Let's say you have seen some pyramids while traveling around Mexico. Now, you are walking down the street in beautiful Mexico City, taking in the sights. You turn the corner and are greeted with a sight to behold! Resplendent dancers in splendid feather headdresses and body paint alongside traditional healers are performing ancient rites. Suddenly, you are in the heart of the Aztec spirit, five centuries after the Spanish conquest.
On Friday, the Mexican authorities will commemorate the 500th anniversary of the "fall" of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan to the conquistadors and their indigenous allies.
But Sergio Segura Octocayohua and others like him who strive to preserve Aztec culture plan their own celebrations the day before in honor of the "heroic defense" of the city.
"Despite being distorted, our identity, philosophy and history live on," Octocayohua said during a break from overseeing healing rituals in the heart of the capital's historic district.
"We no longer fight with weapons. Now we fight with words, identity and dance," the 58-year-old said.
All around, people of all ages performed choreographies that alternate twists, stomps and energetic movements of their limbs, accentuated by their colorful plumes and the rattling of seeds tied on legs.
Crowds of tourists stopped to watch – some exclaiming "This is Mexico!" – as the rhythm of the huehuetl, a traditional drum, mixed with the aromas of incense and corn from street food.
"Suddenly they see us and say 'oh, wow, are they still alive? How weird!'" veteran dancer and tour guide Tezcatlipoca, who only gave one name, said wryly.
"Seeing it as a show is good because this has not died," the 70-year-old added.
Dance and purification rituals on the site of the ancient Aztec capital resonate deeply for those seeking to safeguard the traditions for future generations.
"It's one of the places with the most cosmic energy, but it must be cleaned because it has also seen a lot of blood," said Octocayohua.
He views the conquest by the Spanish, with its battles and massacres, as a "humiliation."
Dance, based on the movements of the moon and the sun, is the most visual manifestation of a thriving spiritual and philosophical movement that aspires to restore the splendor of the Aztec legacy.
"Dance is a way to understand their values and view of the cosmos," said Ocelocoatl Ramirez, whose foundation Zemanauak Tlamachtiloyan seeks to preserve the indigenous culture.
"The purpose is to share it with people, to do something in communion," added Ramirez, who for decades has instructed enthusiasts who dance amid the aroma of medicinal plants.
The rhythm of the huehuetl drum and the deep sound of the atecocolli, a seashell used as a kind of trumpet, seem to appeal to young people in particular.
"If I dance some of my culture, my being shines – I shine – I feel at one with the universe," said Maria Cervantes, 22, who has been a student of Ramirez since she was 15.
Another ancient custom that has endured since Tenochtitlan times is the city's renowned street food.
The smell of corn wafts through the streets of the historic center.
Minerva Martinez, 40, sells tlayudas, a type of corn tortilla that dates back to pre-Hispanic times.
"The Mexica (Aztecs) also cultivated it and we farmers also plant the corn," said Martinez, an indigenous Otomi who believes that the Tenochtitlan legacy "still exists."
Scholars trace the roots of street food back to the laborious preparation of ingredients and dishes such as tortillas or tamales – a type of corn dumpling – whose consumption also had a ritual nature.
"This complexity means street food has always been a traditional reference point– totally Mexican and pre-Hispanic," said chef and historian Rodrigo Llanes.
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