They were born or raised in Santa Ana, California, which they call Santana. They keep sacred Zapotec traditions alive by practicing life cycle events from their Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca homeland.
Most especially, these young men know what it means to be a Danzante — a dancer. The Dance of the Feather or Danza de la Pluma is a ritual rite of passage. To become a dancer is to make a commitment to the principles and traditions of Zapotec life. The Danza de la Pluma is practiced with as much passion, integrity, endurance and intention in Santa Ana as it is in Teotitlan del Valle. It is not a folkloric performance. It is a serious part of Zapotec identity.
That’s why a group of young men from Santa Ana, fluent in English, Spanish and Zapotec, asked permission from the village leaders to return to Teotitlan del Valle and make the three-year commitment and live here for the duration.
Their group debut was in the early July 2013 festival to honor the patron saint and church of Teotitlan — Preciosa Sangre de Cristo. The choreography is different, the finely woven intricately designed tapestry that each dancer wears on his back was either made by the dancer or a father, uncle or grandfather.
They leap, twist, kneel, and it looks as if they are flying, as if God is carrying each one somewhere deep into the pre-Hispanic past to bring forth the spirit of the ancients.
Many brought their wives and young children with them. Some were reunited with family members — sisters, brothers, grandparents — after years of separation. Some have never seen their abuelos — grandparents — since they were infants or if they were born in the USA, perhaps never before.
It was a thrill to watch this group whose spirit infected the entire audience– villagers and about 150 guests of Aeromexico, the Mexican airline that offers several flights a day between Mexico City and Oaxaca. Tourism is the economic engine for Oaxaca and the weavers of Teotitlan del Valle depend upon visitors for their livelihood.
The Dance of the Feather is iconic. It is a history retold from generation to generation of the 1521 Spanish conquest, Cortes and Moctezuma, and the dual figure of La Malinche and Doña Marina. There are few stronger images to convey a sense of place and culture.
Both before and after, I talked to many of the dancers who said they love it here so much, they are wanting to stay on after their three-year promise ends.
After the festivities came to a close, many of the guests walked out of the church courtyard to the adjacent community museum and rug market. Just in time for a refreshment break, a bicycle vendor selling nieves — a Spanish word that means snow but what all of us know as delicious fresh fruit ices that Mexico is famous for! (Try the tuna — nopal cactus fruit.) Or, if you want something more substantial, there are homemade tamales in that wheelbarrow.