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Karen Marin, 17, left, Carla Marin and Roberto Alvarado of Eztli Chicahua (strong blood in Nahualtl dialect) Aztec dance group decorate their crests with feathers from exotic birds as they get ready to participate in the annual procession for Our Lady of Guadalupe from St. Louis Bertrand Catholic Church to The Christ of Light Cathedral in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2010. (Ray Chavez/Staff)

OAKLAND -- Incense fills the nondescript room. After a pause, the drumming begins again. It's sharp and loud, the kind that causes your body to reverberate. The dancers are sweating now. Someone props open a door, letting some of the smoke, the heat and the sound escape into the dark park.

Every Friday night, this ordinary room, with its American flag and fake wood paneling, transforms into a place of worship and indigenous culture. The Aztec dancers who survived the Spanish conquest of what is now Mexico City managed to pass along the sacred rhythms to their descendants -- even after their drums were taken away.

Now, hundreds of years later and thousands of miles away, Bay Area youths are learning the same form of prayer.

Although they practice in East Oakland's Arroyo Viejo park, members of Eztli Chicahua come from a number of cities throughout the East Bay. Most are in their late teens and early 20s, though the youngest dancers are 7.

Roberto Alvarado, who leads the class with his wife, Fabiola, said Aztec dancers have long taken part in ceremonies for the Catholic feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which celebrates the apparition of the Virgin Mary to an Indian peasant in 1531. At the time, Alvarado said, some of the dancers were actually honoring the Aztec goddess Tonantzin "under cover." On Saturday, Alvarado's group joined a procession from St. Louis Bertrand Church on 100th Avenue and International to Christ the Light Cathedral on Lake Merritt. They made the rainy, 7.5-mile trip in sandals.


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Ivan Cruz, 18, joined the group about six months ago. Last week, he earned his chachayotes, or ankle bracelets, which he wore for the first time Friday. Cruz said the tradition has showed him how to live.

"It's just a connection that you have with your roots, with your ancestors," Cruz said. "It's just like the special connection with the drum and the dancers. I can't explain it." Cruz learned about the group from a friend he met through an after-school Latino history course and the Homies Empowerment Program for gang-affiliated youth at the Eastlake YMCA. He graduated from Castlemont's East Oakland School of the Arts in June, and starts courses at Chabot College in Hayward next semester. He said learning about his history not only made him look at the world differently, it changed the way he saw himself.

It reminded him of the things his grandmother taught him when he was young, he said -- that "I wasn't just Mexican. I wasn't just brown, I wasn't just part of a group of people, a race. I had more. I had ancestors. I had culture. I had pride. I had more than just family or a sense of identity. It was more than that."

Alvarado estimates there are now about 30 Aztec dance groups in the Bay Area; when he started 16 years ago, there were only a handful. And while the drummers have traditionally been men, he said, his stepdaughter, Karen Marin, has become one of the most skilled and respected drummers around.

Marin, a 4-foot-10 Berkeley High School senior, said people are sometimes skeptical when they see someone of her age and size standing next to a drum. Then she starts drumming.

"You rarely ever see a girl drumming," she said. "As a woman, and a young woman, I feel like it's really powerful, really special."

Read Katy Murphy's blog at www.ibabuzz.com/education. Follow her at Twitter.com/katymurphy.