Monday, July 11, 2011

Aztec ritual, ceremonial dance hosted in Bayview

Danza Xitlalli de San Francisco and dancers from as far away as Mexico celebrated Xilonen (Tender Corn), a coming-of-age ceremony for young women, at Raza Park (also known as Potrero del Sol) on June 18th.
Xilonen (tender corn) is an Aztec ceremony that is held near summer Solstice and celebrates the rite-of-passage of girls into womanhood, a transition represented by the ripening of the corn. Twelve to fifteen young women or girls are chosen from within the community to be honored, given advice and counsel by elders. The ceremony consists of a nighttime vigil that lasts several hours followed, the next day, by ceremonial Aztec dancing.

Text and photos by Elizabeth Skow

On June 17th and 18th, a community based Aztec ceremonial dance group, Danza Xitlalli de San Francisco, celebrated the festival of Xilonen at Walden House in Bayview. Many Aztec dance groups traveled to the Bay Area from as far away as Mexico and Texas, joining groups from San Francisco, Santa Rosa and San Jose. About two hundred people attended the vigil Friday night and the dancing on Saturday.

The ancient Aztec ceremonies and dances are part of the Danza movement, which has been growing throughout the United States for the last twenty years. Joanna Uribe, longtime member of Xitlalli, who also serves as the group’s secretary, thinks the movement is gaining popularity because people are looking for ways to connect to their cultural traditions and community.

“Mexican and Chicano communities are looking for ways to raise cultural pride and find traditional spiritual roots,” Uribe said.

At the vigil, the Xilonen, or corn maidens, are prepared for the transition by receiving offers of flowers, candles and food. Traditionally, community members come from far and wide to support the girls who are honored. The June 17th vigil at Walden house was open to the community. There was a large altar decorated in corn and yellow flowers, with pictures of Aztec figures alongside some Catholic imagery.

All participants at the ceremony sang along with elders, accompanied by wooden stringed instruments, Mandolinas, which are Mexican mandolins. The smell of sage and chopal, which must be lit the entire night of the vigil according to tradition, wafted through the air, and the sound of rattles made from Chachayote punctuated the songs. There was plenty of food for everyone at the potluck table.

Many of the songs, all sung in Spanish, told stories from the Bible. The reason for this is that the Spanish forbade the Aztecs from drumming and also from speaking their own language. The people disguised their rituals — dressing them up in Catholic garb — to protect traditions and pass them down to their children.

“When people were caught playing the drums or owning a drum, the Spanish would cut off their hands,” said Xitlalli member Roberto Ariel Vargas.

Vargas said that the singing in Spanish and the mixing up of the images is an example of syncretism, when two oppositional ideologies are mixed together. There are examples of this phenomenon in most religions, but it is striking in this case.

The singing and storytelling went on until 1am, on June 18th, when the participants went to Raza Park (Potrero del Sol) to prepare the altars for the center of the dance. The dancing went from 10am to 2pm as families watched, participated and picnicked on the grass.

Some aspects of the Xilonen ceremony might be difficult for the uninitiated to understand in today’s modern society. Others serve a familiar and universal purpose.

“It is important to recognize our children as they are growing up, and to provide them with a venue to receive advice and cautions as they move into adolescence,” Uribe said.

During the year that the girls are Xilonen, Uribe explained, they have responsibilities. People in the community are watching them to see how they are doing. At a time when most teens are pushing their parents away, this is an opportunity for community members to step in and help.

Cindy Dominguez, 30, was a Xilonen when she was 16 years old. She and her sister both took on the role. Dominguez wasn’t a dancer, but was nominated because of her work as a youth advocate.

To prepare for being a Xilonen, some girls participate in sweat lodges with their community groups, or in small honoring ceremonies within their own group.

“Back then, what I got out of it was to learn about my indigenous roots and Mexica culture,” Dominguez said. “It made me realize how alive the traditions are, and how it is carried on to the next group. Now it grounds me spiritually. I became a dancer and joined a dance group.”

Dominguez has been honored to act as a Xilonen guide the past two years. As a guide, she stays with the Xilonen during the ceremony to guide them through it spiritually.

Danza Azteca Xitlalli is the oldest Aztec Dance group in San Francisco, established in 1981 by Maestra Macuilxóchitl and Maestro Francisco Camplis. The group celebrates five major ceremonies per year, in addition to smaller ceremonies that have recently been added. The group always welcomes donations for food for the celebrations and for operating costs of the dance group.

Local history note: The Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood was once home to Muwekma Ohlone native peoples.

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