Renée C. Byer / Sacramento Bee file

Salina Martinez performs a ritual dance two years ago with the Maquilli Tonatiuh Aztec dancers at Cesar Chavez Plaza.

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  • 40th annual Xilonen ceremony

    What: A traditional coming-of-age ceremony for young women

    When: 11 a.m. Saturday

    Where: Southside Park, 2115 Sixth St., Sacramento

    Cost: Free

Aztec dancers due in Sacramento for coming-of-age ceremony

Published: Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014 - 4:00 pm

Aztec dancers from across the Western United States are set to gather in Southside Park on Saturday for the Xilonen, a traditional coming-of-age celebration for young women that involves dancing for hours in vibrant regalia and receiving advice and expressions of support from community members.

For Sacramento’s danza Azteca community, the event will serve as a major milestone: the 40th Xilonen (pronounced she-lon-un) celebrated in the city.

According to Maria Miranda, jefa of Maquilli Tonatiuh, a North Sacramento dance group hosting the Xilonen, the capital city has been a major hub for danza since it came to the United States decades ago.

“Now there are gatherings in Colorado and Texas and Arizona, all over the United States,” Miranda said. “But really, nobody knows that (in) Sacramento, we were the ones that got the whole movement going.”

While Florencio Yescas is one of the dancers largely credited with bringing danza to the United States (he arrived in San Diego in 1974), Sacramento’s Angel Bertha Cobb was also a pioneer.

Cobb, who still attends weekly practices in Southside Park during the summer, already had established herself as a teacher of ballet folklorico around that time. She had studied under Yescas in Mexico City and brought him to visit Sacramento in the ’70s.

Miranda, then one of Cobb’s students, recalled Yescas’ visit as a transformative moment.

“He was amazing,” she said. “He was just what we needed at that time.”

Nurtured by a growing Chicano movement that sought to embrace and reclaim indigenous Mexican culture, danza took off in the United States.

Jennie Luna, a professor of Chicano and Chicana studies at California State University, Channel Islands, wrote her dissertation on danza and said the art form played an important role in the broader push for Latino civil rights.

“Most of our parents and grandparents experienced ‘No dogs or Mexicans allowed,’ ” Luna said. “Finding something that was ours and really reaching back into an indigenous history – a history as the first people of this land – gave the Chicano community a sense of empowerment.”

Many of Cobb’s students, including Miranda, started their own dance groups across California.

Though other Golden State cities have larger populations, Sacramento has maintained an important role in the danza world in part because of its long-running Xilonen ceremony, which is funded and hosted by Maquilli Tonatiuh and attended by groups from San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, as well as from Nevada.

For Elizabeth Moreno, 17 and one of the honorees, the event – also known as the ceremony of tender corn – will be the culmination of years of practice with Maquilli Tonatiuh group.

On Saturday, Moreno (Maquilli Tonatiuh’s only Xilonen this year) and a dozen or so other young women will receive advice from children, parents and elders. They will dance for hours in colorful, traditional dress, moving to the beat of drums and the rattle of seed pods attached to dancers’ ankles.

Though Moreno has waited three years to become a Xilonen and spent seven years dancing with Maquilli Tonatiuh, she said she is nervous. “I hope I’m not going to mess up,” she said. “A lot of people are coming.”

While the ceremony lasts a day, “being Xilonen” is a longer commitment.

During the year, Xilonen are expected to be especially mindful of their conduct and dress. They are encouraged to consider their life goals and determine the best way to reach them. They must refrain from having boyfriends. Different groups vary in the strictness of enforcing these rules; Miranda prides herself on instilling discipline in the young women with whom she works.

Alina Robles, 16, became Xilonen last year and found the emphasis on self-discipline more motivating than restrictive.

“I had to watch everything I did because the little kids look up to you,” Robles said.

Robles danced for five or six hours in Southside Park without interruption; other dancers occasionally brought fruit and water to the Xilonen so that they wouldn’t have to leave the dance circle.

“I didn’t expect to become emotional, but then I did,” Robles said, recalling the intensity of the moment they began dancing.

Today, Maquilli Tonatiuh includes several women who were Xilonen years ago and have now also seen their daughters become Xilonen. Miranda’s daughter, Xochitl Miranda, 35, became Xilonen in 1991 and attended her daughter Ketzalli Baldizan’s Xilonen three years ago.

Xochitl Miranda said she’s noticed danza becoming more traditional over time, rather than less, as American danzantes visit Mexico and bring back information from parts of the country where the tradition flourished despite centuries of Spanish colonial rule.

She has also recognized another change; she thinks teenagers are prouder of their cultural identities nowadays. She said she was never ashamed of her culture or her participation in danza, but it wasn’t something that gave her social cachet.

Baldizan said all of her friends at school know that dancing with Maquilli Tonatiuh is a big part of her life.

“They go, ‘You do Aztec dancing? That’s so cool,’ ” she said.

Read more articles by Isabelle Taft

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