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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 3, 2003 - Issue 86


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Ancient Dance Offers Girls a Passage to Womanhood

by Nancy Redwine Santa Cruz Sentinel
credits: White Hawk Indian Council

"I get this overwhelming feeling when I’m dancing. I’m so happy to be there." — Ana Esquivel

Her black tennis shoes stomp and fly. Under a black kerchief, Ana Esquivel’s face is serious with concentration, but when her feet leave the ground in the dance of maíz, her smile briefly transforms her from a young woman into a very happy girl.

It’s Tuesday night in the E.A. Hall Middle School Cafeteria, regular rehearsal night for the Watsonville Danza Azteca group, White Hawk Dancers.

But for Esquivel, a Watsonville High sophomore, the biweekly rehearsals of Danza Azteca — indigenous Mexican dance — has changed in the past year.

She is in her Xilonen year.

Xilonen (pronounced she-LOAN-un) is a Nahuatl word meaning tender corn, and is a rite of passage for girls from 12 to 17 years of age. Nahuatl (pronounced NA-watle) is the ancient and very much living language of the Mexica — ancestors of the Aztecs — and their descendants. (There are currently two and a half million Nahuatl speakers in Mexico.)

The first Xilonen ceremony was held in the Watsonville Plaza. There were 40 dancers and one Xilonen.

Last year, when Ana celebrated her Xilonen, there were more than 400 dancers and two Xilonen.

Since 1983, White Hawk Indian Council — founded in Watsonville by Anai-i and Guillermo Aranda — has nurtured Mexican, Mexican-American and a handful of non-Latino young people and their families in a circle of support and activity that includes Danza Azteca, drumming, mural painting, jewelry making, sweat lodges, ritual, beadwork, sewing and pottery.

The Arandas own introduction to Danza Azteca came in the early ’70s during the Chicano cultural "uprising" in San Diego.

"One day this old Mexican man from Tacuba came into the Centro Cultural de la Raza, where we were working," Anai-i said.

"He asked us if we knew anyone doing Danza Azteca. We said no, so he became our teacher."

Fifteen years ago, another Mexican danza teacher — Señora Cobb from Puebla— passed through Santa Cruz County and noticed something lacking.

"She said, ‘You know what we need is a rite of passage for young women,’ " Anai-i Aranda said.

"There were none on this side of the border, and so she started showing us how it was done. The more we talked, the better it sounded."

That was the beginning of a tradition that would swell the female ranks of the White Hawk dancers and build the strong community of women that hold it together.

"I have to give my husband credit," Anai-i Aranda said. "From the beginning, we talked about how important it was to celebrate women."

There is also an initiation for young men — Ocelot or jaguar warrior — every October, but according the Guillermo Aranda, there are not as many participants as at Xilonen.

"It’s just as important," he said. "But it’s real hard to get men to participate. Society tells us that men don’t dance or sing or cry."

At rehearsal
Yolanda Esquivel, still wearing her work clothes, stands against the wall watching Ana fly in a circle of dancers. Her dark eyes full of pride, she barely looks away from the daughter who was born before her legs were done growing.

"The doctors said she needed something to strengthen her legs," she said.

"Now look at her."

When Ana came to her first rehearsal of White Hawk, the shy 8 year old felt the drums in her heart.

"I was scared," she said. "But I loved the way people moved.

When she turned 15, Yolanda gave Ana a choice: a Quinceanera, the big, expensive, traditional Mexican rite of passage for 15-year-old girls, with its special mass and a big party, or Xilonen, a yearlong initiation kicked off by a day of dance and ritual.

Neither Yolanda Esquivel or her Apache mother had been offered such a choice.

"I had a baby of my own by the time I was Ana’s age," Yolanda said.

"And my mother had a very hard life."

For Ana, the choice between wearing a big dress to a ceremony in a Catholic church, or a simple white dress to a ritual on bare earth was easy.

"I have Native American blood in my background, and I’ve always been more attuned to that," she said.

"When I heard people talk about Xilonen, I decided it was the way I’d want to express my emotions and pride about my nationality."

In the circle
Keeping the fire burning is considered most important role in the circle, for it is from the fire — popoxocomotl in Nahuatl — that the dancers draw the energy for the dances and the prayers they send.

Maria Medina is a malintzin, or firekeeper for the circle. Eight years ago, her sponsor Alice Parra taught her the job. Now Medina is Ana’s Xilonen sponsor.

The choosing of a sponsor is the first step in the decision to participate in Xilonen. Choosing a woman she admires, girls enter into a relationship that goes beyond their Xilonen year.

"You’re not just a sponsor for one year," Medina said.

"If they’re around for 20 years, you’re still there for them. I remind girls that they’re going to be out front for one year as Xilonen, but it’s also a lifelong thing. From there you take on your work of helping the younger ones."

