The call of the bird god Quetzalcoatl echoed in St. Pauls Catholic Church, above the thunderous, throbbing beat of primitive drums (carved from the trunks of large trees).
In a Mayan mask representing the devil, one dancer was pursued by dancers wearing huge peacock-feathered headdresses. The eerie wail of a conch resounded.
The church shook with the stomping of the dancers whose rhythmic movements were highlighted by the shells they wore on their ankles and wrists, the shells making a clattering noise like maracas. They danced fiercely and triumphantly around the altar where Mass would soon be celebrated.
After Mass there was a free dinner, the highlight of which was bunuelos, large tortilla shaped discs of fried dough sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. These were enjoyed with spicy Mexican hot chocolate.
Dinner was chicken stewed in salsa verde, Spanish rice, whole beans and tortillas hot from the griddle. There were also plates of excellent tacos topped with spicy stewed beef with lots of cilantro, onion and nicely finished with lime. There were also lots of breads from a panadria. There were Jamaica and tamarindo aqua frescas, ladled out of plastic buckets with the words Aviso Danger on them.
Green, red and white flags hung from the ceiling of the dining room. Mariachis played during dinner, people danced and shouted and whistled their appreciation of the music. Little girls in traditional Mexican dress, their hair braided with ribbons, twirled about, amused with their long flowing skirts. Like in Mexico, some of the little boys had curly, bandito mustaches painted on.
The older lady next to me could really whistle better than the men. She was a seriously cool woman who heartily sang with the music and included me in the Spanish conversation every now and then, looking my way and asking verdad? Id nod and respond verdad (true I was agreeable to whatever she may have been saying).
This had to be one of the best events Ive ever attended in the Bay Area and it was totally free. Ive spent big bucks in the past to the ballet Folklorio in a theatre. This was real, the actual passing down of centuries old tradition. It wasnt performance, but primal worship.
The Mass started with the dancers following the priest down the aisle. These were the young dancers, from children to young adults. The littlest ones were so cute, really like little peacocks with those headdresses, but they danced seriously and professionally. Over black shirts and pants to protect them from the cold, they wore elaborate gold and turquoise Mayan dress.
It was a wild tableau, the air thick and hazy with incense, the church shaking from the stomping feet, drums beating, conch shells blowing.
Candles in the church flickered. The priests and the portrait of the Virgin looked on as an ageless story was told through dance.
Mid-mass, another group of adult dancers in full Aztec headdress and little clothing danced and drummed again. Two handsome men and a woman, brought the offertory collection to the altar, the large straw basket held up high, an offering to the gods uh, God.
One headdress had a raven face on it. They danced intensely, the young mens long black hair whirling about. The drums got louder and louder, the conches more plaintive. Strip off a few centuries of civilization and I would have ripped someones heart at this point or jumped on the altar and donated. Periodically I closed my mouth because my jaw kept dropping.
Then get this one of the priests slowly walks down the aisle, carrying a cross held high and the dancers end by dropping to the floor and bowing in front of the cross. Heck, it was drama and almost operatic in scope.
I say lose the hymns and organ. Bring back the beating drum, feathers and piercing cries. It was primal, hypnotizing and perhaps one of the holiest events Ive ever participated in. It was up there with a Buddhist ceremony I attended in Taiwan (Im an equal opportunity worshipper).
Mariachis ended the mass, strolling down the aisle and stopping in front of the picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe (with a hill of roses in front of it). Hundreds of people sang enthusiastically and clapped, occasional shouting Viva Someone would shout Viva Mexico or Viva a lot of stuff and the crowd would cheer VIVA.
The mariachis then strolled to the dining room with people following. In front of the church there was a continuation of the Aztec dancing. One dance was very impressive where the dancers danced IN live fire. They danced around the fire and would then put a foot or hand in the fire a long time. Sometimes the entire leg or arm was held in the fire. There must be some protective oil or something they wear.
The dancers bodies were painted and headdresses included a raven, jaguar and eagle, all representations of Quetzalcoatl, I believe. Im not up on my Aztec/Mayan mythology.
The pictures of Aztec fire dancers in the link below are EXACTLY what the dancers were wearing. In fact, they even did that little move shown in top picture of the link where one dancer steps on the others heart. I believe it was the jaguar that was stepped on. The dancer with the white eagle feathers down the length of his arms triumphed. It was cold out there too. They not only wore very little clothes but danced bare-footed. The middle pictures show the shells on the legs that make all the noise.
Anyway, recommend the event always on Dec 12th. Recommend the food, the ladies of the parish did a nice job (and it is free).
If anyone should ever decide to attend next year, the Mass takes two hours. So, if interested in the food only, it was served around 9:30 pm. Also, as mentioned, the dancing and music continues outside the church for those not wanting to participate in the Mass. If you do go to the Mass, go early. Not only was every seat packed PACKED (there are boyfriends I havent been that close to physically) but every last inch of aisle and church space is filled.
All of this in San Pablo who would guess?