Name: Crystál, David & Paz Zamora
Location: Albuquerque, New Mexico
Topics: Dance, Music, Culture, Aztec, New Mexican
Quote: “Everybody calls them a costume. ‘Oh that’s such a pretty costume can I borrow it for Halloween?’ Instead of getting offended we just let them know, this isn’t exactly our costume, it’s our regalia to show that our culture’s alive, thriving, continuing, changing, it’s not stagnant.”
[Crystál]: My name is Crystál Tzollin Tonatiuh Zamora. I’ve been living in Albuquerque my whole life [laughing], born and raised Burqueña. Some background information on me I was born into the Tradición Mexica, the Aztec or Mexica tradition and have been an Aztec dancer my whole life. Because of that I have studied and learned multiple and other types of dance in my dance career so that I could become more well -rounded as a dance as well as studying dance and communication at the University of New Mexico.
[Paz]: Nehuatl notoka Mapitzmitl Xiukwetzpaltzin… Yo me llamo Paz. My name is Paz. And I’m from here, from the Old Town, or “La Ruca” as we call it. I’ve been doing Danza for 40 years. I was, as a young man, I was a Chicano activist and then a member of the American Indian Movement and that’s why I ended up going down to Mexico and ultimately getting in touch with Danza and becoming a Danzante. I’m the leader of the group [Kalpulli Ehekatl/Ehekatl Aztec Dancers].
[David]: My name is David Zamora. I’ve been doing Aztec dance since I was born. Both my parents had been dancing before, so this production is just going to be a family affair. My parents my 3 sisters, my wife, significant others and all our community coming out to put on a show that we hope everyone will enjoy.
[Crystál]: In the peanut gallery, we also have Rosa Ilwikayotl, Luna Iztli, Rita Zamora and Kathleen Garcia.
[Paz]: Back to the old days, huh? Well, essentially growing up when I was a child, the freeway wasn’t here, so you have to begin thinking from there. If you pass the bridge that’s on Central and Broadway, you were starting to get close to the Heights. So our world was a lot smaller at that time. On the other end, you know, it was nothing for us to take a ten mile walk up to the west mesa to my Uncle Mike’s Ranch and spend the day there and then walk home at night. In that it was quite different. The population was a lot smaller. We were more like pueblo than city at that time. Nobody locked their doors. The name La Ruca for Old Town is Pachuco… is what it is. And La ruca is your girlfriend, so it’s kind of like saying that’s she’s the girlfriend. It was, Old Town, was the first barrio or neighborhood in Albuquerque. It’s where the city was founded. Hence the name, it also became the sweetheart or the Ruca because it was the first neighborhood in the city.
[Crystál]: So in terms of cultural background and what it means to me, like the first thing while you were asking that question that came to mind was pride, cultural pride. I feel like New Mexico and Albuquerque specifically really prides itself on being diverse and being still culturally active having a lot of our old traditions be very much alive. Like when my father talks about the old days or my grandpa talks about his stories, there’s always a sense of pride of being from Albuquerque, you know. I remember growing up, I went to Albuquerque High and my grandpa was so proud because that made another generation of Albuquerque High goers, you know. All my cousins as well went there and so then every time we would talk about it, “Oh, third generation Albuquerque High students.” So, I think that’s part of the culture here is that sense of pride of being New Mexican. David, what do you think?
[David]: I concur [laughter].
[Crystál]: Yeah, cuz we have a different growing up. Cuz my brother is about 11 years older than me.
[David]: Growing up in Albuquerque… I loved it. I know I have some friends who couldn’t wait to get out, and a lot of them come back. They call it the “Land of Entrapment,” but I like it here. I like the people, I like the weather, I like the beautiful skies, and just the energy… it’s just a lot slower moving here. People tried to make things happen but we go at our own pace. It’s nice to get out every once in a while to see the world but I always come back if nothing for family, for the chile, the food. I just love the energy Albuquerque has. The art scene and the dance scene and the support that is given to our communities. We have our issues, for sure, but we also have just really great strong points. So growing up in Albuquerque was a pleasure for me.
[Paz]: The family line traces back to both Mexico and New Mexico. For instance, on my mother’s side, and on her [pointing to wife] mother’s side, my wife and myself are from the founding families of New Mexico. One of my ancestors was the original single owner of the entire Atrisco Land Grant but then he got into an argument with the Viceroy of Spain and walked away from it and that’s when the 8 families were ceded the Atrisco Land Grant. So that’s a little bit of context as far as Albuquerque goes. On my other side I’m of Purépecha blood. Those are the native people from the mountains of Michoacán, Mexico. And that is our connection to Mexico and to the Danza. My wife also has Mexican, Diné, Spanish, and German blood, so we’re a nice mixture of different ethnicities. We were both raised knowing that we were of Native and of Mexican blood as well as being New Mexican. Americans for centuries, and first and foremost humans.
