Coatlicue, the Aztec serpent goddess, slowly comes to life under the steady hand of Santos Popoca Fernández.
He’s leaning over his worktable in his small studio in San Pedro Yancuitlalpan, Puebla, concentrating intently on the drawing he’s making on a dress that will be worn by an Aztec dancer.
Popoca started painting clothing for traditional dancers about four years ago.
“I make them because I want to revive the ancient forms of art,” he said. “The symbols I use are all Azteca. All of the pre-Hispanic cultures used representations of their culture on clothing or on their bodies. Every culture had its own symbols, their own particular identity. Pre-Hispanic groups made clothing with different materials, but they always used clothing with symbols. Depending on who they were, it was to distinguish societies, positions, classes. So a governor wore different clothes than a warrior.”
Many people are familiar with the Aztec dancers who perform in Mexico City’s zocalo, but such groups are found in pueblos all across Mexico, performing their dances during ceremonies and rituals. The dancers are easily recognized, wearing their feather headdresses and brightly colored clothing.
Aztec dances are, in part, a way to show the art and culture of Mexico’s indigenous groups. But they’re also a form of prayer, a way for dancers to communicate with their gods and goddesses, and a way to take the dancers out of their everyday lives.
“We dance to obtain different levels,” said Miguel Antonio Zamora Solís, captain of Grupo San Miguel, an Aztec dance troupe in Xochimilco, Mexico City.
Many Aztec dance troupes incorporate Catholic imagery in some way into their ceremonies. Often, flags or paintings bearing the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe will be carried. Cleansing ceremonies will be done in front of Catholic altars. Crucifixes will be adorned with flowers.
Clothing with paintings of the Virgin of Guadalupe are often worn during ceremonies.
“With the dance, it is a union of the two religions: Catholic and indigenous,” Zamora said. “It is a mix of Catholic and indigenous, and they are equal in importance.”
But not all Aztec dancers do this.
“There are dancers who still conserve the most original cosmovision [worldview] of the Mexicas [Aztecs],” Popoca said. “They do not integrate anything from Catholic ideology.”
Popoca doesn’t use any Catholic images in his work.
“… I want to conserve and revive what’s authentic about our cultures,” he explained.
The symbols he does paint on the clothing worn by dancers have special meanings.
“Every dancer, every person will have their particular symbol, symbols that are unique to them,” Popoca said. “Shamans and priests have special symbols and numbers that are only for them. All of the symbols and characteristics give a person power or knowledge.”
Coatlicue, the goddess that Popoca is painting on the dress, is the Aztec’s earth-mother goddess, the goddess of, among other things, childbirth, warfare and agriculture.
“She has a necklace with hands, hearts and a skull,” he told me as he drew. “These are symbols that are very typical for this goddess.” She’s usually portrayed with snakes draped on either side of her. “The snake is a symbol of transformation,” he continued. “It sheds its skin. The oldest symbol of her is a statue of a snake, no human face.”
The images he paints aren’t always exactly what an actual symbol or a figure looks like.
“The symbols I paint are a fusion of what I find in books, the figures I see and my own ideas,” Popoca said. “They are really something new.”
When Popoca’s ready to paint an image on a dress, he’ll first make a drawing on onion skin, a thin, transparent paper. He will then either place the drawing under the cloth and trace it or draw it freehand.
“It is a very slow process because it is very detailed,” he said. Once the drawing is done, he’ll color it in with spray paints and oil paints.
Although often portrayed as an old woman, Popoca said he’ll portray Coatlicue on different sides of the dress as both an old and young woman.
“All of the symbols transform, have different forms, different ages, too. According to our ancestral beliefs, everything that exists is moving, metamorphizing,” he said. “Land moves, people move, as does water, our heart. The idea [here] is to show the evolution, the transformation.”
Popoca estimates that he paints between five and 10 dresses a year. He’ll work eight hours a day for four days on a simple one and charge about 3,000 pesos (US $150). The most complicated dresses take him 15 days and cost a dancer 7,000 pesos. Most of the clothing he paints will be worn by women, but he also paints clothing for men.
There’s been a lot of debate lately about whether it’s appropriate for non-indigenous people to wear clothing or use symbols from indigenous cultures, symbols that often have religious significance. Popoca’s painted clothing is beautiful, and it’s easy to imagine that someone who’s not an Aztec dancer would want to buy one of his dresses.
“Anyone can wear them,” he admitted, “but they’re not a fashion. It would be difficult for me to sell it as a fashion. It’s not typical to do that. They are not for daily use, only for ceremonies and dances.”
In addition, Popoca views his work as more than just painting beautiful images on clothing.
“It is important to preserve these images and the culture,” he continued, “because everything is related to — and organized by — our ancestral roots. This is ancient knowledge. It is to understand your place in the world and your objectives. If one does not understand the past, one cannot understand the present or future.”
Joseph Sorrentino, a writer, photographer and author of the book San Gregorio Atlapulco: Cosmvisiones and of Stinky Island Tales: Some Stories from an Italian-American Childhood, is a regular contributor to Mexico News Daily. More examples of his photographs and links to other articles may be found at www.sorrentinophotography.com He currently lives in Chipilo, Puebla.