Nine months pregnant, Medina moves gracefully through the evening rehearsal, from dance floor, to drums, to the smoldering copal and sage that fills the cafeteria with a sweet dense smoke that bathes each dancer before they begin to dance.

Ana chose Maria to be her sponsor for her open-mindedness and kindness, as well as her knowledge of drumming, beading and the Nahuatl language.

"It’s really varied what a girl might want to learn in her Xilonen year," said Anai-i Aranda.

"One girl wanted to learn about cosmetology, so we had her learning about natural hair and skin care. Another wanted to learn about the history of women in danza."

In the Xilonen year, each girl is required to maintain at least a C average in school, to attend the majority of rehearsals and performances, to lead dances, and to speak in palabra, the sharing circle at the close of rehearsals, and to the public at performances.

"They are really learning first hand that you get what you give," Aranda said.

While the sponsor is the central mentor in the life of the Xilonen, the year following the ceremony is a time for learning from everyone and everything.

"When I was Xilonen, I didn’t just learn things from women," said Medina, whose grandfather was a danzante in Colima, Mexico.

"I learned to play the big drum from Guillermo, and the smaller drum from Anai-i and her son.

"But the most important thing I learned from everyone was to always have good discipline inside and outside of the circle. And not just when people are watching."

Just because a girl may participate in Xilonen, doesn’t mean she won’t, like Medina, also celebrate a Quinceanera.

"In some ways Xilonen’s like a Quinceanera, but it’s also not like a Quinceanera," Maria said.

"At a Quincieniera, you go to the church and pray, and then you have a party. When you’re in church, you’re just thinking about that party.

"But in the Xilonen ceremony, you have to be thinking about what you’re doing and knowing that you have to be responsible."

Another difference between Xilonen and the Quinceanera is that White Hawk requires no financial commitment. The needs of all dancers under the age of 18 are provided by the group.

The spiral
Like a thundering heartbeat, the drums overflow from the cafeteria into the school parking lot. Crowded up against the windows and doors are quiet groups of young Mexican men, their hair freshly slicked back after the work day.

Just inside, weary-eyed families line the benches of cafeteria tables, and children sleep on blankets in the corners. A boy bends over algebra homework. A tiny girl in a pink skirt teeters towards the circle of pounding feet. Her brother snatches her up at the last minute.

As the night deepens, a second circle of more experienced dancers coalesces in the center of the larger circle.

"White Hawk offers something from the past that continues to flow through the dancers and then through us when we watch," said Ruby Vasquez of Esperanza del Valle, a Watsonville folklorico troupe. In her role as a Watsonville educator for 14 years, she has seen the impact of White Hawk on the lives of numerous young people.

"When I go to rehearsals or performances I always feel the energy spiraling out into the bigger circle and then back to the dancers.

"But what really blows me away is how many families and people show up and are welcomed. Everyone pitches in like real community, where very young people and elders come together and learn from each other."

According to Anai-i Aranda, White Hawk is intentionally based on an indigenous community structure that continues today in Mexico. There, the watchful eyes of tias, tios, sobrinas, sobrinos, abuelas, bisabuelos, madrinas, padrinos and vecinas create a broad base of support and visibility.

"For many people they can think back to a time and place when everyone knew their parents and everyone knew them," said Anai-i.

"Here, kids are aware that there are eyes on them all of the time. It’s not just the older ones watching the younger ones. And once they know the Xilonen have made a commitment, the young ones are watching every move they make. They’ll get behind them in the circle and emulate the way they move and dance."

Even her mother has noticed changes in Ana since her rite of passage in July.

"She’s a lot more responsible and dedicated," Yolanda Esquivel said.

"She finishes the tasks she starts, and her self esteem has improved.

Ana, who has started to explore her dreams of being an artist, is showing a strength and agility beyond the dance floor.

"I’ve figured out that I can dedicate myself if I try hard enough," she said.

"When I had my Xilonen, I met a lot of girls from all over, and they say that the ceremony changed them and their attitudes towards life. We all know now that if you work hard enough, you’re going to make it."

It was a hot day last July at Pinto Lake County Park, and Ana and another Xilonen, Anita Tapia, were dressed in white and surrounded by more than 300 danzantes dressed in their finest trajes from all over California.

"All of the dancers came together at the entrance and danced for us," Ana said. "Everyone was so happy and beautiful."

Four altars — of the elders, the children, the women, and the men — stood in the four directions.

"At each altar, we presented our dances," she said. "And at each altar, the dancers danced for us. It wasn’t just the women, but men too, everyone together."

Ana’s grandmother accompanied her as she made her way around the circle.

"She was so happy to be there," Ana said. "She was very emotional that I had chosen her."

As the girls and their supporters approached the altar of the elders — the drums silent and the dancers still — the sound of wings caught everyone’s ears.

Like a dance for harmony and a prayer for respect, a flock of white swans passed directly over the altar, the beat of their wings in unison, the reach of their necks in symmetry.

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