[Paz]: I started Danza in 1971 [laughter], back when dinosaurs wore wooden underpants…I was trying to remember! I’m old! We were all taking, myself and some of my cousins, all kids from the north valley area, were taking martial arts and we also belonged to AIM, The American Indian Movement, and so when AIM decided to have a regional conference here they asked if we would serve as security for the conference, and we did. Well, one night we were sitting around, and Russel Means and Dennis Banks were the founders of AIM, were asking us our names, and it turned out that they knew my father. So they asked me, “Why don’t you some of you guys who are of Mexican-Indian blood, why don’t you go back down home and make connections with our brothers and sisters down there.” And I took them at their word and 6 weeks later for a year and half, more as a political activist, but right before I came back, I ran into, in Cuernavaca, Mexico, there was a theatrical piece done with Aztec Indians. It’s the first time I had ever seen them. And soon after I came home, because I got homesick and I wanted to have some of Garcia’s Chile, so I got home at 6 o’clock in the morning, and I went to visit my best friend who’s now my brother-in-law, and we went over to Garcia’s, over on 4th and Mountain Rd. There was a bunch of greñudos, you know, long haired guys sitting at the bar there. And I told my friend, I said, “Those look like Aztec Dancers. I just met some.” And I went to ask them, “Are you Aztec Dancers?” “Yes we are.” “Well, what are you doing in Albuquerque?” “Well we’re just coming through for the first time. Our chief is down in Gallup negotiating for the Gallup Intertribal. We’re going to present our Danza there.” And I asked them “Well, where are you guys staying?” “We just got into town, we don’t have anywheres to stay.” So I took them to my brother’s house ‘cause he was out of town at the time and they stayed there. So the first ever Aztec dance practice in New Mexico was held at my brother’s house. And then they dance, he was going to get married the following week, and they danced at his wedding. So essentially the Aztec dance found me. You know I had seen them before, but I had no idea. I was not raised a dancer, yeah I had two left feet, kind of still do. And the Danza found me and it slowly absorbed me. One of my teachers once told me, “Oh you’re involved in martial arts and this, that and the other, but one of these days you’re going to find out that the Danza has swallowed you up.” And that’s essentially what happened. 41 years later, I’m still doing Danza and have been the head of what is the oldest existing dance group in New Mexico ever since its inception.
[David]: So for me I was lucky enough to be born into it. Both my parents were already dancing so they [would] tell stories about having each of us kids as babies in the middle of the circle listen to the drum beats and have people around us dancing. So, some of my earliest memories are of Danza, of traveling all across the United States, Mexico, several other countries. Being able to perform and meet people and share my culture. And so it’s kinda hard to explain because for me it’s just my life. Every single day we do talk, experience, our culture. So to actually explain what it is, it’s just like: This is my life, this is what we do every single day. And it’s a great feeling to have. Because I have great pride in my culture. Growing up I missed a lot of birthday parties and social gatherings but I got the experience to travel and to dance and just be with my family all the time and have those experience and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. So now coming back to that as an adult, it’s kind of fun to be sitting here with my whole family again, creating costumes and going over the script and making new choreography so then we could show everybody something new that they haven’t seen. ‘Cause in Albuquerque a lot of people know what Aztec dance is and they’ve seen it because we’ve been here for, my father said, about 41 years. So now we’re trying to elevate what we do just so that we can show them something new so it’s kind of fun and it’s invigorating me again to delve deeper into my culture.
[Crystál]: You know from the moment you open your eyes you are in the Tradición. It’s not like age 5. You go to your first ballet class and then you know you’re a ballerina. My parents always tell me stories that we’d go and travel to these performances and they would hand me off to these strangers [laughing] to hold me while they performed, granted they were watching me. And we go back to perform at those same places 24 years later and those same people still remember me as a baby and they come up and they say, “Oh my god, I used to hold you while your parents danced and now you’re a full grown woman, and that’s crazy.” Like those are the kind of connections we have because of Danza Azteca. Going and performing at different places like my brother said. I mean, how many 7 year olds went to the FDIC and performed in Washington for their culture, at the Kennedy center, all these crazy places, I know my brother went to Switzerland, going to Mexico every summer and going down there to dance or to visit. And you know it’s those experiences that kind of carry you through the rest of your life. As he said already, there were days and there still are days you know, that you say, “Oh my god I wish I had a normal life so that I could go to that birthday party,” or “Oh, my friends went to Cliff’s and I had to go to a performance.” As a kid that seems like the worst thing in the world but then you’re 24 and you say “Wow, look at all these things I’ve taken away from this,” and if it wasn’t for Danza Azteca I never would have experienced that. Cliff’s will still be there, every summer. But this might not be. And it’s beautiful like he said that my family can sit here, hang out, be best friends, talk all kinds of smack, create this beautiful production, and have like a huge family bonding moment. You know there’s fights, there’s arguments but at the end of the day we’re here hanging out together and how many families can say that.
