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Remembering Raul Tlaloc Chavez Portillo, Aztec Dancer Who Championed Community

Raul Tlaloc Chavez Portillo, top left, with Grupo Huitzilopochtli
Raul Tlaloc Chavez Portillo, top left, with Grupo Huitzilopochtli Asia Fajardo-Diamond
The first time I saw Aztec dancing, or danza, I felt immediately connected to the Earth, the drum beats went straight to my heart, and I knew I was witnessing something magical and transformative. When I became friends with Alicia Cardenas, I was welcomed into more and more spaces and events where the danzantes and their homage to land and ancestors were built into the fabric of gathering in community.

As I got to know more of the Indigenous and Latino community in Denver, it became a part of my gatherings, too, to honor the land and bring danza to more people — especially young people — so they could connect with this beautiful tradition. Through Alicia, I got to know Danny and Desiree Stange, two incredible humans and healers in the community, and members of Grupo Huitzilopochtli, and through these connections, I had the great pleasure of watching the group's beloved capitán, Raul Tlaloc Chavez Portillo, dance.

When I heard from my friends that Raul had passed away, I immediately wanted to highlight the voices of those with a unique perspective of him in the community. While I didn’t know Raul personally, he brought healing to me and so many others, both at community celebrations and ceremonies of great loss, when hope was hard to find.

Raul danced for a community event that I did with Latino leaders Stephanie Salazar-Rodriguez and Cheryl Lucero that connected folks to health and wellness resources. He danced at two healing ceremonies for the community after our friends Alicia Cardenas and Alyssa Gunn Maldonado — both Indigenous women who danced — were murdered in December, and most recently, he danced at a celebration of life for another incredible Indigenous healer, Dan Salazar, whom we lost in March.

Raul was able to command your attention without words, and you could feel the ancestors guiding every move. I am honored to call several of the people in Grupo Huitzilopochtli my dear friends; I grieve their loss and the community’s loss, and I am grateful that I get to share their words about Raul with you all.

Below, the danzantes and Salazar-Rodriguez remember Raul before today's Celebration of Life:
click to enlarge Raul Tlaloc Chavez Portillo led the Grupo Huitzilopochtli. - ERIKA RIGHTER
Raul Tlaloc Chavez Portillo led the Grupo Huitzilopochtli.
Erika Righter
Westword: Can you share a remembrance of Raul with us?

Stephanie Salazar-Rodriguez: "El Capitán" was an amazingly generous and talented individual. Most recently, he donated his time and talent to dance at my brother's memorial service. Although we were not related by blood, he stated he was honored to perform for "la familia." His timeless legacy will reverberate through eternity.

What do you recall about first meeting Raul?

Asia Fajardo-Diamond: The loving energy of the group, and vibrant energy, too. I was in middle school and had danced for some time, but he carried a true sense of peace and love and encouragement.

Maria Martinez: I remember him being very welcoming, I remember the exact day my dad took me to see his circle. He took care of his circle with positivity and love; he never failed to make someone smile. You walk in through his doors, and he was always there to welcome you with a big hug.

Alyssa S. Loya: I’ve known Raul all my life; I’ve looked at him as my uncle ever since I was a little girl. I remember being mesmerized by the bright colors and feathers that were a part of his atuendo (attire) and copili (head dress). Raul was a big influential person for my mom to begin danza and my grandfather to continue the tradition his family had started in Mexico. He is so compassionate and caring to whoever is around him, and he always knew when to make someone smile.

Danny Stange: I first met Raul at La Raza Park in 1995, when we first tied up a new HueHuetl (drum). I’ll never forget dancing barefoot, and as we go back and forth, I started seeing blood drops, and I wondered if it was raining blood, and later realized I had cut my foot on some glass but didn’t really feel it. I had been dancing for almost a year, and I had recently finished making my first traje (suit). The other dancers laughed that I had made a real sacrifice offering for the new drum, and when I said how I thought it was raining. they said Raul was named Tlaloc by his grandfather. Tlaloc is the rain — not the “God of Rain,” but Tlalli (Earth) and Octli (drink). So Tlaloc is "Drink of the Earth." As the years passed and I got to know Raul, I saw that he was certainly a refreshing container of wisdom and full of life. Mni waconi — water is life!

What other things was he into outside of danza?

Fajardo-Diamond: The mountains, fishing and camping.

Loya: Cars, for sure. He always talked about the different cars he liked, and he loved to fix them, always going to the junkyard to walk around and look for what he needed.

Strange: To Raul, there was not much outside of danza except preparing for the next ceremony. He worked for many years until he was injured, and then collected a meager pension. He did not want to be remembered as some great leader. He knew our tradition respects the giving person and the grace of the collective. We don’t create statues of individuals. We have many statues of just one person, Cuauhtemóc, who was the person that surrendered to Cortez. His name means "the eagle descending" and represents the sunset. The eagle flies to the sun, so in the evening, the sunset is Cuauhtemóc, and was figurative to the changes that came with the Spaniards. Tradition tells us that he left us a promise that one day our sun would rise again. The power of the rising sun is quick like the huitzilin (hummingbird). From the winter solstice, when the day is short, we can observe the horizon every morning, and we will see the sunrise moving north every day, moving to the left, opochtli. Huitzilopochtli [means] hummingbird that moves left.

What is the role of the capitán?

