Aztec dancers marched up the main street in town, burning fragrant tree-resin incense and blowing conch shells.
They wore their finest headdresses, body paint and ceremonial gowns, arriving at the mountain village of Ixcateopan, Mexico, as they do each year for a festival marking the anniversary of the birth of Cuauhtemoc, the last emperor of the Aztecs and a symbol of noble resistance.
The dancers believe the town’s crumbling ex-church is Cuauhtemoc’s final resting place.
Legend has it that Ixcateopan, in the southern state of Guerrero, is where loyal Aztec warriors smuggled Cuauhtemoc’s bones after his execution on the order of Hernan Cortes in 1525. In honor of the young ruler who heroically stood his ground against the Spanish invaders, the story goes, Cuauhtemoc’s remains were buried in his hometown in 1529 under what would later become the altar of the local church.
Ixcateopan (pronounced Eesh-ka-TAY-OH-pan) guarded its secret for hundreds of years.
The supposed bones of Cuauhtemoc were unearthed in 1949 in a dig led by archaeologist Eulalia Guzman.
Since then, the tale has been refuted by many historians, archaeologists and forensic experts in Mexico. Three government commissions have been unable to verify that the bones that now lie inside the former church of Santa Maria de la Asuncion belonged to the last Aztec leader, or tlatoani.
To those who adhere to the legend, such science does not matter much. Many consider the bones a symbol of the so-called mexicanismo or mexicayotl movement, under which contemporary Aztec dancers often identify themselves.
The dancers in Ixcateopan celebrated in the sanctuary on the eve of the anniversary last month, and all through the day itself, pounding their sandaled feet furiously before the remains, which are set in a skeletal formation and surrounded by flowers. The feathers of the dancers’ headdresses swayed as if alive.
“I’ve been drumming since last night, without stopping,” said Pedro Castillo, who came from Nezahualcoyotl, near Mexico City, as he gripped his swollen hands and winced. “When you play, you come to almost disconnect yourself. It is the offerings we come to make here.”
At the time Cuauhtemoc’s purported remains were exhumed, Mexico was eager to revive its ancient national symbols, historian Paul Gillingham says in his book “Cuauhtemoc’s Bones.”
In the 19th century, Mexico had endured a French imperialist occupation and had lost about half of its territory to the United States, sore points for the country, Gillingham noted.
Historians acknowledge that very little is known about Cuauhtemoc in comparison with the better known tlatoani, his father-in-law, Moctezuma II. Yet it is generally believed that the last Aztec ruler was a native Mexica of what is now Mexico City, not a Chontal from present-day Ixcateopan.
In another blow to the local lore, scientists sent to corroborate Guzman’s findings said the bones included the remains of at least one half-Indian, half-Spanish woman and several males.
Yet the tradition that they are Cuauhtemoc’s bones has stuck in Ixcateopan, resulting in a quasi-spiritual cult of reverence for the fallen Aztec ruler that meets in the village annually and that draws pilgrims from across the country and abroad. They say the remains are a symbol of hope for a new era for Mexico.
This is “not a path to enlightenment. This isn’t a religion at all,” said Mazatzin Casas, a visitor from San Francisco. “This is a cosmic map on how to be a human being, in relationship to the other beings on Earth. The goal here is harmony.”
Officials in the town, an hour up into the mountains above the former mining center of Taxco, hope to attract more visitors, believers or not.
Ixcateopan Mayor Dario Perez says improvements are planned for the road to Taxco and for restoration of the former church building, now a museum, all in an effort to make Ixcateopan more accessible.
The mayor, in an interview, said the annual festival brings economic vitality to the community. Pressed, he acknowledged the scientific doubt cast on the bones kept in the church, but spoke in elegant phrases about the meaning of the site nonetheless.
The dancers come, Perez said, to “recall that great warrior, who is an example for other warriors, the other fighters, that great spirit, to keep Mexico moving forward.... This is a great monument to mexicanidad.”
During the daylong observance of Cuauhtemoc’s birthday, the dancers and drummers danced and whooped before the altar. A carnival-like feel was created with a market on the central plaza, complete with local foods such as wild avocados and the maguey drink pulque.
Ixchel Nava, a photographer and jewelry vendor from Taxco, said the journey to Ixcateopan reflects a need among some people to connect with a symbol of Mexico’s ancient glories.
“I am not an Azteca, I am not a Maya, but we also don’t cease being Mexicans,” Nava said, as drummers pounded away outside the church.
Hernandez is a news assistant in The Times’ Mexico City bureau.