All photos by Shweta Saraswat
"What we're doing is praying with our feet, with our bodies."
Centzi Millia, a 31-year-old Aztec dance instructor prepares for an afternoon class, wrapping her long blonde dreads into a bun and gathering small children into a circle. "We honor the Mother Earth with our bare feet, and the vibrations we create — the Mother Earth as a living being feels those vibrations."
The dance starts in a flurry of drum beats and the bass jangling of Ms. Millia's chachayotl, the thick anklets of Aztec danzantes made of rattling seed pods.
"It was actually at Knott's Berry Farm, of all places, that I discovered the danza," Ms. Millia says after class, sitting in the sunlight of Kuruvunga Springs, a remnant site of the ancient Tongva people nestled between Santa Monica Boulevard and Wilshire. "My parents would say those were the dances our people used to do, but that's as far as they would tell me."
Eighteen years later, Ms. Millia is one of several Aztec dance teachers in Southern California. A child of Mexican immigrants, she represents part of a trend among Latinos in the U.S. who are shifting away from the Roman Catholic Church. Though the Church still holds sway among new immigrants from Latin America, the children of these immigrants have been turning toward forms of Protestantism or are choosing not to affiliate with any type of religion.
However, Ms. Millia and some of her second- and third-generation peers raised in traditional Catholic households have left the Church not to follow any alternate form of Christianity or atheism, but to pursue the spiritual paths of their pre-Christian ancestors. As she pursued dance, Ms. Millia's elders taught her how it was reshaped and used as a tool by Spanish conquerors to lure the local people away from their native, or indigenous, beliefs and toward Catholicism.
Instead of dancing for Mother Earth, Ms. Millia says that dances became offerings to the Virgin Mary. The special days of celebration for the native people became Catholic holidays. These kinds of revelations pushed her away from the church.
Renouncing Catholicism, however, is not a precondition for those who take part in the ritual of Aztec dance. Sixteen-year-old Valerina Cispuentes can be found organizing for her church's youth groups on Thursdays and dancing with Ms. Millia's Aztec circle on Saturdays, epitomizing what Ms. Millia refers to as the modern mestizo, or mixed, culture of Latinos in America.
"I never really thought of them as being separate cultures," Ms. Cispuentes says. "I just want to honor my ancestors."
Her mother, Gina de Vaca, organizes the dance circle and other community events with the purpose of remembering ancient traditions and beliefs in Los Angeles, such as the annual Four Corners Spirit Run. Still, she calls herself Catholic.
"It's hard to shake. It's instilled in you. It's a battle, but we still need to get back to our roots," Ms. de Vaca says. "And people (in the Catholic community) have respect for it."
The response of the Catholic Church to the defection of some of its members as well as the close intermingling of Catholicism and indigenous customs has been minimal. Raul Molina serves as deacon to a largely Hispanic congregation at St. Anne's Parish in Santa Monica. He says that the mestizo way of life is just the reality of living in a colonized world.
"The diocese of Los Angeles is very multicultural and diverse. Different cultures have their own customs, their own traditions in their blood. So they don't distinguish. We're mixed in both blood and beliefs."
The years following confirmation are the critical turning points for most Catholics, Mr. Molina says. This is the case for Elias Serna, a 44-year-old film and business professor at CSU Dominguez Hills who routinely brings his seven-year-old daughter Alise Xitlani to Aztec dance practice. The UC Berkeley graduate was brought up Catholic by his immigrant mother and attended St. Anne's Catholic School in Santa Monica, but left the church in his college years.
"I was an altar boy. I grew up praying every morning and every night. My first year of college I was still Catholic, but I was becoming increasingly politicized in Chicano activism. I went through a period of critiquing colonialism, and saw the church as an instrument of that colonialism, and I rebelled against that. So I naturally gravitated toward the repressed forms of spirituality."
Exposure to Chicano politics and history played a key role in Mr. Serna's shift away from the Church, but that knowledge didn't come until he hit college.
"We grow up without that cultural and historical introspection. Once there is an introduction to things like Chicano studies and Aztec dance communities, there's a natural tendency to rescue that submerged part of you."
Deacon Molina acknowledges that the Church has not made direct efforts to maintain the faith of Catholics who are moving out of the sphere of influence of their home, community, and upbringing. His solution is educational programs targeted at the young adults most at risk of abandoning the Church.
"There is a big gap after confirmation at 17 or 18 years old, and there's nothing for them to continue engaging in unless they choose to come to services. So we need to create new programs for the youth in college in order to understand what questions they have and what is going on in their lives."
Miguel Bravo, 38, turned toward his indigenous heritage after an entire youth spent in Catholic school going through the motions of confirmation, Mass, and Bible study for years. After high school he joined a grassroots Chicano group in East L.A. called The Harmony Keepers and reeducated himself "physically, mentally, and spiritually" under the teachings of his ancestors.
"Within the last ten years, more and more people are embracing the native truths, coming down to the roots layer by layer and going forward with the indigenous ways. It's more of a way of living that puts more responsibility on your relationship with all creation, all life, another person, the food you eat, the tree that you walk by, the squirrel you see walking by. It's about the way that you acknowledge and respect the world around you and your place in the world."
The place for the newly indigenized Latinos in the U.S., according to Mr. Serna, continues to be one with fluid borders.
"I think most people are aware of the hybridization of Mexican Catholicism. Saints are melded with indigenous deities — even Guadalupe is basically a reincarnation of Tonanzin, the earth goddess. I have friends who are Catholic who allow their kids to learn about Aztec dances and other cultural things."
The reaction from the local Catholic community toward the revival of ancient traditions such as Aztec dance has been mild, perhaps because of a general understanding of the reality of mestizo life. Or perhaps it's because, as Ms. de Vaca puts it, dance cannot be argued with.
"Dance is such a beautiful form of expression for everyone, no matter what religion or nationality or culture you are. You have to be a pretty narrow-minded person to say something bad about dance."
Shweta Saraswat is a multimedia journalist and Annenberg Fellow at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC. She currently works as supervising producer of the newsmagazine show Impact.