Friday, July 6, 2018

Traditional Indigenous Dancers: Concheros and Danzantes Aztecas

In our early years living in Mexico City, we had frequently seen "Aztec dancers" dressed with elaborate feather headdresses and loin cloths, performing with their drums and rattles and burning incense in the Zócalo, Mexico City's central plaza. In the 21st century, they seemed to be an anomalous throwback to prehispanic times, more than five hundred years past. We assumed they were performing for the tourists, Mexican as well as foreign. We were wrong. Our biased perspective was that of a tourist.

Over the past two years, attending many fiestas in the originally indigenous pueblos and barrios now incorporated in the City, we have frequently encountered such Aztec dancers. We have learned that, while they present themselves in several variations of attire and play a variety of musical instruments and even call themselves names other than Aztec, they share an identification with Mexicans' indigenous roots. And their only audience, except for us, is el pueblo, the people of the neighborhood.

It became obvious that they take their dancing very seriously. It is not for entertainment. It is a very personal and communal ritual act, something that would have to be called religious and spiritual. We wanted to understand the complexity and history of what we were witnessing. So we began to explore their story, speaking with some dancers and researching online.

Aztec dancer at the patron saint fiesta of
Pueblo San Sebastián Axotla,
Delegación Álvaro Obregón

It turns out that, while these dancers may seem a nostalgic re-creation of a past that has disappeared, they actually have a long and continuous history going back to the early days after the Spanish Conquest (Wikipedia).

Origin of the Aztec-Conchero Dancers

The dances, now often called Azteca in Mexico City, originally arose in areas of South Central Mexico not too far from Mexico City. Different sources give varying accounts. Querétaro, a state to the northwest of Mexico City, is one. Tlaxcala, to the east, is another. The dancers were originally called concheros, after the lute-like stringed instruments they played.

According to one tradition, the birth of the Conchero Dance was in the city of Santiago de Querétaro (now the capital of the State of Querétero) on Tuesday, July 25, 1531. The tale is very Mexican; it centers on a miracle. (Coincidentally, the Virgin of Guadalupe is believed to have appeared to the Nahua Juan Diego in a series of visions the same year, between December 9 and 12, 1531). The story goes as follows:
After a long period of war with the Spanish after the fall of Tenochtitlan, the chichimecas (not a specific tribe, but the generic name applied by settled, agrarian indigenous, hence 'civilized' peoples to nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes, considered to be "Barbarians") decided to open themselves to the possibility of a pact of peace with the Spaniards, sealed by a final, symbolic battle of honor.
The proposed day for the battle was July 25, a significant date for both parties. For the chichimecas, that day was when the constellation of Sagittarius was high on the horizon, which they saw as the "tree of life" (Tamoanchan). On the same day, the Spaniards celebrated the feast of Santiago (St. James), the patron saint of Spain.  
At dawn on that date, on the hill of Sangremal (Bad Blood), both groups began a fight without weapons, body to body. But spirits got overexcited and anything could happen. Then an eclipse of the sun occurred and a luminous cross appeared in the heavens, accompanied by the form of a person that the natives identified as Quetzalcoatl (god of creative acts) and the Spaniards as the Apostle Santiago. Everyone fell to their knees at the same time, as a loud voice was heard proclaiming "El es dios" | "He is God!"
The chichimecas raised a stone cross in the place (called the "Cross of Miracles") and executed their sacred dances to celebrate the event. Since then, this dance (called the Dance of the Conquest) has been danced in that place without interruption until the present. The expression "He is God!" has remained as an obligatory greeting among the Concheros. (Translated from Origin de las Danzas Religiosas, [Origin of the Religious Dances], link no longer available). 
The Franciscan friars, and friars of the other religious orders who subsequently arrived to convert the indigenous from their "pagan" beliefs and practices to Catholic ones (the so-called Spiritual Conquest, following the military one), banned indigenous dances using traditional drums and rattles as being "pagan" rites to gods who were "the Devil". However, following their strategy of allowing adaptation of indigenous rituals to Roman Catholic ones, the native people were taught to play European-style stringed instruments, such as the lute, and adapt their dances (mitote in Nahuatl) to Spanish Catholic symbolism. Thus modified, they could participate in church fiestas.

Following the Catholic structure of cofradías, confraternities, lay groups supporting church events, the people created formal dance groups. Maintaining indigenous tradition, membership was limited and handed down along family lines. The stringed concho instruments they play (in Mexican Spanish concho means a skin or peel of a fruit), were made from hard kins of native armadillos Traditionally, they wore simple white tunics, possibly modeled after priests' robes.

Concheros in traditional dress.
(The origin of the use of ostrich feathers is another mystery.)