So, you mean it’s not just cardio? It’s my work out for Monday nights. It’s a lot more in depth than I feel a lot of people understand. As is any culture. You know you see a culture and you see kind of the facade and say, “Oh, wow that’s really neat,” but then you go and be part of that culture and you realize that there’s roots and traditions and reasons why things are done a certain way. You don’t just wake up and say “Oh, I’m going to do it this way because I feel like it.” There’s years and years and centuries of reasons why. Costume-wise, each part of the costume has a meaning. You know we have the ayoyotes which are cascabeles or bells that we wear around our ankles. We have our Maztlal, los pectorales. Those are the parts that cover your chest and your lower body. You have your braceletes that are your wrist guards. You have an escudo, your shield. You have your ayacaxtli which is your rattle in your other hand, you have your copili which is your headdress and then in your copili you have your plumas which are your feathers. So each and every one of those items that I mentioned has to be created. The leg rattles you have to cure and clean all of those shells and then sew them together on a piece of leather and then put buckles. The costumes you have to sew in layers and then cut back each layer for the color you want. The plumas, you have to go gather all the feathers and then clean them and then find out a way to secure them in the headdress. So every little tiny piece of your costume takes hours and hours and hours of preparation. So you might see these dancers and it’s so impressive to watch this beautiful shiny fabric move back and forth with all these feathers, but then you look at it on a microscopic level and each piece takes so much time to create. That person dancing in front of you spent hours and hours and maybe years on their traje.
[David]: Everybody calls them a costume. “Oh, that’s such a pretty costume. Can I borrow it for Halloween?” Instead of getting offended we just let them know, this isn’t exactly our costume. It’s our regalia to show that our culture’s alive, thriving, continuing, changing. It’s not stagnant. The materials we use today are different than the materials they used several hundred years ago. But it’s just showing that it’s not a costume, it’s a culture, and as a culture, it’s still developing and it’s alive. And so that’s also what we want to show with this. That we aren’t stagnant. We aren’t doing the same thing, and it’s not something that’s dying out, but actually it’s having a huge resurgence. There’s a lot more Aztec dancers, everywhere now. In Mexico City, it’s a lot more open, they’re not as looked down upon. In the United States, anywhere there’s Mexicans you got Aztec dancers now: Midwest, both the coasts, everywhere. we used to travel to almost every state because there weren’t many Aztec dancers and we could to any state and something there had never been. And now there’s someone local. So, it doesn’t make sense to fly us out to places, and we still travel a little bit, but it’s kind of cool because it just shows that the culture is growing, it’s thriving. We’re here, we’re not going anywhere, we’re staying. And at the same time, keeping connection to our roots. So the things we wear are reflective of that. The dances are coming from traditional beats but sometimes you see new choreography because you have people who are, like myself, who are born into the tradition and as they learn different dances they are like, “You know what? This feels like it could be developed into a new dance.” And so we have our traditional steps but then we start to see new steps which for me is really exciting. It kind of keeps it to where it’s… to where you can see it’s growing. For me that’s kind of the exciting part of it. It’s just part of our life. It’s not something that we have a certain period of time that we schedule to experience it. it’s just always there and present and people who hang out with us probably get sick of hearing about it, especially right now, it’s just the focus of what we’re doing in our lives. It’s exciting.
[Paz]: People often [ask] “What’s the connection? Why Danza up here in the United States?” And I tell them, especially for Indo-Hispanic people, but for everybody, for all human beings, I say you don’t realize how much of native life, native Mesoamerican life is in our everyday use. You know, beginning with the language. Let’s just start with the word for Danza, Mitotiliztli. if you speak Spanish and if you’re from New Mexico a, “Mitotero,” is a gossip. Okay, and then that comes from Mitotli which is a Nahuatl word for dance. Mitotiliztli or Danza is really called Mexica Chichimeca, and it was originally developed by the nomadic people known as a Chichimec, which loosely translates as, “Red Tradition,” and these people range from as far north as Utah all the way down into north central Mexico. At one point 7 of the tribes made a pilgrimage down to central Mexico. One of those tribes being known as the Azteca, people from Aztlán, people from the place of the cranes. If you’ve you ever been out in Algodones or down in the south valley or anywhere, there’s cranes all over this place. So this is Aztlán in a very real sense. They made it down to a place that they named, “México Tenochtitlán,” which means in the naval of the maguey cactus, in between the prickly pears, and they renamed themselves, “Mexica.” [meh-shi-ka]. So this dance form is called Mexica Chichimeca, because it takes its roots from the Chichimec people but was then added to once the Aztecs became the Mexica people in Mexico City. At the time of the encounter between native peoples and the people from Europe, this dance was forbidden. So it changed in form, and it hid itself behind the Catholic church. And the drums were put away and guitar that was made out of the shell of an Armadillo or āyōtōchtli and stayed like that for a couple of hundred years until drums were reintroduced. In the 1920s a group of intellectuals renamed it Mexikayotl which means, “The tradition of the Mexica,” and at that time there was movement away from the Catholic church and back to the indigenous roots of Danza and a lot of the dance that is seen nowadays on this side of the border either traces itself to the Mexikayotl which is a non-Christian, although not anti-Christian form of Danza, and the Concheros who were based in Christianity but mainly with the objective of preserving the Danza for future generations.
