands. “We were taught through a Eurocentric lens.”
But seeing the danzantes on her college campus awakened what she describes as her “ancestral memory.” Fellow Aztec dancers she’s encountered have felt the same, according to Valadez. “It’s not so much that we’re learning these steps,” she said. “They’re embedded in our DNA. There’s this sense of, ‘Wait, this feels like home.’”
It took two months of practice before Valadez participated in a public danza presentation for the first time. She explained that danzantes don’t call what they do performances because they’re not “putting on a show.” Rather, these ceremonies mark a time for dancers to pray for those in need, send forth “good energy” and recognize that their bodies are cosmic. Connecting with one’s spirituality during these presentations matters more than nailing each spin or step. And as the drums play, emulating the sound of a heartbeat, it’s easy for the dancers and onlookers to fall into a meditative state.
“This is more about a relationship with your physical body and a relationship with the cosmos,” Valadez explained. “There are mathematical computations — like when you add up the 365 steps to represent the solar year. It’s a beautiful dance, and, with the sound of the drums and the smell of the copal incense [burned before the presentation begins], the movement of our dancing can be captivating.”
The enchanting quality of danza could be felt at this year’s Juneteenth celebration at Mariachi Plaza in L.A.'s Boyle Heights. A few hundred spectators watched in silence as roughly a dozen danzantes stepped, twirled and kneeled to the sound of drums and the chachayotes. The pounding of the percussion instruments and the rattling of the shells, a sound similar to the hush of rainfall, transfixed the audience. When the dancers ended their presentation, one took the stage at Mariachi Plaza to share that the group stands in solidarity with the Black community.
“Looting, kidnapping, slavery, poverty, murder — we understand that struggle,” the danzante said. “And not just here in the United States, but around the globe, our Black brothers and sisters face the brunt of that hardship, including our Afro-Latina familia. But we also know that you are powerful, and you are changing the world right now. We are here to stand with you, to stand beside you, to be warriors with you, and follow your lead in this struggle for our full humanity.”
Valadez did not attend this event, but her Mexica circle took part in a recent Black Lives Matters protest in Ventura. It marked one of the rare times the group of 25 dancers have seen each other in person since the coronavirus pandemic led to a state lockdown in March. She said that when danzantes show up to demonstrations, they take on a different mentality than they would have at, perhaps, a corn ceremony or school event.
“We have to shift into the mindset of battle,” she said. “We have our warrior spirit. We’re not out to harm anyone, but we’re there to courageously confront injustice on the frontlines. Whether it’s for Black lives or immigrant rights, we’re there to bring awareness.”
Click through below to see photos from the aforementioned Juneteenth danza presentation in Boyle Heights.
As a junior high student during the Chicano movement of the 1970s, Gypsie Vasquez-Ayala took an interest in political issues before becoming a danzante. A third-generation Chicana who didn’t grow up speaking Spanish, Ayala felt disconnected from her Mexican roots as a youth. Yet, she had an affinity for her Indigenous heritage, volunteering for the American Indian Movement and circulating petitions around Boyle Heights for the release of political prisoner Leonard Peltier. When she discovered the danza circle Xipe Totec, one of the few in Los Angeles in the ’70s, it was a life-changing experience, she recalled.
“I’m going to be 54 this year, and I’ve been dancing now for more than half of my life, and when I started, it was transformational,” said Vasquez-Ayala, also a jewelry maker. “It was a very, very moving time of my life to be able to dance to these beautiful rhythmic sounds. It nourishes the soul.”
The tradition also proved life-changing because she met her husband of 29 years through it. Born and raised in Mexico, his family has a dance circle called Iztac Cuauhtli that launched in Guadalajara. There, Vasquez-Ayala has encountered very elderly danzantes who recall a time when they could only practice in secret.
“It’s an honor to be able to dance with someone like that,” Vasquez-Ayala said. “Hearing them speak, I truly feel very humbled and honored.”
For Vasquez-Ayala, danza is a time to pray and reflect, but she has also danced during rallies, including at the annual Cesar Chavez March for Justice in the San Fernando Valley and at demonstrations to prevent the closure of charter school Anahuacalmecac International University Preparatory of North America, which has an Indigenous-oriented curriculum. Vasquez-Ayala serves as secretary and a community advocate on the school’s council of trustees.
The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t stopped her from dancing, but these days Vasquez-Ayala does it in her home. Her husband and daughter both play drums, allowing her to keep practicing. While some people find spiritual fulfilment in church, she has found hers through dance, she said.
Lupe Tellez of the In Tlanextli Tlacopan Aztec Fire Dancers, based at the Placita Olvera in downtown Los Angeles, is also trying to navigate danza during the coronavirus crisis. On Mother’s Day, she and her family presented a dance for her late mother-in-law, and they have used social media to express their support of Black Lives Matter.
“For us, movement through dance is prayer in motion,” said Tellez, an immigration defense attorney. “It’s an everyday physical manifestation of our survival despite more than 500 years of oppression. As such, the BLM movement is also about us. We are bound together in solidarity and by history.”
Having grown up in L.A.’s Pico-Union neighborhood, she has been dancing since 1999, while her Mexican-born spouse has danced since he was a child in the 1960s. Together, they and their four children make up the In Tlanextli Tlacopan Aztec Fire Dancers, but they often invite others dancers to join them on historic Olvera Street.
“I didn't have any of this as a kid,” Tellez said, recalling how the current civil unrest reminds her of the 1992 Los Angeles uprising of her youth. “Today, there’s a resurgence, making it safe to express who you are.”
She said that danza also contradicts the idea that Indigenous peoples no longer exist. The tradition is a reminder that pre-colonial Mexican culture withstood the colonizers’ efforts to wipe it out. It’s proof, Tellez said, “That you can’t erase anyone. This is an essential part of us.”
Top Image: From left to right, Mayahuel and Ocelotl dance with their mother, Lupe Tellez. | Courtesy of Lupe Tellez