Axel Becerril (left), Sergio Abrajan Flores and other members of the Huehuecoyotl dance group practice at Harrison Park in Pilsen.

Axel Becerril (left), Sergio Abrajan Flores and other members of the Huehuecoyotl dance group practice at Harrison Park in Pilsen.

Jason Marck/WBEZ

In Pilsen, weekly Aztec dance ritual offers joy and a link to tradition

Every Thursday, a group of Aztec dancers practices in Harrison Park. Through dance, they say they find community and harmony with nature.

SHARE In Pilsen, weekly Aztec dance ritual offers joy and a link to tradition
SHARE In Pilsen, weekly Aztec dance ritual offers joy and a link to tradition
On Thursday evenings, as long as the weather is warm, the playground at Harrison Park in Pilsen becomes a stage for leaping dancers and the age-old sounds of drums.

It’s the rehearsal of a traditional Aztec dance that’s become a beloved gathering for the neighborhood. About 20 dancers, including children, rehearse wearing bandanas around their foreheads and rattles strapped to their ankles.

The dancers practice with a group called Huehuecoyotl, which means “ancient coyote” in Nahuatl, an indigenous language spoken in Mexico. The group started rehearsing at Harrison Park last summer in part because many of its members live around Pilsen.

Ten-year-old Axel Becerril spotted the dancers on his way to swimming lessons one day last year.

“I got interested when I saw people dancing,” Axel said. “I thought it was a type of tradition that people dance, but I didn’t know at the time. I just thought it was about joy.”

Axel Becerril, 10 (left), and Sergio Abrajan Flores dance to the beat of the drums during an Aztec dance practice at Harrison Park in Pilsen.

Axel Becerril, 10 (left), and Sergio Abrajan Flores dance to the beat of the drums during an Aztec dance practice at Harrison Park.

Jason Marck / WBEZ

Axel, his sister and his mother are now all dancers with the group. And Axel loves playing the drums.

Huehuecoyotl is one of several Aztec dance groups in the Chicago area. More than being about just entertainment, the group dances to reclaim and preserve the indigenous cultural identity of Mexicans in Chicago.

“The danza Azteca is a Mexican tradition that has been kept alive for hundreds of years,” Ana Patiño, one of the group’s leaders, said in Spanish. “It creates harmony in the community and with nature. It also teaches you discipline and promotes strength.”

The dancers picked Harrison Park because it was a safe and open space to practice, especially during the pandemic.

“Pilsen is in the heart of Chicago; that’s why we chose to come here,” said Sergio Abrajan Flores, who leads rehearsals.

Many of the Huehuecoyotl dancers strap rattles to their ankles while dancing.

Many of the Huehuecoyotl dancers strap rattles to their ankles while dancing.

Jason Marck / WBEZ

He and Patiño, his partner, live in East Chicago, Indiana, and are longtime Aztec dancers.

“For me, discovering Pilsen was like going back to Mexico,” Flores said. “Ever since, we’ve been coming just to visit or whenever we can, to dance.”

Their dance is a ritual, a ceremony, he and other dancers said. It’s an offering, a prayer in motion used to meditate, heal and connect with nature and everything around.

“La danza is a representation of the universe – a small version of it here on earth,” Flores said.

Pointing to a red cloth that’s topped with fruit, burning incense, salt and a seashell instrument known as the Atecocoli, he said those items represent the four elements of earth, wind, water and fire.

“And that’s the heart,” Flores said of the red cloth.

It’s traditionally placed at the center near the drums and people follow a step routine around it in a big circle.

Many children, parents and others walking by slow down to witness the dance ritual. The sight of dancers at the playground adjusting their bandanas and strapping rattles to their ankles is a familiar one for many who frequent the park.

Most members of the dance group live nearby. Some are teachers, artists or students. A few dance with different Aztec dance groups but come to practice with Flores in Pilsen.

“Everyone is welcome to join la danza,” Flores said.

Flores pointed to Maria Teresa Llanito, an older woman with a cane who is there most weeks trying to follow the steps.

“It relaxes me,” said Llanito, who comes from Guanajuato, Mexico. “I forget about problems. My daughter sits me here, but I just want to move my feet and dance.”

WBEZ Curious City

This story originally appeared on WBEZ’s Curious City, a podcast that answers people’s questions about Chicago and the region.

At the end of the outdoor rehearsals last year, the dancers moved to a community center in the neighborhood. Axel lost track of the dancers for some time.

Flores recalls when Axel and his mom found them again.

“I came to practice one day, and he came running, saw me and said from afar, ‘You!’ ” Flores said. “He runs, and he gives me a hug.”

Flores said Axel wasn’t hugging only him. He understood that Axel was excited to find la danza, the drums and to be back in his circle.

That’s why practicing at Harrison Park is so important to Flores. Many children and parents who come are from Mexico, he said, drawn by the incense, the drums, the dance.

To Flores, these rehearsals help preserve their links to the past and offer a relaxing summer evening.

The Aztec dancers who practice every week in Harrison Park in Pilsen use a variety of indigenous instruments during rehearsals and ceremonies, including the Huéhuetl, or drum, and the Atecocoli, a seashell instrument.

The Aztec dancers who practice every week in Harrison Park in Pilsen use a variety of indigenous instruments during rehearsals and ceremonies, including the Huéhuetl, or drum, and the Atecocoli, a seashell instrument.

Jason Marck / WBEZ

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