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Say the word Xilonen and most people will have never heard of the word, how to pronounce it or its meaning (I was one of those people). You can write dissertations on the subject but I’ll just provide a few facts here. Xilonen is a Nahuatl word, a Mesoamerican language still used mostly in parts of Central Mexico. Nahuatl was the language of the Aztecs. The word itself, Xilonen, means young tender ears of maíz (corn). Symbolically it is a rite of passage for young women and it seems to be a growing celebration in popularity. It is celebrated in major cities of California and as Maria Miranda said even in some places in Idaho.
Sacramento has hosted Xilonen celebrations for over 30 years. Maria Miranda, the jefa (boss) who runs the ceremony and who has been involved the whole time, indicated “These celebrations are everywhere now, in Idaho, Watsonville, San Francisco, San Jose, Salinas and other places”. We talked as she was getting ready to start the ceremony in traditional Aztec dress. There were dancers all around the ceremony area getting ready as well. Many of these dancers were coming from out of town and some were traveling for several hours to get to South Side Park. “We get messages across to other dance groups using the palabra system (word of mouth). We hear about a dance group doing a performance and via the palabra system we get the message across and attend their events and they attend ours” Maria said. She continued “Xilonen is a rite of passage for our young women. They are taught respect and service for others”. The girls volunteer at various places around their community. They volunteer in areas in Del Paso Heights, Strawberry Manors and other places around Sacramento helping where they can.
The ceremony itself is quite elaborate. The ceremonial site has 4 main stations set up. The center contains several drums and some offerings. All stations have incense burning at all times. The sections are roped off and there is one way in and the same way out. All who have to enter and leave are cleansed with a short individual incense ceremony. The other 3 sections are the main regions and include the Children Station, the Young Women and the Elder Stations. The Xilonen participants go through each section and are given ceremonial gifts and advise at each station.
The ceremony began a little after eleven in the morning but dancers had been getting ready before that and some had travel many miles. As the ceremony itself began all the dancers centrally gathered just below the stage area of South Side Park. All the dancers began by dancing their way around the pond area and came back to line up at the entrance of the ceremonial area. There were well over 100 dancers of various ages that made their way into the ceremonial area and danced for hours. The weather warmed up as the ceremony went on and at times volunteers came into the ceremonial area to give the dancers water and fruit to keep them refreshed. Many of the dancers danced barefoot through the entire event and most of them tried as much as they could.
Graciela B. Ramirez, a poet and one of the 3 elders, spent some time explaining what Xilonen meant. Living up to her first name she graciously filled me in but started off by saying “Don’t quote me until all the ‘maestros” (teachers) are here”. I heeded her direction and it wasn’t until I spoke with Maria Miranda and José Montoya, another elder, that later she said “Now you can quote me since all the ‘maestros’ are here”. Graciela reminded me a lot of my grandmother when I was growing up. She was very patient, insightful and full of knowledge and vigor. “Each station that the Xilonen stop at are places that give advice and gifts to the girls” Graciela said. She, José and Joan were going to give symbolic gifts to the girls as they passed by the elder station. Graciela elaborated on what Xilonen is and held one up for me to see. The corn, a central crop to the Aztec and indigenous people of the Americas, symbolizes, as in the case of Xilonen a young woman yet to mature that will pass through various stages and as she weathers these stages she will be a staple to her community, a model for others to follow and pass on the seed and traditions.
Graciela went on and indicated that there are 4 similar events throughout the year all with pre-Columbian origin. One is dedicated to children, Xilonen is dedicated to young women to celebrate coming of age. Another similar event is dedicated to young men (rite of passage) and a fourth is dedicated to the Day of the Dead, the one event that many of us know.
José Montoya was the last elder to arrive and he is a familiar face and voice in the community. He was an art professor for over 30 years at Sac State. Maria Miranda had mentioned that he is a Poet Laureate in Sacramento. He is a well spoken patriarch figure. José is very talented in the arts and is still involved in the community. He was one of the original painters from the Royal Chicano Air Force (RCAF) who painted the murals in the South Side Park Amphitheatre. He did not say it but I think he is one of the ‘Maestros de la Tradición’ (teachers of our tradition) and he is full of stories related to the Chicano culture in Sacramento, and a natural choice to sit at the Xilonen celebration as one of the elders.
The resilient dancers continued their dances for several hours. Different dance groups took their place in front of the ceremonial drums at various times. South Side Park was very busy on Saturday and it usually gets busier on Sundays when church services end at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. On Saturday a quinceañera was also taking place and a group of people were taking pictures across the church. People having picnics, others power walking, joggers, basketball players and kids in the playground filled the park. Its location and cultural significance attract people from all areas of Sacramento and beyond. The Xilonen ceremony filled the park with the sounds of beautiful rhythmic drums and ankle band sounds that emanated from the dancers. Dancers continuously moved at different spots around the drummers in the ceremonial area. The event exposed a ritual that is not very well known around the area and the young Xilonen women, and their families, will carry on the tradition.
Many ceremonies are at the center of various cultures in and around Sacramento. This indigenous-rooted rite of passage celebration is one of the most colorful ones and one that should attract more people in years to come. This rite of passage ceremony seeks to empower young women to become contributing members to our society and at the same time to help them be proud of who they are and how important they are in the Hispanic community.
1 - The Elders (Graciela, José, Joanne), 2 - Xilonen candidates 3 - Xilonen receiving advise from Maria Miranda
4 - Michael and friend (photography back up)
5 to 14 - Aztec Dancers