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Aztec Dancers in Taos: A Living Tradition

"The dance is a prayer for the benefit of the people ... It just takes a different form."

By Teresa Dovalpage
Published on LatinoLA: August 1, 2011

Aztec Dancers in Taos: A Living Tradition

Arrangements for the vigil in honor of El Se??or Santiago de los Cuatro Vientos began on Thursday, July 15th, when Aztec dancer Tanya Vigil went to the San Francisco de As?¡s church to get the gym ready for the celebration. Santiago's feast day falls on July 25th, but the vigil and dance are held a week before so as not to coincide with the traditional Taos fiestas.

By Thursday night the altar, covered with lace, was already impressive. Amy Cordova, an award-winning illustrator, painter and writer, brought a statue of the virgin of Guadalupe that presided over it. Cordova bought the statue and painted it in soft, tender shades. "I personalized the virgin," she said. "I wanted to bring her to life." A conch shell, a crucifix, vases for flowers, a colorful portrait of Santiago riding his horse, and votive candles decorated the altar. But this was only the beginning.

On Friday night, at nine p.m., everything was ready for the vigilia de Santiago. All the candles were lit; the shimmering altar was decorated with flowers and offerings --sweets, a pineapple, cigarettes The estandarte (banner) of Tanya Vigil's group, Izcalli In Nanantzin, stood on the right side. There were tables with food and the tantalizing smells of chile con carne, pozole and frijoles filled the room.

The Delgado family, all Aztec dancers, came from San Bernardino to be part of the celebration. "Dancing is a living tradition," said Eduardo Delgado, "and we love to share it." The group Izcalli In Nanantzin holds a special significance for them. "We don't have an estandarte (banner) for us in California," explained his son, Manuel, "so this one is ours, too. This is the only estandarte in the United States that came directly from a Mexican group."

From Mexico also came the Garc?¡a Vargas family. They have been attending this event for five years now. Their dance group is called Danza Azteca de M?®xico, Uni??n y Conquista (Aztec Dancers of Mexico, Union and Conquest). When I asked Mercedes Vargas about the meaning of "los cuatro vientos" (literally, the four winds) that surround Santiago's image, she explained that they were the virgin of Guadalupe, el se??or de Chalma, the virgin of los Remedios and Cristo del Sacromonte. "Santiago is at the center of all of them," Mercedes said. "He is the focal point from which we depart in this particular ceremony, but we can't forget the other saints."

The vigil included traditional Spanish songs, prayers for everyone present and blessings for each dancer. Limpias (spiritual, emotional, physical and mental cleansing) took place at four a.m. On Saturday morning, after a few hours of rest, the Aztec dancers from Mexico City, Albuquerque and California got together with Tanya and Izcalli In Nanantzin. The danzantes, like a bright ribbon of colors and feathers, made their way from the gym to the highway. Actually, they danced down the highway and stopped the traffic. "It was a reminder that there is something much bigger than the busyness of life," said Patricia Padilla, an eight generation curandera. Then they returned to the church and danced for six hours.

The celebration ended with a feast of beans, chile, squash, melons, oranges, warm tortillas and chicken. "The dance is a prayer for the benefit of the people," said Padilla. "It just takes a different form."

About Teresa Dovalpage:
Teresa Dovalpage is the author of the English-language novel novels A Girl like Che Guevara (Soho Press, 2004) and Habanera, A Portrait of a Cuban Family (Floricanto Press, 2010). She has also written and published three Spanish language novels.
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