[David]: Wel,l this particular performance occurred through a partnership with the NHCC which has always been super supportive of our group and of the arts in general here in Albuquerque and New Mexico. And they actually approached us saying they had a slot in December as about 3 months out. “Like, I’m not sure if it’s too short of a period of time but we’d like for you guys to put on a full-length performance and possibly something that’s occurring every few years. We have about 4 days for you to tell us yes, or no.” And so, we got together as a family and said, “Yeah! This is something we want to do.” We knew it was going to be a short period time and a lot of work but it was just something we all wanted to do. We enjoy sharing our culture, we like dancing, it’s what we do. And so we figured, “Yeah, we could do this.” And so what we really want to do is essentially have a dance performance but also incorporate some theatrical elements of storytelling, of poetry. We’re gonna be using the lights and music and possibly a few other surprises if we can get it all together. But essentially we just want to come out and again, share our culture. We’ve had people who’ve been watching us dance since elementary school, and now they have their own kids who are in elementary school, and so we want them to come in and see and say, “Hey, these are the people you know we’ve been telling you about.” This is the culture that is here live in Albuquerque. And then also to let those who maybe haven’t seen us dance, experience it and be able to see exactly who we represent. And then right now especially in the political time that we are just to show that we are all connected in some way and hopefully people could see something that reflects within them, their values and something maybe that just opens them up to say, “Hey, you know what, this is pretty cool. This is something I want here. These are the neighbors I want to have. These are the people I want in my life.” And just kind of break down those barriers of division and hate and just open up people’s hearts to say this is beautiful. This isn’t something to be afraid of, this is something to embrace. So hopefully we could kind of bring that to what is overall just going to be a fun spectacular shiny dance performance.
[Crystál]: Those of you who are listening and don’t get that much of a visual, while we’re sitting around the dinner table my sisters are on the couch creating props for this. Their stringing feathers to be kind of wings for one of our pieces. My mother’s sitting there watching intently. The dog’s running around. So I mean when we talk about his being a family affair, we’re all sitting around waiting for when this is done, we’re gonna start our rehearsal. I think that’s another thing that is something we’re really trying to express, that this really is the labor of love, and you know, we don’t have a budget, we don’t have that many funds, so we’re finding all the scraps and pieces in our rooms and creating all these cool things that are going to look so great. But if you didn’t know that we didn’t have a budget you wouldn’t ever expect it. Because that’s how much love we’re putting into this. We really are family oriented. We love our grupo, and our group of dancers really have supported us through this whole thing, too. So it’s amazing how many people in the community have been willing to come and do this out of the goodness of their heart. We have musicians and poets and other dancers coming in and face painters and body painters and makeup artists doing it just because they want to. ‘Cause they’re excited. They want to see us succeed and there’s not that whole thought of like, “Well, when are we getting paid? How much are we getting paid?” And I think for me that has been the most eye-opening and awesome thing that we have so many friends who are willing to do this out of the goodness of their hearts. And so that’s how you know it’s going to be a good production! Because there’s no ego in it, it’s all love. I forgot to mention we also have an awesome stage crew that’s also donating their time. Without stage crew and techies and stage hands these productions would not happen, like music. All those guys, they really are the ones who put the show on, we just go on stage…December 3rd we’re going to start the show at 7pm and December 4th we’re going to a matinee at 2. So yeah, if anyone has time to go and watch this it’s going to be beautiful because there’s a lot of beautiful people on stage.
[Paz]: …[Náhuatl]…Zan Zepa nik neki nian macaz ze we tlazokamatili ica nochi amawantin, tlazokamatli wel miak. No mas que dandalo a gracias a todos que vayan escuchar este entrevista por estar con nosotros…I just wanted to give a quick thanks, a shout out, to those of you who will be listening to this interview. We are Kalpulli Ehekatl which means “Community of the Wind”.