Late one fall afternoon in 1969, I walked down a dirt road in Tortugas village, looking for some Indians a friend had mentioned. A film-making student, I had a documentary film to make, so I was curious.
A few men stood around a small wood-fire burning in the street. Someone was playing a drum, someone a violin.
Leo Pacheco, their chief, said they were about to practice the danzas for the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
In fading light, I filmed the practice on an old 16 mm. Bolex.
During the next few weeks I was often in Tortugas, just talking with Mr. Pacheco or shooting film of the practices and then the danzas.
Mr. Pacheco became a friend. He spoke of the danzas’ history, which was also part of his history. He was trying to retain a living connection to the past. It saddened him that this year he would have to let children dance, because not enough adults were dancing.
The danzas seemed an interesting mix of traditions. The bright red costumes were Indian, sometimes with elaborate feather headdresses, but included a large scarf depicting the Virgin. The music was simple and mesmerizing. One drum had “Azteca” written on it. Leo’s people were descended from the Aztecs. But they danced beside the Catholic Church, the religious and social center of the village. In one dance, an old man with a wolf-mask was keeping young girls (malinches) from seeing the Virgin, and so they killed him. I think they drank his blood.
I saw Leo a lot that year, and occasionally over the next few years, until I moved away. He stayed in my mind. I even wrote him and the danzas into a novel I was trying to write in Tibet, 25 years ago.
After moving back, I hoped to look him up. The priest from Tortugas told me that he had died.
Recently I went again to Tortugas. For the danzas.
Tortugas has changed little. Some dirt streets are now paved, a few houses are bigger, and the Casa de Comida – which may not have existed then – is large, with old photographs and news articles on the walls. The day I went in, it was filled with the warmth and cheer of many Pueblo members eating and talking.
When you are in Tortugas you are somewhere. Unlike many modern neighborhoods, it’s a real place, with people who have danced together – or resented each other – for years, decades, generations. While Las Cruces has grown up all around it, Tortugas remains – somewhat proudly, I think – unincorporated.
Local Indios have danced in this valley since the 19th Century. An 1885 news article refers to the “peculiar ceremonies” on this Day, while another comments that, “The peculiar headdresses, odd costumes, the rattles with which they mark the time of the dancer, the different steps and movements all seemed as attractive to the old residents who have seen them year after year as to the newcomers who had never seen them before.”
The Pueblo danced at St. Genevieve’s before construction started on the Tortugas Church in 1920. The Pacheco group (called “Los Aztecas del Carrizo” or “Juan Pacheco’s Dance Group” back then) was granted permission to dance on the North side of the church in Tortugas in 1924, but had danced in Mesilla before that. Four groups actually dance in Tortugas these days: two from the Pueblo (Tigua Pueblo and the Danzantes) and a fourth that is an offshoot of Pacheco’s group.
I asked a young lady when the dances would begin. She turned out to be one of Leo Pacheco’s granddaughters. Her son, three or four years old, was Leo’s great-grandson. On his red shirt was a picture of Leo with the caption “Gone, but not forgotten.”
Soon the dancers gathered in the yard beside the Pacheco home, and emerged dancing, to walk with the altar to the Church.
I followed along, shooting – as I had decades earlier, except now with better equipment and slower feet. It felt familiar, and good. Shooting video immerses you in your subject in a special way.
For the infants I saw around me, these rhythmic drums are one of life’s first powerful sounds in life. For Leo’s grandson, watching the spectacle with little understanding, this music is already deeply familiar. How many times have Leo’s daughters heard it? They began among the malinches, following instructions as best they could, proud and shy at the same time, and now lead the dancing, organizing practices and teaching others the steps. Committed to tradition and their father’s memory, they direct dances which were once danced only by men.
Leo was a great example of the fact that a man’s worth has nothing to do with his financial balance sheet or his professional position. Leo was a good man who, in a very modest home, raised a large family that remained as solid as the thick adobe walls of the older houses in the village, despite pain and some early deaths. He doggedly kept the danzas going, although he feared they would die out during his lifetime.
More people dance now than before. That’s a tribute to Leo and his daughters – and to equally strong and dedicated families among the Tigua Pueblo and the Danzantes.
[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 23 December.]