Share story

LOS ANGELES — The Aztecs march in the canyons of the great city.

Their tall feather headdresses jut skyward. They beat drums, stomp and chant. They dance in twirls and high steps, moving forward. One of them presses to his lips a large pink conch, representing the wind god Ehecatl.

Before them at this May Day demonstration between the high-rises of downtown Los Angeles come other tribes of the counterculture: anarchists, socialists, communists, anti-imperialists, Marxists.

They don’t dance. With them it’s all bullhorns, mohawks, Imperial Stormtrooper outfits, Che Guevara shirts, Guy Fawkes masks and banners that flap in the wind — such as “Smash Imperialist Wars” and “One World Government New World Order.” One man breaks off from the group to peddle a $1 copy of “Revolution.”

This week, save 90% on digital access.

The people ignore him.

No one ignores the Aztecs. Crowds press close, pulling out iPhones and cameras. The Aztecs have an entourage. They use their arms to keep the crowd at a safe distance, like security behind the line of a red carpet.

At one point during their performance, an intoxicated woman with bleached blond hair stumbles up to the Aztecs’ leader, Judith Garcia, and does a precarious, noodle-limbed dance. Garcia dances with her, almost cheek to cheek.

Eventually, the woman wraps her arms sloppily around Garcia’s neck and gives her a kiss. Then Garcia leads her gently to the sidewalk and hands her a water bottle.

Just another day on the job for the hardest-working members of the leftist protest circuit.

Busy myth breakers

Aztec dancers have shown up to support gay rights and oppose police brutality.

They’ve been invited to protests by African-American groups and Asian ones, including the Korean Immigrant Worker Association.

They’ve protested Christopher Columbus. Three years ago, they danced and beat drums at a pro-Palestinian rally.

“Aztec dancers at a protest for any leftist cause in Southern California are as ubiquitous as ‘si se puede’ chants and posters of Emiliano Zapata and Che Guevara,” says Gustavo Arellano, editor of the OC Weekly and author of the syndicated “Ask a Mexican!” column.

They also frequently dance at anti-war protests, which might seem a bit strange, seeing as the Aztecs weren’t exactly known as peace-lovers.

The Aztecs, Garcia says, get a bad rap.

“The myth is that we are a bloodthirsty people, but that’s not true,” she says, picking at her salad at a Denny’s the day before the big march. “It’s one of the struggles we’ve had as an indigenous people, the image that has been forced on us to justify all sorts of things that have been done.”

Garcia, who also goes by the name Judith Cuauhtemoc, is the fifty-something leader of Danza Mexica Cuauhtemoc — Southern California’s most prolific political Aztec dance group with about 70 members.

What the Aztecs stand for, she says, is taking a stand for the underdog, the beaten-down: abused workers at the bottom of the wage scale; immigrants fearful of deportation; environmental and indigenous communities.

They’ve rallied against banks and foreclosures, against the Minutemen who prowl the border.

They’ve been pepper-sprayed, arrested and scattered by rubber bullets and police horses. The Aztecs are not for hire, but they accept the occasional donation.

As another Aztec, Jaime Calderon, 49, puts it: “Any good cause, we’ll show up.”

Immigration reform

It’s not just the large events. For nearly three years, Garcia’s group has made a stand for remaking the immigration system almost every Thursday evening on the Alameda Street overpass above the 101 Freeway northeast of downtown.

The day after the May Day protest, Garcia braided her hair and put on an elaborate chest plate on a street just off Alameda. About half a dozen other dancers showed up.

Garcia says she grew up in a family with strong indigenous roots. They lived just outside of Mexico City in an ejido, communal land that was part of a system dating to the Aztecs’ rule. Back then people in Mexico, like her grandmother, were discouraged from speaking indigenous languages.

It wasn’t until Garcia came to L.A. in the early 1980s that she says she really “rediscovered” Aztec dance. The group she joined took part in cultural events, but dived into political issues as well.

“No activity that humans do is apolitical,” Garcia says. “We’re political, one way or another. Even denying it, you’re taking a political position.”

The group plants itself on Alameda Street close to Union Station and a federal building. They’re there to protest for immigration reform, as they have since Arizona passed the nation’s strictest law against illegal immigration in 2010.

Even though the prospect of immigration reform looks more realistic now than it has in many years, Garcia says the group won’t stop protesting until it’s “in writing.”

Mixed reaction

Juanita Calderon, 73, holds a cup with incense made with the resin of a copal tree. Calderon says she uses the incense to make an offering to the four winds before every event.

While the massive protests often have a good number of like-minded people, smaller ones like this one sometimes get mixed reactions, and often from Latinos.

“I think out of every 20 cars that pass by, one is rude. Maybe two,” Calderon says.

The dancers stand before her, arms outstretched, as she spreads the smoke around them.

The dancing starts, and every few minutes Calderon’s son Jaime blows the conch. A banner against the fence above the 101 Freeway reads: “Immigration Reform Now.”

They dance in line on the sidewalk, with one dancer standing at a corner, holding signs with messages calling for the end of raids and deportations of the undocumented.

“What do we want?” one of the dancers yells. “A just immigration reform!” the rest answer.

“This is our land,” Garcia cries. “This is our struggle,” the other dancers reply. “Long live the organized workers,” she says. Cars slow and some passengers click photographs.

About an hour after it began, the weekly demonstration is over. They pack their belongings and look eastward toward their cars. It’s about 6 p.m.

The Aztecs exit. Stage left.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.