Interview with an Aztec dancer | Essential Chicago melting pot
Angel Barajas performs in “Danza Azteca” at the Trickster Gallery every Wednesday.
When we meet inside the gray barnlike building that houses the Trickster Gallery, the only native-owned-and-operated arts institution in Illinois, Barajas is burning sweet-smelling incense in preparation for a weekly Wednesday night “Danza Azteca” performance, which started three weeks ago. As we talk, the 41-year-old and two other dancers are busily putting on colorful ceremonial garb: cloth embroidered with gold thread, a large headdress and percussive seed pods that wrap around their ankles.
You’re dancing at the Trickster Gallery, which is run by the American Indian Center of Chicago (1630 W Wilson Ave, 773-275-5871). As Aztec, do you self-identify as American Indian?
It’s a good question, because most people, when they think of American Indians, only think of the North American Indians of the U.S. and Canada. I trace my roots to Central and South American people, but we’re all brothers because we share similar histories.
The Chicago area has a large and growing Hispanic population. In your experience, do many Latinos keep in touch with their native roots?
No, unfortunately. It’s easier to just ignore that part of yourself, that dark history of conquest. No one wants to identify with the losers of history. Through dance, we’re hoping to encourage younger people to explore their ancient culture.
The drumming you dance along to is intensely hypnotic. Do you ever lose yourself?
All the time. We have dances for the four elements—water, earth, air and fire—and sometimes my spirit leaves my body and floats up into the sky and it’s like I’m watching myself from above.
And all that without psychedelics!
Some native cultures traditionally use the peyote and the mushrooms to enhance rituals—not us.
Dancing is a natural high.
You know how you feel when you leave the gym after exercising? That’s what I feel after dancing. So we don’t use drugs and we also don’t do human sacrifices. [Laughs] That’s another one people always ask about. Our traditions are mostly passed down orally, and I’ve never had an elder tell me to sacrifice a human.
Barajas dances at the Trickster Gallery (190 S Roselle Rd, Schaumburg; 847-301-2090) Wednesdays from 6–8pm. Free.