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Episode 100: The Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue’s show of support

The Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue is an Indigenous Latine dance group focused on uplifting the Minnesota Latine community by teaching and performing in honor of pre-columbian cultures.


ALBERTO GOMEZ: Hi, everyone. My name is Alberto Gomez and you’re listening to In The Know, a podcast by the Minnesota Daily. Together, we’ll be exploring the University of Minnesota’s students and communities with each episode.

Susana de Leon has danced for about 30 years and 22 years ago, she founded the Minneapolis-based Nahuatl/Aztec-inspired dance group Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue. On July 22nd, the Kalpulli was given the Aquatennial Award of Excellence for their parade performance during the Minneapolis Aquatennial.

According to de Leon, the dances the Kalpulli perform utilize naturally made instruments and regalia, inspired from traditional wear.

According to de Leon, that maraca-like sound comes from ankle-worn leggings wrapped in shells. Both the shells and leggings are called ayoyotes. And the thundering booms originate from a special Indigenous-Mexican drum called a huehuetl. During performances, one or two drummers beat their huehuetl as dancers dressed in traditional regalia perform around the drummers. Along with the regalia, dancers might also wear headdresses, carry shields, and more.

But the Kalpulli is more than just a dance group. The Kalpulli’s dances celebrate life, aim to heal, and share the still alive indigenous traditions of central Mexico. According to de Leon, the word kalpulli desirives from the Aztec word for community. The word KetzalCoatlicue meanwhile means “Precious Mother Earth.” Traditionally a kalpulli is made up of multiple families, who then make up a barrio.

SUSANA DE LEON: And then the barrio makes up this entity that works in the political and social life of the community.

GOMEZ: De Leon states that, though she founded Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue in Minneapolis, it does not belong to her.

DE LEON: And so it doesn’t belong to me. It doesn’t belong to the captains. It belongs to the community that sustains us.

GOMEZ: The Kalpulli operates out of El Colegio, a South Minneapolis public charter school aimed at supporting and uplifting Latine cultures and communities. The Kalpulli itself has dancers as young as a few years old to beyond their fifties. The dancers come from across the Americas, as close as Minneapolis to as far as from Ecuador.

The Kalpulli does not dance to compete, outside of friendly motivations. But instead, the Kalpulli dedicates itself to community support.

DE LEON: I was dancing with two of the dancers and I started looking at them and smiling with my eyes. And they all came in the center and we started competing, kicking higher and so we do compete, but in a very friendly manner. Just mischievous, I guess. And it gives you a lot of energy and it’s fun and it puts a smile on your face and you know that everyone is smiling and you can see their faces. At the end we are all like, you did it, you did it. Like, I can’t believe you did it.

GOMEZ: De Leon encourages the Kalpulli to serve local communities to bring about healing and love for Indigenous-Latine culture. Through dance, the Kalpulli encourages cultural acknowledgement and support.

But beyond their performances de Leon explains the Kalpulli does more than dance. According to de Leon, the Kalpulli wants to uplift its dancers and community members first and foremost. They accomplish this by opening their doors to anyone interested in learning more about Indigenous-Latine culture and hosting multiple workshops for the Twin Cities community.

DE LEON: And so the more we grow in with this youth component, the stronger our community gets the, you know, healthier it gets.

GOMEZ: Though everything the Kalpulli does is open for anyone to participate with, de Leon puts most focus on supporting Latine communities, especially “lost” American children who want to find a connection to their ancestry and culture.

DE LEON: You know how a lot of, uh, us sort of like question how we went from indigenous to whatever is this that we’re labeled now and whatever label people wanna put on us. And then we know, we know that we have all of this indigeneity and all of this, uh, deep rooted culture in us.

GOMEZ: In his book “American Indian Holocaust and Survival,” American anthropologist Russell Thornton estimated that around 7,000,000 indigenous people lived in the Western Hemisphere prior to the arrival of Europeans in the Americas in 1492. Though Thornton concedes that estimate could be much lower or much higher what remains consistent is that between 90-95% of all indigenous peoples in the Americas perished following the arrival of Spanish conquistadores.

Though centuries have passed since the near total extermination of Indigenous Americans, de Leon states that many Latine folk still carry that pain in their hearts, but the Kalpulli aims to heal the hurt, to share Indigenous-Latine pride to the Twin Cities.

DE LEON: And suddenly you have this space where you are celebrated, your culture, you feel a connection. And suddenly it doesn’t matter that there is no budget for Mi Gente. It doesn’t matter that the University doesn’t wanna change the name of the Union and they continue to have all these, you know, small injuries every single day towards you. Because at that moment, you’re just there and you’re experiencing a very ancient culture that’s relevant and that’s contemporary and, and you just feel the moment. And are carried away in that smell of the copal, the drums and the dancing. And the dancing is always so strong that it just makes you wanna dance.

GOMEZ: Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue will perform in front of the Northrop Auditorium on September 7 as part of the ongoing series “Amplifying Solidarity.”

The Amplifying Solidarity series began in the summer of 2020 as an artistic response to anti-racism. Kristen Brogdon, the Northrop Auditorium’s director of programming, helps to organize the series

KRISTEN BROGDON: Part of that response was committing to showcasing the work of Black and BIPOC artists.

