Children of the corn

An Aztec dance ritual connects Sacramento teens with their culture and community

With gifts and advice from their elders, the young women of a local Aztec dance troupe advance into adulthood.

With gifts and advice from their elders, the young women of a local Aztec dance troupe advance into adulthood.

Photo By Larry Dalton

At dawn, near a small lake, people gathered in the dewy grass of Southside Park. Either it was too early for sunrise, or the first Saturday in August was going to be as gray and cool as mid-autumn. A circle of family and friends surrounded and faced a dozen teenage girls—one still wearing pajamas under her Tweety Bird comforter.

“I remember being your age,” said one woman facing the girls, “and I didn’t have this.” She referred to Sacramento’s annual Xilonen ceremony, based on an ancient Aztec harvest tradition that was said to include the beheading of a young girl, the embodiment of Xilonen, goddess of the new corn. In current practice, the ceremony marked a graduation into adulthood for 15-year-olds who’d traded any involvement with drugs, gang activity, early pregnancy, poor grades and general bad behavior for a chance to dance with Maquilli Tonatiuh Dance Azteca.

“If you have problems,” said the woman, “everyone here will support you.” Around the circle, women held footed bowls full of smoking incense that drifted up into the monochrome sky.

Maria Miranda stood at the edge of the circle, asking people in turn to share their wisdom. She was the organizer, the one who recruited dancers, mothered them and taught them to respect themselves and their elders. Previously supported by grants, Miranda was now on her own, even borrowing money to finance the heaps of flowers and food she offered to dancers coming from all over California.

Miranda herself had discovered Aztec dance at D-Q University, a tribe-controlled junior college west of Davis. Aztec dance demands great endurance and discipline, and it was used in ancient times to train the Aztecs’ warrior class. As Miranda learned more about it, she met Mexican practitioners, including Pedro España, a general in his own troupe in Mexico, and a traditionalist who stressed the moral lessons that went along with the dance steps. Miranda saw that dance could inspire young people, especially poor young people, who had few positive outlets for their energy.

“There’s nothing [in Sacramento] for the youth,” said Miranda, “to keep them on the right road.”

Now, Miranda regularly rehearses with a group of approximately 65 dancers. Most are teenagers, and Miranda estimates that a quarter of them left early gang and drug activity to join her. She makes sure that ceremonies like Xilonen are primarily educational opportunities for her dancers.

“All you have to remember,” one man told the girls, “is that you hold the world up. As women, it’s on your shoulders to tell us how to help the young men.” With sadness, he reminded the group that Latino men were filling the prisons and that those prisons needed to be emptied.

A woman with a bowl of incense picked up a piece of hardened resin, bit into it and placed a portion of it into the fire at the center of the bowl. The rising white smoke obscured her face.

With visible pride, the incense keeper asked the girls to declare their names, their full names, in strong voices. Be present, she told them. Speak loudly and with feeling.

One after another, the girls spoke, but shyly, in nearly silent whispers. Then the rain began to fall in big fat drops.

In Spanish, España told the girls not to mind the rain.

“A dancer is a dancer in rain and water and heat,” España told them. “That’s the tradition.”

España learned Aztec dance in Mexico from his mother, a woman who, at 72, still danced in four-day-long ceremonies. A general in the military rank of his own Mexican troupe, España had named Miranda his captain 14 years earlier. Together, with the support of community members such as Principal Samuel Harris from Martin Luther King Jr. Junior High School, who lets them practice on campus, Miranda and España train teenagers from throughout Grant School District.

By noon, Southside Park had been transformed into a bright, festive village. From the open back of a pickup truck, girls wove wreaths out of piles of flowers. Dancers painted swirly designs around their eyes with eyeliner. Three-foot-tall pheasant feathers shot from dancers’ crowns like sunbursts, and silky layers of black feathers fell backward from headdresses as if they were hair. Some of the men wore leather loincloths, leather cuffs around their wrists and more around their calves. The women’s long, handmade dresses were slit to mid-thigh in everything from leopard print to canvas, cured leather, glittering polyester and even black velvet. Skirts were adorned with blocky, straight-line designs that went up and down like pyramids or fabric murals of the strong, lined faces and gold hoop earrings associated with Aztec culture. From their skirts dangled layers of gold beads. Some wore white boots made of feathers.

