Aztec rites draw hundreds to Southside Park

The rapid beat of drums could be heard blocks away. The smell of burning coal and herbs filled the air. Curious onlookers craned their necks.

Two hundred dancers moved their feet to the rumble of drums Saturday at Southside Park to celebrate the coming of age for 10 boys, ages 12 to 19. The dancers stood in a circle, holding maracas in one hand and feather fans in the other.

The eight-hour ceremony began at the crack of dawn, when elders set a large bonfire at the park’s center. Participants, hailing from across the state, tossed tobacco into the flames to give thanks, letting the smoke rise up.

“This is the rite of passage,” said Jesse Ortiz-Ocelotl, 63, who has organized the event for 23 years. “It gives young men positive direction so they won’t go into gangs or drugs.”

Known as the “Ceremony of the Eagles and Jaguars,” the event marks the beginning of a one-year journey for boys to gain acceptance as men. It is held annually for those who want to honor their Aztec heritage and is loosely based on ancient folklore.

During this period, the boys must complete certain tasks, such as community service. They must also refrain from certain behaviors.

“You can’t connect with a female physically. No kissing,” said Pablo Lopez, 20, of Olivehurst.

Watching on the sidelines Saturday, Lopez said he would “soon” partake in the ceremony, without elaborating.

As the day wound down, the 10 soon-to-be men made their way to four altars marking the main points of the compass – south: children, west: women, north: elders and east: men. A fifth altar was placed at the center, representing the “center of everything,” Ortiz-Ocelotl said.

The boys arrived first at the boys’ altar, symbolizing the exit from childhood. An elderly man with a ponytail spoke to them, offering wisdom and instilling good virtues.

In the old days, Ortiz-Ocelotl said, the boys would have to hunt deer and wild birds for the group to eat. But that wasn’t the case on Saturday.

Patricia Palomares-Mason sat in a camping chair with her eyes carefully fixed on her son, Jacob, 19, who was participating in the rites.

Palomares-Mason, a Mexico City native, called the celebrations a “passage of life.”

“You become responsible, humble and learn to give back to the community,” she said.