• Edición impresa de Septiembre 15, 2015


The Spaniards conquered the Zapotecs of the central valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico, almost 500 years ago, in an earth-shattering series of events. It changed everything in the lives of the conquered. So many died that many indigenous peoples came close to disappearing; some estimates hold that the indigenous population of the Americas was reduced by 90% in the two centuries following the conquest. The population drop was so great that the Spaniards later had to bring slaves to labor in their plantations on the Costa Chica (Oaxaca’s Pacific coast).

Such change and catastrophe, however, produced one of the world’s most beautiful dances: The Dance of the Feather. Today, it is performed in a number of towns in central Oaxaca, among them the weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle. In one of life’s ironies, the forced migration of the Zapotecs, driven from their homes by poverty and conquest, helped this commemorative dance survive.

The name of the city, Teotitlán, comes from Nahuatl and means “land of the gods”. The dance is performed in the town plaza in front of the church that sits on the ruins of a Zapotec temple, which the Spanish destroyed.

The dance recalls the basic history of the conquest. The Aztec invasion halted when Hernando Cortes arrived in the Yucatan, traveling up the coast of Tabasco in 1519. Cortes made alliances with the Aztecs’ enemies and marched on Tenochtitlan, their capital, massacring thousands of indigenous people at Cholula on the way.

Cortes laid siege to Tenochtitlan and finally destroyed it, burying the huge temple pyramid under what is now Mexico City’s main cathedral and central plaza, the Zocalo.

To form alliances against the Aztecs, Cortes needed a translator who could translate between Mayan and Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs and surrounding peoples. Malinalli, she became known as the Malinche. She is blamed for the defeat of the feathered warriors of Tenochtitlan and the end of purely indigenous civilization in Mexico.

The dance was invented to dramatize the conquest of indigenous people by the Spaniards. The roles of the dancers in the Dance of the Feather today are still the same: Cortes, his captains and soldiers, Moctezuma and his allies. And Doña Marina, the Malinche.

The dance is an important part of the celebration of the town’s fiesta. “It is a tradition,” he continues, “that can’t be overlooked, given that it’s part of its cultural, ceremonial and spiritual identity.” But after over 450 years, the dance no longer means what it once did. If anything, it represents a spirit of resistance to those forces that would deny Zapotecs their language, dance, music, and other cultural traditions. The Dance of the Feather is one element of a broader indigenous culture maintained through hundreds of years of colonization, followed by decades of official national policies denying their culture’s autonomy and value.

Hernandez says, “The Dance of the Feather keeps its importance in communities that hold to the tradition, like Teotitlan del Valle, because it fulfills the function of reaffirming their cultural identity by recalling a glorious past, that is, of what the community was before the arrival of the Spanish, and what it continues to be in spite of them.

In Teotitlan del Valle, the dance also highlights another contradiction. The poverty, reinforced by economic reforms and trade agreements that undermined Oaxaca’s agricultural economy, forced many of the town’s residents to leave. They became migrants, first within Mexico and then across the border into the United States.

Migrants saved money to buy the materials for the elaborate clothing and headdresses needed for the Dance of the Feather. Some returned home to fulfill the three-year commitment required of those wanting to perform the dance. Teotitlan has a complicated relationship with migration. The remittances helped to revitalize the town.

“This dance is also a strategy for defense against what they felt were negative influences of the modern world, against the consequences of migration, against the loss of moral values and customs,” Hernandez emphasizes.

“Why do people make the commitment?” he asks. “These commitments have a religious and spiritual importance. [Benito Mendoza Mendoza, who played Moctezuma in 1977, says:] ‘In some cases we do it because the Lord helped us overcome our food situation, when we had no money. Others do it because of their faith. And other people do it because they had a personal problem, or were sick and got better. Therefore, to give thanks to God that they were able to move forward they made the commitment. There are many reasons why people do it.’”

The Dance of the Feather in Teotitlan has had its ups and downs, according to Hernandez. “There have been long periods in which it wasn’t performed, until someone takes the initiative to revive it. In different historical periods various situations have caused a break in the tradition. Modern social forces have played a paradoxical role, sometimes leading to changes in the dance. But at the same time, they’ve allowed it to survive, to be reproduced and to continue to exist.”



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