España, in a loincloth and chest plate, his waist-long hair free of its usual braid, led the Xilonen into the circle, and just like in the morning, the rain began to fall on the girls in their white cotton dresses with white leather accents and white feathers fluttering around their wrists. They were surrounded by dancers wearing rings of seed-pod shells around their ankles that played like small, hollow drums when they danced.

As dancers entered the circle through a modest tunnel of corn stalks, they were bathed in the smoke of the incense, cleansed for dances that would honor their ancestors, the Xilonen, and what Miranda referred to as “the creator.”

España sent out a powerful, body-shaking percussion on one of nine drums in the center of the circle. With their anklets rattling, the dancers began kicking, pounding, skipping, twirling and dropping to the ground. Exceptional dancers were brought to the center to lead the rest in specific steps. Even tiny children followed as closely as they could. Dancers waved fans or carried handmade shields. One carried the stiff, open wing of a white bird.

Other dancers arrived continuously, and their headdresses were dazzling, incorporating fearsome carved heads, racks of antlers, skulls and, in one case, the open mouth of a wolf with long strips of wolf fur dangling around the dancer’s face.

More than a hundred dancers wheeled and kicked and stepped in complicated patterns and trance-inducing rhythms.

“You can be dancing many hours,” España had said. “If you’re concentrating, then you’re not tired.”

The Xilonen ceremony was not only a coming-of-age ceremony but also a celebration of indigenous customs. Jose Montoya, a well-known Sacramento poet and activist, explained that the circle in which the dancers performed was really a combination of altars. In the east, where everyone entered, was an altar to the protectors, the warriors, the jaguars. To the south was an altar representing childhood. “A station of gaiety, laughter. … The things we older people have forgotten,” said Montoya, “still reside there.” To the west, was the altar of the women. “The women hold up the culture,” said Montoya, “seek harmony and balance, react to the wisdom of nature.” The north was reserved for the elders, represented by Montoya and retired professor Graciela Ramirez.

As a gift, Montoya busily carved small, squat ears of corn out of clay.

After two hours of relentless dancing, Miranda called the girls to her and began to lead them around the circle. At the altar to the east were elaborate headdresses and flowers. Representing the protectors, a young artist told them that it took a strong woman to manage a strong man. “Never let a guy tell you what to do,” he said. “Leave that to your parents.”

At each altar, the girls accepted gifts and advice: journals for self-reflection, vases to fill with memories and little notes reminding them to protect their reputations.

“Whatever you do,” said one woman, “don’t be lazy.”

At the altar to the north, Montoya handed out his small sculptures. “They will always be fragile,” he told the girls, who were as solemn as they’d appeared at dawn, “as you will always be fragile. … But it’s dirt. It’s mud. It’s us.”

Though the entire ceremony was in honor of the corn maidens, the girls were obliged only to receive wisdom, gifts and advice. They did not speak, except through the dance.

It took an older Xilonen to explain the importance of the ceremony.

Priselda Sanchez had been a Xilonen in 2000, and, with a little girl just more than a year old, she manages a store and motherhood and soon will finish high school. Her discipline, a direct result of her involvement with Aztec dance, makes her a role model for others.

“Back in the day, I was a little troublemaker,” she said. “No tradition—disrespecting my parents.”

Now, she said, she thinks of what she does as a series of lessons for her daughter. Though holding down a job and school is an enormous challenge, she knows that if she quit, her daughter would absorb that lesson, too.

What she remembers about Xilonen is the power of having a whole community around her. “Everybody from everywhere comes just in honor of us,” she said.

That community supports her to this day, and, when she can, Sanchez still dances with her daughter at Miranda’s rehearsals.

Someone blew a conch shell to call the dancers back into the circle, and the Xilonen, honored by their community, led the next dance. Frenetic and full of energy, the girls performed steps they’d practiced for countless hours. They leapt, they kicked, they seemed made of air, and the drummers, facing them, found it difficult to keep their attention on their drumming.

One of the obligations that came with Maquilli Tonatiuh, said Miranda, was giving back to the community. “What can I give? I don’t have any money,” dancers claimed, and Miranda would always tell them to give their love, to give the dance.

Maquilli Tonatiuh now travels to support other troupes the way dancers came from all over for Xilonen. The troupe members dance for free to bring cultural pride and entertainment to migrant farmworker camps and to delight people at retirement homes and on Indian reservations. Only those who give back and live well can be involved in Xilonen.

As the young women led the other dancers, their enthusiasm infected everyone, speeding up the drums, enlivening the flagging dancers and showing the community that, as the newest crop of women, they had grown as fine and strong as young corn.