As Azteca dancers approached a waiting crowd of onlookers at Austin’s annual Viva la Vida Festival—the city’s largest Día de los Muertos celebration—earlier this fall, the ayoyote shells on their ankles rattled.

Clad in feathered headdresses and regalia featuring the skulls or pelts of coyotes or jaguars, Azteca dancers (also known as Concheros) participate in a pre-Columbian tradition as a way of maintaining or rediscovering a connection with their indigenous roots. Popularized during the Chicano movement of the sixties and seventies, Azteca dance grew with the creation of hundreds of groups throughout Mexico and in Mexican American communities in the United States. Their motions and rhythms represent the survival of centuries of colonization and cultural suppression. 

Near the Mexic-Arte Museum in Austin, dozens of Aztecas came together to dance down Congress Avenue. Propelled forward by the heartbeat of a drum, every aspect of the dance is intentional. Different movements are meant to mimic the natural world by evoking the wind or rain, and the colors of each costume represent sacred elements including fire, earth, and water. Typically, the dancers are surrounded by a haze of smoke created by burning copal, an aromatic tree resin. This is meant to symbolize the sun—the creator of life.