When 43 college students disappeared in the Mexican state of Guerrero last month, the world finally started paying attention to the extortion, kidnappings and clashes with drug traffickers that have long plagued the area.
But the violence hasn’t stopped a group of performers from bringing their work here. Convinced that every community should celebrate culture, a Mexico City opera company brought their production of the country’s first Nahautl opera to Arcelia, a rural town in the mountains of Guerrero, an area with a history of speaking the indigenous language.
“The project we are doing is not for the big theaters,” says José Navarro, the show’s director. “It’s to do something special for the rural people here.”
The opera itself, Xochicuicatl Cuecuechtli, is an adaptation of a text found by a monk in the 16th century, about Aztec sensuality. The songs during the performance incorporate ritual cries accompanied by pre-Hispanic percussion.
Some of the performers have a connection to the area and the language and are motivated by a desire to preserve one of Mexico’s rich, yet fading indigenous cultures.
Actress Abril Mondragon’s grandparents and great-grandparents spoke Nahuatl, but as a little girl she was reluctant to because of a sense of shame and discrimination tied to speaking indigenous languages. “It’s horrible to see that being Mexican we are not connected to our origins, to what we are and who we were before,” she says. “So it’s important to do projects like this one in order to rescue Mexican culture.”
The company rehearsed in Mexico City before making the journey to Arcelia for their first performance. The group left early in the afternoon to avoid crossing the mountains into an area known as a land of hired killers and violence. They drove through federal and military checkpoints to arrive at Tecolote, a rural theater with dirt floors and a corn-husk ceiling.
In addition to the show, the artists encouraged the residents of Arcelia to participate in workshops like pantomime, singing and drumming. Despite an attack on a Coca-Cola truck by drug-traffickers a few days before the artists arrived, Nahautl-speaking residents in the area flocked to the opera’s premiere.
Eufrosina Martinez was one of them. For her the opera was a chance to better understand how the Aztecs lived. “It helps me realize how people lived before,” she says. “I can see how they behaved, in the way it is performed. It leaves us gasping because we see how little we know.¨