Members of la Corporación de Concheros Sociedades Unidas,
the Corporation of United Societies of Concheros,
which has existed in Mexico City since the 1920s.
Dancing at the Fiesta of the Holy Cross,

Comparsa (troupe) of Conchero dancers,

Throughout the Spanish Colonial era (1521-1823), concheros remained a phenomenon of las provincias, the predominantly rural and culturally more traditional areas outside of Mexico City. [Under Spanish rule, these regions were officially provinces; the term is still used informally by residents of the capital to refer to what are now states of the federal union.] It was only in the late 19th century that people moving into Mexico City from the countryside brought conchero dancing to the capital.

Syncretism as the Path to Survival

For many decades, the Conchero Dance, with its adaptation of indigenous dance to Catholic beliefs and symbols, provided a means among Mexican indigenous groups in Central Mexico to maintain their communal identity. Their answer to the Spanish Conquest was to embrace Catholicism and make it into their own Mexican version, what is called popular—i.e. the people's—Catholicism. Two Catholic saints, in particular, were vehicles for this syncretic solution. (See our Santos Populares, Saints of the People)

The Virgin of Guadalupe, Mother of Mexico, Mother of the Union of Religions and Cultures

Central to Mexicans' adaptation of indigenous beliefs and culture to Roman Catholicism is the adoration of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The Virgin of Guadalupe reverberates with the powers of Tonantzin, one manifestation of the Earth Mother. Appearing to (now Saint) Juan Diego, an indigenous peasant, at a temple site of Tonantzin and speaking Nahuatl, la morena (the dark-skinned) Virgin is the quintessential embodiment of the union of the two cultures.

Actually, our first major encounter with Conchero/Azteca dancers in a religious context was an accidental one at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Visiting on a Sunday, the first November we were living in Mexico City, and a month before the Virgin's feast day on December 12, we were caught completely by surprise to find the huge plaza in front of the Basilica full of dozens of groups and hundreds of such dancers, all simultaneously engaged in their dances and rituals. The air was filled with the cacophony of their drums and the scent of their incense (copal). They carried banners indicating they were each from a different pueblo in or near Mexico City.

At the time, we were completely puzzled by what was clearly a major occasion for the groups. It ended with them entering the Basilica in their full indigenous panoply to participate in a Catholic Mass held especially for them. We did not pursue resolving the puzzle until our encounters with such dancers in the various pueblos finally motivated us to do so.

Aztec dancers at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
On the banner is the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

(See our spouse's blog post: 

The Crucified Christ and Indigenous Sacrifice

The other primary figure in the joining of indigenous beliefs with Catholic ones is Jesus the Christ. He has a parallel with Huitzilopochtli, chief god of the Mexica/Azteca. Huitzilopochtli was also the miraculously conceived son of a god, Tonatiuh, God of the Fifth Sun, and he, like Jesus the Christ, was born at the winter solstice. As the crucified Son of God, Jesus also echos the centrality of sacrifice in the indigenous religion.

Crucified Christ as "The Lord of Miracles",
next to Coatlicue, another version of the Mother Goddess.

Displayed by a conchero/Azteca dance group at a fiesta honoring the Lord of Miracles,
in Colonia Ajusco, Delegación Coyoacán

In front of both gods sits an
ofrenda of flowers in the shape of a cross.
The cross is at once the Christian symbol of Jesus Christ's self-sacrifice,
reconciling sinful humans to God,
and the indigenous symbol of the four cardinal directions
that organize and orient us within our world.
The four candles also mark the cardinal directions.

The circle in the center represents our bounded human world.
The central candle is the axis mundial, world axis,
the vertical connection with the gods in the heavens.
As such, this symbolic construction is likely one of the oldest and most archetypical
symbols in human culture, going back to pre-historic, hunter-gatherer times.

"Conformidad y Union": "The conquest of the flower"

For the conchero groups, the joining of indigenous symbols and traditions with those of Spanish Roman Catholicism is a matter of pride, a representation of what they call "Conformidad y Union", active acceptance of and joining together with the faith and culture brought from Europe. They call it "la conquista de la flor", "the conquest of the flower", i.e., of the heart. 
(Interestingly, the Mexicas fought so-called "flower wars" with some of their neighboring peoples specifically for the purpose of taking captives who would be sacrificed to their gods, with the removal of their hearts as the central act. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is also an important symbol in Catholicism. See our: Mexican Fiestas As Sacred Play - Part II: Fiestas as Creative Acts of Cultural Transformation and Continuity.) 

"Union, Conformidad y Conquista"
("Joining together, Agreement and Conquest")
Banner of an Azteca dance group 
from the Pueblo Santiago (St. James) Tlatelolco.
at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Thus, as we have encountered concheros in many of the originally indigenous pueblos within Mexico City, we have come to realize that the Conchero/Azteca dance tradition is one of the main vehicles for the syncretism of the religious and spiritual traditions of two otherwise alien cultures.