GOMEZ: By working with local BIPOC artists and the Multicultural Student Engagement department at the University of Minnesota, Northrop has tried to show support for minority groups by boosting on-campus representation.

By creating a platform for culturally diverse artists with the Amplifying Solidarity series, Brogdon hopes that anyone passing by the Northrop’s outdoor stage will experience a sound or art that they may not have otherwise known.

BROGDON: And then part of it is also to showcase the fact that there are black and brown artists, women, and queer artists who are working across all genres. It’s not, it’s not a hip hop series. It’s not just a jazz series, but we have folk music. We have blues and Americana in addition to, to all of these other forms.

GOMEZ: According to Brogdon, not only will the performances of groups like the Kalpulli provide a learning experience for non-latine peoples, but it will provide an opportunity for Latine students to see representation on campus.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Hispanic students made up approximately 5% of the student population in 2020. Although, Hispanic does not automatically mean Latine or Indigenous, leaving the number of Indigenous-Latine students unknown. The Center for Education Statistics does report a less than 1% student population for Indigenous peoples.

Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue’s performance does more than represent Hispanic or Mexican culture. It provides a platform for Indigenous-Latine culture, a culture that is frequently relegated to nothing more than a footnote.

Dr. Gabriela Spears-Rico is an assistant professor in both the Chicano-Latino Studies and American Indian Studies departments. A trained cultural anthropologist, her expertise lies in Central Mexico, in particular the state of Michoacan.

She explains the distinction between Mexican representation and indigenous representations.

GABRIELA SPEARS-RICO: It’s different than indigenous representation and because of the marginalization of indigenous folks in Latin America and the stereotypes that are attached to indigeneity that doesn’t always get represented accurately. Indigenous characters and indigeneity continues to be romanticized or becomes a marginal footnote or reference rather than central and humanized, which is what I would like to see.

GOMEZ: Spears-Rico makes reference to the 2017 Pixar film Coco, identifying that though it was a step in the right direction for Mexican representation, the film failed to properly showcase and honor Indigenous-Latine peoples and cultures.

SPEARS-RICO: Indigenous people literally became a footnote at the end of Coco when all the credits rolled it said on there “to learn more about the Day of The Dead,” go to your local library or look up the indigenous people of Mexico and so that sort of like paints indigenous people as contributors to the culture, but not as the stewards of the culture or the humans that are today, contemporary human beings that are still that are still preserving these cultural traditions and carrying them on.

GOMEZ: By putting Indigenous cultures and peoples at the bottom of the page, the influence that indigenous cultures have today become erased from active consciousness. According to the book Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices by cultural theorist Stuart Hall, diverse and accurate representation provides audiences with the awareness of cultures. According to Hall, audiences look to the arts to understand what cultures are like and some of the inner workings of a culture. Hall explains that the way a culture is represented in art reflects a society’s stigma of a culture.

Spears-Rico explains that by leaving indigenous peoples to the end of the credits and not giving noticeable credit to their influences, indigenous cultures remain elusive to the general public.

The Kalpulli functions to bring to public attention practiced dances of pre-columbian cultures outside of stereotypes.

But beyond breaking stereotypes and bringing cultural awareness, the Kalpulli uplifts the dancers themselves. Moemma Diaz is a thirteen-year old second generation immigrant, meaning her parents migrated to the United States and she was born here.

Diaz joined the Kalpulli three years ago, but she has been dancing for ten years. Despite being raised in a Mexican household, she didn’t find a lot of Latine representation in her younger childhood. But the Kalpulli creates an opportunity for young people like Diaz to find a reliable support system that understands her culture.

MOEMMA DIAZ: It matters cuz most kids don’t have that. Like. I know when I was growing up, I didn’t have people around me who supported me. Um, so I know people like kids and girls are struggling to like fit in into society and have people who support them and who care about them. So I feel like this is just like, oh, I have friends, you know, I have people who are just like me and that who are gonna support me.

GOMEZ: According to de Leon, a kalpulli has a duty to its community. To de Leon, Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue has a duty to revitalize and support those needing healing. And though centuries of culture has been stripped away from so many Indigenous peoples, de Leon wants to share the very much alive culture that Indigenous Latin-Americans have rooted somewhere inside them.

DE LEON: And when we see, I think, Aztec dance, especially at the university, we have a very deep connection to the cosmos, to our ancestral memories, to our memories that are awakened at that moment because we carry them in our DNA. They’re there, just as the trauma is there, so is the joy, and the music and the drum, and it connects to our hearts. And that makes you feel strong in this place where so many times you don’t belong.

GOMEZ: The Amplifying Solidarity series costs nothing to attend and takes place at the outdoor stage in front of Northrop Auditorium. Upcoming performances occur between August 24 and September 21. Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue will perform on the outdoor Northrop stage on September 7th at noon. Susana de Leon and I both look forward to meeting you there.

The Daily would like to thank all of our listeners for tuning in to the final episode of the summer season. We hope you return to listen to new stories from new reporters this coming fall. Don’t forget to like and rate In The Know wherever you enjoy your podcasts. My name is Alberto Gomez and this has been In The Know.

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