Sunday, July 13, 2014

Invitation to Las Danzas

We are all invited to a celebration of a hundred years of life and dancing in a nearby village.

In 1914 a group of Indigenes from Mexico settled in the village of Tortugas. (This column concerns the group that arrived in 1914, but acknowledges with great respect that the Tigua, Piro, and Manso had been living and dancing in the village since well before 1914.)

We would know nothing of this group from Mexico if they had not been led by a remarkable man, Juan Pacheco, and later by a second remarkable man, Juan's son, Leo Pacheco.

Both men were remarkable – first, for their deep desire to keep their culture alive and, second, because they had sufficient strength of character to fulfill that desire despite poverty, society's indifference, and the way generations drift away from what they have been taught, usually in favor of whatever is new and glittery.

Central to this were las danzas. Their culture was a particular blend of Christianity and Aztec tales. When Leo told me the meanings of some of the dances, his explanation was an almost seamless web with elements from each.

If you have not seen las danzas, you should. They are very colorful. The simple music (originally drums and a violin, but now just drums) creates a compelling beat. Like the stories behind the dances, the costumes mix Christian and Aztec images. A dancer might wear a Native American headdress and bright red clothing with a scarf on the back with a picture of the Virgin. Drums beat as the dancers transport a Christian altar down the street.

To keep this tradition alive was not easy, in a village far from its origins. For example, originally only adult men danced, except for a few malinches – little girls involved in certain dances. When I met Leo in 1969 he was having to compromise. There were not enough men available. (Those present were proud to be there. One was a Los Angeles police officer who'd grown up here and still came back each year to dance.) Thus boys would be allowed to dance. (I don't recall whether women danced too that year.)

Leo loved his children, and the other children; but the compromise pained him. It was necessary, though. He would not let the tradition die out.

Leo and his wife, Estella, had twelve daughters. Their only son, Leo Martine Pacheco, died young. They were a strong – and strongly Catholic – family. The annual danzas were a central feature of family life. It was a lot of work – and the history represented was “who we are,” as one daughter recently said. When I mentioned how different Christianity and the Aztec culture seem from each other, she added, “A lot of people see us as uncivilized, just sacrificing without remorse; but when we converted to Christianity, something drew us to it.”

Eventually Leo became too ill to keep the danzas going himself.

His daughters (including Yolanda Jaramillo, the eldest) determined to continue the traditional danzas Leo had worked to keep alive. This was not a culture or a subject in which it was expected or easy for women to take the lead. Undoubtedly some men resisted their efforts at first.

But Leo and Estella raised strong women. One of his daughters told me earlier this year that whenever someone dropped off some material for use in improving their home, the daughters were expected to help out, learning building skills not generally learned by women in those days.

Leo's daughters persevered. When I watched the dances last December, there were several dozen dancers – and a lively, warm spirit. About 200 will dance to celebrate a hundred years of Danzas Aztecas here. (But please don't applaud. They are not performers!)

Sunday, July 27th there will be a mass at 10:30 a.m. at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Tortugas. (The Shrine, which Juan helped to build, will also celebrate its centennial this year.) Then there will be a circle of dancing in front of the church, at 11:30 or so, followed by dancing toward the Pacheco home, where there will be a reception. The public is invited to attend the mass, watch the dancing, and enjoy the reception.

These are friends I respect. I feel honored to have been invited to share this celebration with them. I think not only of the mathematical fact of a century but of the thousand moments of difficulties, changes, and petty jealousies that added to the difficulty of loyally maintaining one's heritage and beliefs for approximately thirty-six thousand, five-hundred and twenty-five days. I will go to honor that achievement – and because this joyous event should be a lot of fun. See you there!
 [The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 13 June.  I also wrote about this group on 23 December 2012]

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