Artist Spotlight - Susana de Leon of Kalpulli Ketzal Coatlicue

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Take a look back at our conversation with Susana de Leon of Kalpulli Ketzal Coatlicue! The Kalpulli Ketzal Coatlicue ("Precious Mother Earth") is a Kalpulli ("learning community") of Indigenous people joined by the desire to learn, share and live the tradition of Aztec dance.

Read all about how the group was formed and what Susana has done to keep the community engaged in art!

Hi Susana, can you tell me what Kalpulli Ketzal Coatlicue’s art form is?

We are traditional Aztec dancers. There are many regional dance traditions in Mexico. Aztec, Conchero or Chichimeca dance are slightly different forms of pre-Columbian indigenous dance. This tradition dates back to the natural forms of relating to the environment that Indigenous people of the Americas held sacred to their daily lives.

Can you tell us a little about the Ketzal Coatlicue community and how it formed?

Ketzal is a community of learners joined together by the desire of connecting to our traditions through art, dance and oral histories. Some of our members were the founders of the Aztec dance movement in Minnesota in the early 1990’s. Ketzal Cotalicue (precious mother earth) was formed with some of the founders and new members who wanted to learn tradition from established dancers in Mexico. Ketzal’s members are families who join out of their own connection to festivities that include Aztec Dance as a main component. Many of the dancers come from communities in Mexico where dance performance is a daily part of life. Other dancers were born in the United States but come from families who hold dance dear to their identity as indigenous people and they pass this knowledge on to their children hence reproducing tradition and ceremony in Minnesota.

How did the members of the community become interested in the arts?

Art in all its forms is synonymous with Aztec dance. As the dancers begin to take their first steps they begin to understand the expressions of nature in regalia and other musical instruments. Engaging in the transformation of natural items such as gourds, trees, seeds, plants and other natural fibers is only a logical consequence to the dance form. Dancers become students of the older dance members and eventually they become the mentors to new generations of dancers.

How does teaching your craft to youth affect your own art?

Having youth at the center of our teaching keeps us focused on maintaining this art form for generations to come. Youth are engaging and innovating and they often times surpass their mentors and transform the process. I have become a better designer, leather worker and painter by having young dancers involved in the group.


By the end of your performance, what are a few things you hope students have learned?

I hope that audiences understand that human beings have a variety of forms to express themselves in their own culture and that each culture is valuable and should be honored.

What does being a COMPAS artist mean to you?

COMPAS has been a strong support through my years as a dancer. Having a community of artists who respect human rights and who value all forms of art inspires and motivates me to be a better artist. COMPAS has helped me see beyond my immediate community to finds ways in which other art forms can come together and work for the enrichment of our state as a whole.

Why do you think arts education is needed in our community?

Arts education is crucial to helping students develop a sense of self and a sensibility to appreciate the world. I believe students who are encouraged to be involved in the arts have a wider perspective and become critical thinkers.

What do you find to be the most misunderstood aspect of Aztec culture?

Since the books about our culture were written by the people who invaded Mexico, the perspective of our culture is devoid of any understanding on how Indigenous people viewed the world. Therefore audiences are misinformed about traditional practices and depictions of nature.

This year, Ketzal received the Folk and Traditional Arts grant from the Arts Board that COMPAS is a fiscal sponsor for. Could you tell me about the project the grant is funding? How has this opportunity with COMPAS benefited American Indian youth?

We have received the 2015 “Folk and Traditional Arts” grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. COMPAS is our fiscal agent. We would not have been able to prepare for this grant without the generous support from COMPAS. We received mentoring along the way to better prepare our application. I think the grantors gave great weight to our relationship with COMPAS in awarding us the grant.

Our work in the past has always been limited by money. Having this grant allows us to reach out to more youth in rural areas and support them in validating their identity. Our goal is to create a bigger community of dancers and to make Aztec/Mayan dance and art available to a wider community. We have a youth program that involves youth from 11 to 17 years of age in a year-long program that requires the youth to learn dance, design, regalia fabrication, history and songs. The youth are required to involve their parents and mentors in the process in order to create a wider community of support. The youth will have two ceremonies to show their accomplishments to the community. The first ceremony will be on March 22, 2015 at the Minneapolis American Indian Center. The second ceremony will be in May at Corcoran Park (date TBA).