Jessica Veikune’s brow knits together in concentration as she uses a needle to scoop small beads and pieces of seashells onto a delicate thread in a repeating pattern. Veikune is one of many Indigenous dancers hard at work in preparation for the first annual Cali Native Night and 24th annual Mexica New Year Ceremony.
She points the needle down and repeats the pattern. Shell, shell, blue, gold, brown, white, brown, gold, blue. Veikune, a member of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, will dance in a ceremony for the first time on Friday.
“I wouldn’t say it’s been hard to learn,” she says of the dances, “we’re just focusing on learning the spiritual aspects of it right now. I just feel really blessed, really thankful.”
Thanks in particular go to the members of the Miwok tribe, including Toni Espinoza, who have joined them to help revive their dances, as Ohlone rituals were forbidden during colonization and the Mission era.
“I love teaching. It’s an honor for us as well,” Espinoza says. She stresses that while there are traditional elements to follow, there is no right or wrong way for a person to dance or to connect with their culture.
Aquihua Perez has danced with the Calpulli Tonalehqueh Aztec dance group for the last dozen years. This year, they host the largest Mexica New Year ceremony in California and possibly in all of the U.S.
More than 1,000 people are expected to gather at Emma Prusch Farm Park to see hundreds of Mexica performers attired in colorful plumage and regalia dance to the intense percussion of large standing drums, like rare birds responding to the earth’s heartbeat.
“It’s liberating, it’s freedom,” Perez says. “We feel the power of our ancestors, we feel the power of that energy that we call upon as we open our ceremony.”
The Mexica are an indigenous Mexican group who ruled the Aztec empire in the lush valley of central Mexico until Spanish colonization. Cuauhtémoc, the last leader of the Mexica people, counseled them to hide aspects of their culture from Spanish conquistadores for protection, and prophesied that they would one day thrive again.
“For us to actually understand that we are connecting to what Cuauhtémoc was talking about hundreds of years ago is amazing, and that’s why it’s so powerful,” Perez says.
Gerardo Ixteyo Loera is a member of the Calpulli Tonalehqueh leadership council who has participated in San Jose’s Mexica New Year ceremony since it started 24 years ago. He says the ceremony brings young people of Mexica heritage closer to their culture.
The ceremony’s greatest power, Loera says, lies in “the coming together of our Mexica community in historic East San Jose.” Accompanied by natives from many other Indigenous tribes, Calpulli Tonalehqueh “put down a prayer on behalf of those we come from, for those that have yet to come.”
Indigenous groups will come together for three days to string together generations who have gone ahead, who still touch the earth, or who wait to be born. The gathering is open to the public and free to attend; however, as a sacred rite, the organizers have asked that alcohol and drugs be left at home, even by those observing the cleansing rituals of the celebration.
Julie Dominguez is both Muwekma Ohlone and Mexica. She and her son Isaiah will both dance in this year’s ceremony. Her brother Joseph Torres was instrumental in reviving the Muwekma Ohlone dances, and her brother Johnny will dance with the tribe this weekend. His toddler son, whose name means “thunder” in Chochenyo, will watch from the audience.
Julie sews feathers from wild turkeys and ocean birds into a headdress beside her cousin, Jessica Veikune, who is still working on her beaded adornments. Shell, shell, blue, gold, brown, white, brown, gold, blue. The two share memories of their great-grandmother Dolores, who grew up in Mission San Jose. Forbidden to practice her culture, she received secret lessons in Chochenyo from her aunts.
“I feel like they knew that we could bring it back,” Dominguez says.
Mexica New Year
Fri-Sun, Various Times, Free
Emma Prusch Farm Park, San Jose