A living tradition: Aztec dancers in Taos

Originally published in The Taos News
During the 5th Annual Fiesta honoring Senor Santiago de Los Cuatro Vientos,  Tanya Vigil watches other performers prepare for their morning activities.  (Photo:Stuart Palley)
Eduardo Delgado prepares his traditional dress for the
 morning portion of the 5th Annual Fiesta honoring
 El Señor Santiago de Los Cuatro Vientos. (photo: Stuart Palley)
                                                    The beginning
Arrangements for the vigil in honor of El Señor Santiago de los Cuatro Vientos began on July 15, when Aztec dancer Tanya Vigil went to the San Francisco de Asis church to get the gym ready for the celebration.
Santiago’s actual feast day falls on July 25, but the vigil and dance are held a week before so as not to coincide with the traditional Taos fiestas a week later. By Thursday night the altar was covered with lace. Amy Còrdova, an award-winning illustrator, painter and writer, brought a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, painted in soft tender shades, that presided over the altar.
“I personalized the Virgin,” she said. “I wanted to bring her to life.”
A conch shell, a crucifix, vases for flowers, a colorful portrait of Santiago riding his horse and votive candles dec­orated the altar.
But this was only the beginning.
                                      La Vigilia
On Friday at 9 p.m., everything was ready for the vigilia del señor Santiago. All the candles were lit; the shimmering altar was decorated with flowers and offer­ings: Sweets, a pineapple, cigarettes.
The estandar te (banner) of Tanya Vigil’s group, Izcalli In Nanantzin, stood on the right side. There were tables with food and the tantalizing smells of chile con carne, pozole and frijoles filled the room.
The Delgado family, all Aztec danc­ers, came from San Bernardino, Calif., to be par t of the celebration.
“Dancing is a living tradition,” said Eduardo Delgado, “and we love to share it.”
The group Izcalli In Nanantzin holds a special significance for them. “We don’t have an estandar te (banner) for us in California,” said his son Manuel, so this one is ours, too. This is the only estandarte in the United States that came directly from a Mexican group.”
From Mexico also came the Garc’a Vargas family, who have attended this event for five years now. Their dance group is called Danza Azteca de México, Uniòn y Conquista (Aztec Dancers of Mexico, Union and Conquest).
Mercedes Vargas said that los cuatro vientos (literally, the four winds) that surround Santiago’s image were the Virgin of Guadalupe, El Señor de Chalma, the Virgin of los Remedios and Cristo del Sacromonte.
“Santiago is at the center of all of them,” Mercedes said. “He is the focal point from which we depart in this par­ticular ceremony, but we can’t forget the other saints.”
The vigil included traditional Spanish songs, prayers for everyone present and blessings for each dancer. Limpias (spir­itual, emotional, physical and mental cleansing) took place at 4 a.m.
                                             The Day After
In the morning, after a few hours of rest, the Aztec dancers from Mexico City, Albuquerque and California got together with Vigil and Izcalli In Nanantzin.
The danzantes, like a bright ribbon of colors and feathers, made their way from the gym to the highway. Actually, they danced down the highway and stopped the traffic.
“It was a reminder that there is something much bigger than the busy­ness of life,” said Patricia Padilla, an eighth-generation curandera.
Then they returned to the church and danced for six hours. The celebra­tion ended with a feast of beans, chile, squash, melons, oranges, warm torti­llas and chicken.
“The dance is a prayer for the ben­efit of the people,” said Padilla. “It just takes a different form.”