Weekend honors Mexican history

by Nancy Ngo

Cinco de Mayo events occurring today mark the final day of a celebration that started Friday to honor the traditional Mexican holiday.
University students, staff and faculty members, and even Goldy Gopher participated in the weekend events to commemorate the 135th anniversary of the Mexican army’s defeat of the French army in Puebla, Mexico.
Celebrations included Saturday’s symbolic Cinco de Mayo parade, for which more than 1,000 people gathered in West St. Paul. Along with other festive observations, some celebrants engage in battle dancing, which participants say makes them a part of the history they honor.
“When we engage in battle, then we earn the rights to hold a traje with a name and our history,” said Susana De Leon Taverna, a senior majoring in Chicano Studies, who danced in the parade. “You are honored for your history through your clothes.”
De Leon Taverna is working to earn a traje, or a warrior’s battle outfit, which represents a person’s Mexican or Chicano history. She is earning a traje through one of the two ways one can battle and thus achieve the outfit: social or political activism. She marched in front of government agencies in California to protest Propositions 189 and 209.
Proposition 189 denies social services to illegal immigrants in California. Proposition 209, which formally dismantled California’s affirmative action policies, bars racial and gender preferences in governmental employment, education and contracting.
However, the parade offered an opportunity for University students to practice their battle dancing, the second way an individual can earn a traje.
She is part of a Twin Cities dance group called Danzante Cuahtemoch de Minnesota, a dance group whose individuals each need to master 10 battle dances to earn a traje. The trajes are often made from scratch, so individuals can design and add symbols of their history.
Deborah Ramos, a junior and independent study major, is also part of the dance group. Ramos has mastered seven dances and needs three more in order to earn a traje. She said that although dancing in the parade helped her practice the dances she will need to know in order to earn her traje, the performance mostly served another function.
“Our mission and our main goal is to dance for the people,” Ramos said. “It maybe transmits that energy and re-awakens knowledge that we are indigenous people.”
The dancing is not only for the people viewing the parade, but each dance is also meant to honor specific events or people. The group’s first dance, “Antigua,” which means old, honors elders of the Aztec culture.
“The elders are the earth. They’re the ones that hold our history,” said Juan Gorman, a dancer in the group. In addition to wearing the basic white outfit worn before dancers receive their trajes, Gorman was also allowed to wear chachayotes, a chain of shells looped around the ankle of a dancer. Individuals must know four dances in order to earn the chain.
Chachayotes honor elders as part of the past and children as representing the future. “You’re dancing with the spirit of the old and new,” Gorman said. The shells make a rattling sound when the dancers perform.
Gorman was also the drummer in the dance group. “The drum is the center of our movement for the dancing. That’s the heartbeat of our mother earth,” said Gorman.
Other symbols of life were displayed in the parade, including masks and puppet sculptures.
Anna Stanley, a mask maker and puppeteer, made a papier-mache sculpture of the sun, which she said she believes is the giver of life. Stanley said that the sun contains all colors. However, her sun sculpture used only brightly colored strips of red, yellow and orange because “those are the colors of the sun I like the best.”
Stanley participated in a 10-week workshop at Ngozo Saba Community Studios in St. Paul, which also had sculptures of the wind, rain and moon in the parade. The four sculptures combined to represent a theme, “Spirit of the Earth.”
The sculptures complimented Cinco de Mayo celebrations well, Stanley said. “To the Aztecs, the sun was very important. And the Mayan and Inca rituals were surrounded by the sun and the moon.”
Despite the hundreds of parade participants and the large turnout of viewers, Cherie Espinosa, a senior majoring in Chicano studies, who marched in the parade with other members from the La Raza Student Cultural Center, said that it was still a smaller celebration than she is accustomed to. Espinosa said she has been to Cinco de Mayo celebrations in Colorado, California, Arizona and New Mexico in the past.
Nevertheless, she said that although the Chicano community here is smaller, she was glad to see so many members of the community come together to celebrate Cinco de Mayo.