Every time Raul Chavez danced he never looked tired. That’s what Anna Martinez remembers about the man she called “Capitan.” Chavez was the leader of the Aztec Danza Huitzilopochtli, which shares its dance tradition and culture in Denver. Raul died on May 7, 2022. His death broke the troupe’s heart. But to celebrate his life they dance.
Raul was the only Capitan in Denver, a title given to him by the elders in Mexico. By having this title it means he can choose a group name and invite people to come dance and learn. It also means that as a Capitan, his “palabra” carries responsibility and authority.
Maria Chavez, Raul’s daughter, along with Danny Stange and Larry Medina, sat down with Bucket List Community Cafe to talk about their Capitan and memories of him.
“He chose the name Huitzilopochtli because his grandfather spoke to him about it, meaning the sun and the morning, the sun rising. The sun rising from the horizon is the Huitzilopochtli,” Stange said. “To Raul, to name the group ‘Huitziolpochtli’ is like a sign that it’s time for the sun to return, for the light to illuminate once again, and for our culture to return.”
Capitan Raul immigrated to Colorado in 1969 and formed the Tlaloc group in 1981. The Capitan was given the name Tlaloc by his grandfather, which means “the drink of the Earth.” The Tlaloc group was created as an order from Raul Chavez’s father to him. The group’s purpose was to maintain tradition and spread the culture Raul had grown up with in Mazatlan, Mexico to Chicanos, those who don’t speak Spanish, or have origins in Mexico.
After a decade of introducing the discipline of danza that he grew up with, Raul formed Huitzilopochtli in 1992.
“He wanted to continue following tradition here in Denver because he saw that there were sons and daughters and adoptive sons and daughters like Danny that he wanted to teach,” Maria said. “He saw that they wanted to follow him and to him, it was important that he founded a danza here. My father is the only one who has captaincy here in Colorado so he wanted to leave a tradition here, a well-founded one, before he left.”
Passing down the tradition fell to Maria. She now carries the torch for her father.
“Even after a year since his death, people are still looking for him,” Maria said. “It does make us sad to know that he’s not here, but at the same time, we are very happy to see everything that he left, his roots that he left. I am so proud to be his daughter and to see everything that he left for me because he left me a family and roots for tradition to be carried on.”
The Capitan’s teachings come from the tradition which helps people learn that they are here to serve and help each other. In Huitzilopochtli, you can’t do things alone because you will always have a support system. These teachings encourage the dancers to be vulnerable when it comes to their practice.
“The Capitan taught us that we are all equal and that we are all a family when we dance,” Maria said. “I don’t have dancers, I have siblings. I have a family.”
“We dance in a circle. In the circle, no one is more and no one is less,” Stange explained. “There’s a certain characteristic of the dancer when he puts on his costume and his feathers. He turns into a cosmic member, like a spiritual warrior. In dancing, there’s freedom.”
Not only did Raul help people through dance, but he was also very familiar with traditional healing practices.
“We are all humans that have problems like everyone else, but when we get dressed as dancers, we feel free and we cleanse ourselves spiritually through dance. What we feel is what we transmit to the audience that’s watching us. The empowerment and healing that we feel when we dance, we hope that our audience feels it and takes that energy with them,” said Maria.
“We hope that the energy from the danza enters the audience. The sound of the drums, it’ll draw you,” said Medina. “It’s the heartbeat of our group so that’s what brings all of us together.”
“When the Captian died, everything fell apart because each of us was in a bad state,” Medina said. “I believe that he is still guiding us today.”
“My father used to tell me that physically, you leave, but the person only truly dies when you no longer remember them,” Maria added.
Maria explained that prior to her father’s death, she had an accident that resulted in having to take a break from dancing. Her father would always encourage her to come back to the group and would even announce her return. Chavez returned to the group after her father passed away in order to take charge.
“It was very painful to return to the group,” Maria said. “Personally, I wouldn’t have liked to return as a leader. I would have liked to continue being a soldier in the effort but to still have him here.”
Despite the painful return, the group maintains a strong front. They continue to dance and pass down the culture and traditions that Raul taught them.
For Jose and Anna Martinez, with every beat of the drum and their heart, they miss their Capitan. They reflected on how dancing has impacted their lives and how they are coping since the death of Raul, and all he brought to their tradition.
“Coming from a very Catholic family and into this space, I felt that I was able to truly connect with my ancestors and myself here,” Jose said. “To be a dancer, it has made me a humble person and someone of strength.”
Anna carries the memory of the Capitan in her performances through her stamina. For Anna, her Capitan’s light still shines. “That’s what keeps me going. Whenever I’m tired, I think of him. In his honor, I dance and I give it all my strength,” said Anna. “Raul Chavez’s life was to dance and to help heal people. His legacy will always go on.”