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.
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, 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.
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.”
This story originally appeared on WBEZ’s Curious City, a podcast that answers 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.