Calpulli Tonalehqueh Brings the U.S.'s Largest Aztec/Mexica Celebration to San Jose

ACTA - Posted on 21 March 2012

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Text and photos by Lily Kharrazi, Living Cultures Grants Program Manager

A father and daughter in full regalia at Calpulli Tonalehqueh's Aztec/Mexica New Year ceremony.  They are members of the San Jose-based group Ehecatl Quetzalcoatl.On March 11-12, 2012, in San Jose, the marking of the Aztec/Mexica New Year was anything but a quiet observance. In fact, it was the largest commemoration of its kind in the United States, with more than 5,000 people in attendance over a two-day period. They gathered to usher in the Year of Flint and the corresponding number 13. These attributes are determined by a complex calendar system and world view.  The number 13 is used to measure the gestation of human life; thirteen counts of 20 days plus 1 count of 13 equals 273 days (or 9 months).  This is the time it takes to give birth to human life from conception to the first breath of life.  With this count it is believed that ancestors were able to plan and predict the destiny of their children based on the day they were born.

Tecpatl is translated as “flint knife.”  In many museums, there are examples of these Tecpatls.  They were used in daily use,  for industrial use and also very fine ones by the Texoxotlaticimeh, the Mexica surgeons.  Symbolically, Tecpatl represents light, both natural and artificial.  Like the light of a torch, it represents the ideas that sprout from sparks from deep down inside of the human mind, product of two flints colliding.

This is just a small window into the complexities of the study and practice of Aztec/Mexica ways. It is multi-faceted with its spiritual practice, community creating and activism, and can provide a practical blueprint focusing on indigenous foodways and health.

Funded in part by a grant from ACTA’s Living Cultures Grants Program, the events were organized by the San Jose-based and volunteer-run nonprofit Calpulli Tonalehqueh, whose name means "community of guardians who accompany the sun" in the Nahuatl language. The name’s concept refers to those who individually and collectively strive to meet their full potential on earth, and who take the characteristics of the sun as their goals for personal growth and existence. "Like the sun itself," they write, "we seek to be resplendent, strong, steady, life-giving, balanced, humble, virtuous, and creative."

Calpulli Tonalequeh was established in 2004. They are an intergenerational community with a fluid membership of 300 members at large. A core leadership includes elders and dancers each with over 15 years experience in Aztec dances. “We exist on a landscape of thousands of dancers, artists, and spirit practitioners who have established several dozen Aztec dance groups throughout the United States and hundreds in Mexico.” Their year-round work supports the successful execution of the Aztec New Year.


The ceremony began at sunrise. Native California representatives from the Rumsen Ohlone and the Pomo tribes were the first to enter the ceremonial circle through a portal facing East in alignment with the day’s sunrise. Next to enter were members from New Mexico’s Zuni tribe who danced and sang in full regalia. The allegiance of other indigenous peoples is a strong component of the Aztec/Mexica movement. A contingent of Native Vietnam war veterans were honored and blessed before the largest contingent of dancers were ushered in to take their places in the circle for the Aztec dances which would last for hours.

More than 700 dancers of all ages, representing over 75 Aztec groups, were led into a large field to form concentric circles around a central altar of fire. The altar was surrounded by elders and a core of male and female drummers. The sweet tree resin, copal, was in ample use as incense, awakening the senses. Each dancer was purified and blessed as they took their place in the circle waiting for the ceremony to begin. Young dancers were interspersed among older ones. Babies were secured in wraps around their mothers. Row after row began to swell with people and color as each dancer in full regalia was ushered into the ceremonial space. As the drums began, the assembled began to dance in patterns dictated by the rhythm. Dances salute the corners of the earth, reflect on the spirit world, and exert energy through vigorous movement. Men, women, and children perform the same movements. With headdress feathers alight in the sky and strong rattles in hands and on feet, the blur of hundreds of people whose intentions are focused can create a powerful energy to experience. What kinds of personal and collective transformations occur during hours of ceremony is a question to consider.

While communal expression is the main focus of this New Year ceremonial observance, the individuality of each dancer’s regalia is noteworthy. Each dress and headdress is a work of personal craft and identity, borrowing from symbols of Aztec lore. The detail and design of regalia can range from intricate to simple. Color choices on styles of dress were varied, feathers which are a focal point of dress are not artificial, animal attributes such as bird heads or snake skins were in use; fabric ranged from leather to muslin, and beading was done with large stones to the smallest of sequins. All were constructed with meaning and deliberateness. They are a source of pride and the wearing of the dress, head piece, and accompanying ankle rattles all contribute to a sense of transformation that the ceremony wishes to achieve on multiple levels.


This reclamation of Aztec ancestral ways has been a contested one which some critics have suggested is based on minimal evidence. Yet the movement to claim Mexican indigeneity has been a conscious effort. The Chicano, Mexican, and Central American communities who are reinvesting in Aztec cultural practices that once were disproportionately mythologized, are breathing relevancy into their present day observances. The sense of empowerment and vigor is a common theme echoed by participants. There is an acknowledgment that people removed from their histories by marginalization and the complexities of colonialism need to actively assert themselves. With more than 30 years of practice, a new generation is solidly steeped in a tradition that will have been present all of their lives.

To learn more about the year round activities of Calpulli Tonalequeh, visit their Facebook page.

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Calpulli Tonalehqueh Brings the U.S.'s Largest Aztec/Mexica Celebration to San Jose


Over 500 dancers from over 25 Aztec dance groups participate in Calpulli Tonalehqueh's Aztec/Mexica New Year.  They travel from all over California, the U.S., and abroad.  In a two-day period, more than 5,000 people will attend.


Dancers arrive before the ceremonial dance begins.


The plumage on each headdress is made of real feathers which must be inserted each time the piece is worn for ceremony.


Each feather is carefully secured and must withstand vigorous movement during dancing.


The event is an intergenerational one. Youth of all ages participate in the circle under the watchful eye of their parents.


A couple pose in full regalia.  They have danced for 25 years with the San Francisco-based group, Mixcoalt Anahuac.


A portal facing the rising sun is the entrance through which participants pass in order to dance, drum, or carry out ceremonial duties.


Copal is a tree resin which is used to bless and purify those who enter the ceremony.


An elder will bless the participants in the ceremonial space.  Here she carries burning copal, a bird wing, and sprigs of fresh herbs.


Zuni dancers and singers from New Mexico bless the circle.  The indigeneity of the Aztec/Mexica traditions are recognized by many First Nations.


Native American veterans pose before entering the ceremonial circle.


Detail of headdress: leather, beads, parrot head and feathers.


The circle of dancers grows larger forming concentric circles around an altar.


The dancers will dance for hours led by a corps of male and female drummers.


A Calpulli Tonalehqueh member dances in the circle.


A young dancer's regalia as seen from the back.


In order to keep up their stamina, the dancers are offered fruits and water within the ceremonial circle.


Vendors at the mercado, or marketplace, offer dance regalia and other related goods.


A couple looks at clay flutes for sale. Some dances are accompanied by a melodic flute line over the heartbeat of the drums which drive the dance.


Vendor sells ankle bracelets made out of seeds which add percussion to the steps of the dance.


Elders are acknowledged with special seating out of the sun.