by ENRIQUE R. LA MADRID
University of New Mexico
In the third film of his celebrated trilogy on Mexican ritual dance drama, Pacho Lane has turned his gaze to the children of the Eagle, the Conchero dancers of greater Mexico, so named because of the armadillo shell instruments that they play. Also known in some circles as Azteca dancers, like living illustrations of the Aztec Codices, they dance at pilgrimage sites such as Tepeyac (in Mexico City) and Chalma (West of Cuernavaca) to render devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Lord of Chalma. The Eagle’s Children captures the color and poignant spectacle of the sacred dance and evokes what it means to dancers in Mexico and the United States, where it has taken root among Chicanos.
Whereas other ritual dance traditions in Mesoamerica are tied to specific cultural groups and geographical areas, the Concheros are largely urban dwellers from across the entire country. Often from displaced or marginalized sectors, the Concheros are united in a successful search for cultural roots and social validation. Since the early 1970s with the growing interest of Chicano university students and intellectuals in Nahuatl culture and literature, this cultural and religious revival has also spread across Aztlan, the southwestern United States, legendary homeland of the Aztecs.
At the heart of the movement is the Eagle, none other than Cuauhtemoc (Falling Eagle) – the last Aztec emperor, whose legendary prophecy lies at the core of a belief system based on a syncretic mixture of folk Catholicism and Nahuatl theology. One of the elaborately plumed and costumed Generales, or regional leaders of the danza, recites the prophecy in one of the film’s most thoughtful interviews:
Our Sun has left us: He has left us in the shadows.
We know he will return
To illuminate us once again.
While he dwells in the house of the dead,
Let us be passionately united . . .
Fathers and mothers must teach their children,
That they may teach their children’s children,
How one day we shall rise reunited
Gaining strength from the New Sun
To fulfill our destiny.
Whereas the music, the costumes, and the choreography of the Concheros have pre-Hispanic origins, their ideology has always articulated significantly with the times. In the 19th century the main theme of the Concheros rituals was the conversion to Christianity, while after the Mexican Revolution a shift toward the state-sanctioned indigenismo, or exaltation of Indian culture, led to an emphasis on the “ancient” Aztec elements of the dance.
A fascination with Mexican indigenismo was one of the most significant cultural currents in the “Chicano Renaissance” of the 1970’s and can be seen and heard in literature, art, and music of the period. Early in the decade, Mexican Concheros Andres Segura and Florencio Yescas came to the United States to teach Mexican folk dance. They found not only interested students but new disciples committed to the fulfillment of the Eagle’s prophecy of the reunion and reawakening of the native peoples of Mesoamerica.
The Concheros organization is a hierarchy built around the charisma of its leaders and the devotion of its followers. Such an energized setting can be precarious ground for a filmmaker, as Lane discovered when he followed two groups of Chicano Concheros on a pilgrimage to Chalma and to an Aztec-style baptism in Texas. In the best of ethnographic film tradition, Lane perseveres with a discrete structuralist approach that be characterized as symbolic and indirect. The film succeeds admirably in opening a space for the dancers to speak for themselves. The only narration comes from their lips as the camera lens lingers on the sumptuous details of costume, facial expression, and exuberant movement.
By the end of the film, the exotic becomes compellingly familiar. In an interview in San Diego, California, a Chicano activist reflects on the importance of the danza in his life. He predicts that for his grandchildren danza will become “like playing baseball. It’ll be so natural that they won’t need anyone to teach them.” Sure enough, in a corner of the park behind him a baseball game is in progress while plumed dancers whirl in the foreground.
The Eagle’s Children viewed alone stands as a valuable document of the Conchero tradition and its journey to Aztlan. Viewed as part of the trilogy that includes The Tree of Life (1978) and The Tree of Knowledge (1983) on the Voladores and Huehue dances of the Totonacs of Huehuetla, Puebla, it is a culminating glimpse into the ancient soul of Mesoamerica and a tribute to the power of ritual dance.