On Thursday evenings, as long as the weather is warm, the playground at Harrison Park in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood becomes a stage for leaping dancers and the age-old sounds of drums. It’s a unique event – the rehearsal of a traditional Aztec dance that’s become a beloved gathering for the neighborhood. About 20 dancers, including children, rehearse wearing bandanas around their foreheads and rattles strapped to their ankles.
The dancers practice with a group called Huehuecoyotl, which means Ancient Coyote in Nahuatl, an indigenous language spoken in Mexico. The group started rehearsing at Harrison Park last summer, in part because many of its members live in or near Pilsen, a longtime Mexican community.
Ten-year-old Axel Becerril spotted the dancers on his way to swimming lessons one day last year. The rumbling of the drums and the sight of people moving to the beat made him want to join the dancers, he said. He’s been dancing with them ever since.
“I got interested when I saw people dancing,” Axel said. “I thought it was a type of tradition that people dance, but I didn’t know at the time. I just thought it was about joy.”
Axel, his sister and his mother are now all dancers with the group. Axel loves playing the drums.
Huehuecoyotl is one of several Aztec dance groups in the Chicagoland region. It’s not about entertainment. As Axel found, the group’s goal is something larger. They dance to reclaim and preserve the indigenous cultural identity of Mexicans in Chicago.
“The Danza Azteca is a Mexican tradition that has been kept alive for hundreds of years,” Ana Patiño said in Spanish. She’s one of the group’s leaders. “It creates harmony in the community and with nature. It also teaches you discipline and promotes strength.”
The dancers picked Harrison Park because it was a safe and open space to practice, especially during the pandemic.
“Pilsen is in the heart of Chicago, that’s why we chose to come here,” said Sergio Abrajan Flores, who leads rehearsals each week. He and Patiño, his partner, live in East Chicago, Indiana and are long-time Aztec dancers. “For me, discovering Pilsen was like going back to Mexico. Ever since, we’ve been coming just to visit or whenever we can, to dance.”
More than a rehearsal, their dance or danza is a ritual, a ceremony, he and other dancers said. It’s an offering, a prayer in motion used to meditate, heal and connect with nature and everything around.
“La danza is a representation of the universe – a small version of it here on earth,” Flores said. He points to a red cloth that is topped with fruit, burning incense, salt and a seashell instrument known as the Atecocoli. Those items, he explains, represent the four elements – earth, wind, water and fire. “And that’s the heart,” Flores said of the red cloth. It’s traditionally placed at the center near the drums and people follow a step routine around it in a big circle.
Axel is not the only resident captivated by the rhythmic beating of drums resonating in the distance, the smell of the incense and the sound of the seashell instrument. Many children, their parents and others walking by slow down to witness the dance ritual.The sight of dancers at the playground adjusting their bandanas and strapping rattles to their ankles is a familiar one for many locals who frequent the park. Most members of the dance group live nearby; some are teachers, artists or students. A few of them dance with different Aztec dance groups but they come to practice with Flores in Pilsen.
“Everyone is welcome to join la danza,” Flores said.
Flores pointed to Maria Teresa Llanito, an older woman with a cane who is there most weeks trying to follow the steps.
“It relaxes me,” said Llanito, who comes from Guanajuato, Mexico. “I forget about problems. My daughter sits me here, but I just want to move my feet and dance.”
At the end of the outdoor rehearsals last year, the dancers moved to a community center in the neighborhood. Axel lost track of the dancers for some time.
Flores recalled when Axel and his mom found them again.
“I came to practice one day, and [Axel] came running, saw me and said from afar ‘You!’ He runs and he gives me a hug,” Flores said. “Like if he was my kid.”
But Flores knew Axel wasn’t hugging only him, he said. He understood that Axel was excited to find la danza, the drums and to be back in his circle.
That’s why practicing at Harrison Park is so important to Flores. Many children and parents who come are originally from Mexico, he said. They are drawn by the smell of the incense, the drums, the dance. To Flores these rehearsals serve to preserve their links to the past and to offer residents a relaxing evening in the summer.
Thank you to Monica Garza who asked the question that inspired this story at one of our tabling events in Pilsen.
Adriana Cardona-Maguigad is Curious City’s reporter. Follow her @AdrianaCardMag.