From Concheros to Aztecas: From Merger of Cultures to Indigenous Identity

During the 20th century, reflecting both their long tradition and the events of 20th century Mexican history, the concheros evolved into the various versions that we have encountered in our ambles.

Historically, the Catholic Church, as a virtual arm of the Spanish crown, had great wealth and wielded much power in Nueva España. Much of its power continued after Mexico won its independence (1823), even after efforts by the Reform government of Benito Juárez in the mid-19th centry to diminish it.

For that reason, in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917), the post-revolutionary government became increasingly anti-church. It repressed public religious displays, including fiestas and processions in the streets. The practice of Catholicism was restricted to the interior of churches and private homes. The government also attempted to forge a shared national identity, in part by glorifying the indigenous past, particularly the "Aztec Empire" and the Mayan civilization.

In this context, the conchero groups were faced with a crisis. Some groups—affiliated with the church and holding to the Catholic faith—continued to dance in secret. However, others adopted a secular form called Dance Mesas (Tables, i.e., organized commissions) and separated themselves from Catholic symbolism and rituals. They made their explicit purpose the preservation and transmission of the indigenous dances of Central Mexico's original peoples, and thereby, their traditions and identity.

In one of those very Mexican paradoxes arising from the syncretism of the two cultures, the attire these groups adopted is modeled on that portrayed in the codices compiled nearly five hundred years ago by Spanish monks, in collaboration with indigenous informants. The codices were created with the specific aim of preserving knowledge of the indigenous culture and finding commonalities with Catholic belief and practices that could be used as bridges to move the "pagans" from their beliefs to Catholicism. Thus, the codices were an explicit instrument in the strategy and tactics of the Spiritual Conquest.

Conchero in Aztec or Mexica dress,
Festival of the Virgin of Sorrows, Xaltocán
Delegación Xochimilco

Some of these groups eliminated the use of conchero instruments, as they were of European origin, and use only indigenous percussion instruments (drums, rattles, ankle bracelets made of dried seeds) and, sometimes, small wooden flutes. These groups adopted the name Azteca to make their indigenous roots explicit. As the name Aztec is one that was applied by foreign anthropologists to indigenous Nahuatl speakers in Central Mexico, other groups proudly declare that they are Mexica (Meh-SHE-kah), the original name of the residents of Tenochtitlan.


Over time, some groups broke their exclusive, hereditary membership and began to initiate members from the middle class. With this opening, the conchero dance ceased to be a more or less marginal phenomenon of the working class and became a medium for indigenous-based cultural and spiritual expression for broader sectors of Mexican society. (Wikipedia)

Contemporary mezcla, mixture

Gradually, through the mid to late 20th century, the government retreated from its suppression of the Catholic Church and its prohibition of public religious acts. Fiestas and their processions of saints through the streets of pueblos and barrios could be celebrated once again. The conchero groups that maintained their allegiance to the Catholic faith and its rituals were able to return to a public presence. During recent decades, differentiations between these traditional concheros, in their white tunics, and Azteca or Mexica dancers, in their indigenous dress, has been blurred.

In our visits to the original pueblos of Mexico City, we have encountered several variations of the conchero/Azteca/Mexica dancers. There are groups that wear variations of the destinctive, original white tunics. There are also concheros, playing the traditional lute instrument, but garbed in indigenous dress. Then, there are groups in indigenous dress and using only indigenous instruments, but still participating in Catholic fiestas. There are also groups who reject any connection with the Catholic Church and hold their ritual dances in parks and plazas around Mexico City.

Passing on a Living Tradition

In our encounters with each of the variations on Conchero/Azteca/Mexica dance groups, we are always amazed by the multi-generational composition of the participants. There are many adultos mayores, seniors, dancing with vigor. There are also many middle-aged and younger adults fully involved.

Moreover, it is very clear that the members are very invested in passing on their traditions to the next generations. Teenagers and younger children are very much included. One traditional, white-tunicked conchero we talked with proudly stated that he is the fifth generation in his family to belong to his group. He added that both his son and now a grandson are participants, making it seven generations!



So, what we initially thought was an anachronistic performance for tourists in the Zócalo, we have discovered is a five-hundred-year-old tradition, a syncretistic solution to the confrontation between indigenous and Spanish Catholic cultures, expressed by the motto, "Union, Conformidad y Conquista". Over the years, particularly in the 20th century, it has been modified by political changes, shifts in the centrality of Catholicism to Mexican culture and the emergence of explicit movements to restore a presence and pride to indigenous identity. 

Nevertheless, a powerful cultural and spiritual force, legendarily released on a July day in 1531, on a mountain top in Querétero, is very much alive and well in Mexico City nearly five hundred years later.