Strange: I don’t really like the question of what roles the capitán has because there are many types of people and one capitán is nothing like another one. Also in this tradition, the capitán is not the boss, because there are other people that the capitán answers to, like the generals. But even to the other people in the group, because we dance in the círclulo, nadie es mas, nadie es menos — in a circle, nobody is more, nobody is less. A person's role is in response to the needs of others.

Raul’s leadership was humble and passive. He understood how our traditional way of life does not dictate one person’s view of what is right and wrong, so he would seldom restrict someone from following their ambitions. But he also knew that certain activities had a specific order and formula, so when we practiced and when we did ceremony, he was forceful in making sure things were conducted properly.

Those who had been given responsibility during the ceremony could not leave until the ceremony was completed. Specific actions have consequence, and when other people did not follow his guidance or heed his warnings, he would be noticeably disappointed. He wouldn’t yell or be aggressive that I had seen (in his later years), but he knew how to shut it down. He always said our first responsibility is to protect our traditions and there’s no place for cowards. I cannot speak to what were his prideful misgivings.

I knew him only these last 25 years, and he carried a sadness for the many losses of his youth that I could see behind his smile. People told me stories, but I never questioned him, and he seldom spoke about his past experiences. He carried his strength in his stride, and his actions revealed that he knew his power and did not use it against other people. You could see he was proud in the way he placed every feather in his headdress, but he did not wear it to esteem himself, and he seldom spoke in public.

How did he lead?

Loya: Raul was a leader by showing us the teachings of the danza that his own grandfather showed him from a young age. He always welcomed everyone into the circle and gave them a place to express themselves, and always helped others in their time of need. He would give you the shirt off his back if needed.

Strange: Raul was a teacher that showed people by example. He carried himself with dignity and opened the door of his circle to everyone. He would tell me, “The danza knows which people are the ones that need to be involved. When people come that have bad intentions, they end up hurting themselves, and the danza will push them away.”

Everybody has the capacity to dance, and we all respond to music, but the traditions of our culture are specific to transmitting the wisdom and connection to our ancestral way of life. People of many walks of life are drawn to this danza, but only some of them will continue until they make this their way of living. When that happens, they reconcile the person they are, and there is no difference to how they are outside of performance. It is not a religion that becomes sacred once that smoke is lit. To be a danzante is to comprehend the way we were meant to live, and those who behave different outside of performance life are still learning who they are.

I don’t consider what we do to be a performance, although many times we are asked to be involved where the people orchestrating things are wanting us to perform, and then I feel like a monkey with an organ grinder, and that is very draining. Raul and I use to talk about that a lot. I would comment that we should not dance for these types of activities, and he said, “When the people ask us to dance, we should always try to be there for them, even when they don’t understand or have respect for what we do.” A danzante is in service to their community.

What was he proud of?

Loya: I believe he was proud of his family first and foremost, as well as the amount of people he was able to bring danza to, to share the beauty of it and to see that people enjoyed it. He used to say, “Para nosotros es vida, la danza, y así nos vamos a morir." Danza is a way of life, and truly until his last breath it was.

What do you think he’d want to be remembered for?

Loya: I personally think that Raul would want to be remembered as a great danzante. Someone that you can always think of and smile, because he loved to make you smile and teach you what he knew about danza azteca like his grandpa showed him. Aside from his family, it was his pride and joy to be able to share this with the world. I will always be grateful to him for teaching me more about danza even more after my grandpa passed away. i will cherish his teachings and, more than anything, singing alabanzas with him.

Martinez: I think Capitán Raul would want to be remembered as someone who kept his culture alive in Colorado. He didn’t just hold the title as capitán for show. He put real meaning into teaching the young ones about our Mexican culture.

Strange: Raul would not think about what he is remembered for because he knows that he will be remembered in our traditions and ceremonies that sing about those who maintained the practices and the secrets that are returning to us. I will see his reflection in the first light of the morning sunrise. I sing to his spirit in the winds like the ones that were blowing for those first four days that his heart stopped beating and returned to the madre tierra.

How will you all honor him in ceremonies going forward?

Fajardo-Diamond: Keeping his legacy alive and keeping him on our altars.

Martinez: Even though he’s no longer here physically, his danzas still mean something. His memory should still be kept alive, because that’s what he deserves. He taught me to embrace my culture like no other.

What is the ritual when a danzante dies?

Strange: His funeral rites are combined from the Catholic rosary prayers for nine days and the earthly understanding of our cosmic relationship, which some call pre-Columbian spirituality. Mexican spirituality is much deeper than religion. All the world’s religions come from the eastern hemisphere. The people of this continent thought much deeper about the human condition beyond simply believing that the body is a vehicle for the spirit.

We are made of all four elements. Our breath is the air and the holy spirit that abides within us all. Our heart is the electricity and physical energy of our body from the earth. It pumps our blood like watery rivers that move our spirit, like fire in our emotions that we fight foolishly to control.

The future is not set. We are not going to manifest it alone. Very few people can know what will come next, and many like to imagine they will.

Services for Raul Tlaloc Chavez Portillo will be held starting at 9 a.m. Thursday, May 19, at Latina Funeral, 3020 Federal Boulevard. A danzantes tribute will be held from 12:30 to 2 p.m. The burial will be at 2:30 p.m., with a graveside service at Crown Hill Cemetery, 7777 West 29th Avenue, Wheat Ridge. A Go Fund Me page has been established to help with funeral costs.
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