It was a big day, welcoming the new year 11 Acatl, according to the Aztec calendar — March 19, according to the Gregorian calendar — at the White Swan Pavilion.

Aztec dance groups from Yakima, Seattle, Oregon, California, Chicago and Mexico gathered last Saturday and Sunday, March 18-19, 2023, at the pavilion on Mission Road to welcome the Mexica new year.

The Mexica culture, also known as Aztec, established Tenochtitlan, where Mexico City is now.

But the day also begin a new alliance between two ancient cultures.

At 10 a.m., purifying copal (Mesoamerican sacred incense) completely flooded the air, and dancers with headdresses and vibrantly colored costumes gathered in a circle. Sacred rhythms from pre-Hispanic instruments made the site rumble on the Yakama Reservation.

A large offering with canes and flower weavings, surrounded by individual offerings with fruits, flowers, candles, musical instruments and copal, among other things, were placed in front of the pavilion, waiting for the beginning of what could resemble a dance marathon. For the Aztec dance groups, it was a sacred ceremony to welcome the new year.

With the blessing of the four cardinal points, the dances began.

Huehuétl and teponaztle drums, ayoyote rattles, sea shells, armadillo shell guitars and other pre-Hispanic instruments marked the rhythm of the dancers, who illuminated the atmosphere with their brightly colored costumes and marked the steps with ayoyotes on their ankles.

Some visitors arrived early, others came later and sat wherever a place was available. Two tiers of seats were filled with spectators. Many decided to stand close to the dancers, taking pictures on their cellphones and recording videos to post them on social media.

Others remained seated in the few chairs around the dancers, in front of the mats and luggage that accompanied them. They traveled from various parts of the U.S. and Mexico to bid farewell to the old year.

Virginia Jimenez, a Toppenish resident who came to the U.S. when she was 17, sat in one of those chairs.

“This makes me vibrate,” she expressed with emotion as she paused the video she was recording. Her son and daughter-in-law had accompanied her to watch the ceremony. “This is something you don’t see here.”

At 11:45 a.m., the dances continued. Dancers carrying babies in shawls or in their arms, children, youth, adults and seniors, all offered their offerings through dance.

In the kitchen, Araceli Jaime Moreno, head of the Ceatl Atonalli group in Seattle and one of the organizers of the event, prepared food for the dancers and the public for the end of the celebration. First, she said, they would pass some water or lemon slices to the dancers to alleviate their thirst.

Spiritual ceremony

“It’s a spiritual ceremony, celebrating the Mexica New Year. For this to take place, it is not just a matter of coming and doing it. There are meetings, there are preparations, there is a why. As we are the Mexica, everything has a reason; our food, our name, our dances, our songs have an intention to a generator of life, such as the sun, the water, the air, the earth,” Moreno said while cooking red mole in a giant casserole.

The dances that day, she explained, were dedicated to all the generators of life: air, water, fire and earth.

“All those elements we have in ourselves,” Moreno said.

“We are a race of all times, we have been in resistance, we have been in thousands of places and in many times. Whoever thinks the Mexica do not exist, they are lying.”

The Aztec dance groups were in the Yakima Valley to increase the bonds of brotherhood.

“Young people are suffering for lack of identity ... but when they know their tradition, they will have a reason to be, to follow, and to live,” Moreno said, surrounded by casseroles of red mole, green mole, rice, cactus salad, beans and other Mexican delicacies, and flavored waters of tamarind, horchata, pineapple and mango.

“It’s how we Mexicas welcome our people,” Moreno said. “We give them something to eat after we have danced for hours and hours.”

‘We are one nation’

During the noon break, while the dancers were hydrating, elders Sid and Suzette Mills of Frank’s Landing on the Nisqually Nation in Thurston County received acknowledgments for their work in making the event possible.

“We are one nation,” Sid said, referring to Native American groups, as he was honored with Mexica acknowledgments and attire.

The dances continued until 4 p.m., and when the magic of the dances ended, lunch followed with the dancers and the public, who drove short and long distances to witness this event in the Yakima Valley for the first time.

“The most beautiful thing was the brotherhood that occurred between the Yakamas and the Mexicans, and the way we were able to see each other as brothers and try to decolonize our way of thinking. For us there should not be a difference; we are one people,” said Ismael Lopez, captain of the Ceatl Tonalli Aztec dance group in Seattle and Granger in the Yakima Valley.

The New Year’s celebration was to create unification, the well-being of our peoples, he added.

This is the first time the Yakima Valley has celebrated Mexica New Year, Lopez said. For 12 years, dance circles held the celebration in Seattle, and during the pandemic (2021-22) they held it only among the dance groups, Lopez said.

The Yakima Valley celebration began after Ceatl Tonalli started an Aztec dance circle in the Yakima Valley, Lopez said.

And for others, like Jimenez, it was the first contact with their Indigenous roots.

“I was very impressed, I was in tears because you lose a lot of your culture, of your roots when you come (to the U.S.) young,” Jimenez said. “I was impressed. It was wonderful for me. ... We have a beautiful history.”

Mexica New Year Mexica New Year is celebrated on March 12 in Mexico. In Washington, the celebration has been held for more than a decade in Seattle. This is the first time it is being celebrated in the Yakima Valley, thanks to the organization of the Ceatl Tonalli group.

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