I’ve been spending a lot of time with Boyle Heights lately. It’s strange because the area is very familiar to me since I’d spend a day or two a week there as a kid.
I’ve been making weekly trips to Boyle Heights since summer started for Danza (Aztec dance) practice. The first site was at State Street Recreation Center a few blocks from the Cesar Chavez exit on the 5. The group switched locations to a child care center on First Street two weeks ago.
As I drove to practice my friend told me, “you can’t miss the building. It’s really colorful.”
He was right. As I neared the building at 1315 State Street I gazed at the mural depicting indigenous men (perhaps Cuauhtemoc), children, and a stylized Virgen de Guadalupe. I took a few pictures of the building as well as the one next door, a doctor’s office depicting the well known legend of the ill-fated lovers Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl.
Already late for Danza, could hear the thumping of thick sticks on the huehuetls (drums) and the smell of copal (a type of incense) emanating out the wrought iron door.
I entered the small room that during the day functioned as a pre-school/kindergarten classroom. The furniture had been pushed to the side and in the center sat the ombligo (navel) with offerings of fruit, feathers, sonajas (rattles), red cloth, conchas (large shells), and copal. Surrounding the ombligo were several danzantes of varying age and experience. To the back of the room near a small children’s library stood two young men at the huehuetls (drums) keeping the beat. Occasionally a woman too pregnant to dance played a smaller drum, the teponaztli.
Dressed in shorts and t-shirts, with sonajas in one hand and chachayotes (rattles made from the seed of the ayoyotl attached to leather) around their ankles, the danzantes bounced up and down, to the right and left dancing to well-known danzas like Paloma, Apache, Guadalajara, Tezcatlipoca, and Aguila Blanca.
I waited for the end of the current dance and then asked for “permission” to enter the circle. I danced as I had for several weeks before. Some steps came to me easily and for others I had to refer to the maestro (teacher) to my right.
The actual dancing occurs nonstop for about an hour and then the group sits in a circle and discusses things like how our ancestors viewed lunar eclipses. We share fruit like pears, mangos, and oranges and drink water to quench our thirst. We then discuss upcoming events such as the Xilonen ceremony.
Before breaking the circle, all participants shake hands and thank each other. We break and then clean up and pack, change, inspect how dirty our feet look after dancing barefoot, and leave the site. Sometimes, I go grab a taco or two at Tacos la Estrella (near Whittier & Lorena). On the way there, my friend and I drive through the neighborhoods where I used to play as a kid. I’ve driven past my grandparents’ former homes. I used to spend a lot of time in Boyle Heights, but things changed as I grew up and my grandparents sold their home or passed away. The neighborhoods that were once extremely familiar feel a little different now, but I still feel the connection.
It’s as if going to Danza in Boyle Heights is really taking me back to my roots.