Local coming-of-age doc stands out in Watsonville Film Festival lineup
When acclaimed Watsonville filmmaker Consuelo Alba witnessed her first Xilonen ceremony as an adult in the Pajaro Valley, the indigenous dancing and drumming rituals immediately resonated with her. She sensed right away that the pre-Hispanic rite of passage was just the sort of ceremony she would have loved to experience as a girl.
“I first heard about it and was really intrigued,” says Alba. “It took me a couple of years to attend and then I was blown away.”
She was so taken with the ceremony that she made it the subject of her most recent documentary, Xilonen: Ceremony of Tender Corn. The film is one of 15 featured in the third annual Watsonville Film Festival, which runs March 14-16 at the Mello Center for the Performing Arts.
Growing up in Mexico City, Alba was drawn to the Aztec dance culture that flourished in the region. When most up her friends began celebrating their quinceañeras, a Mexican coming-of-age ceremony for 15-year-old girls, Alba decided not to. Though she enjoyed celebrating with her friends, she felt the ceremony was just not for her.
“If I had known about Xilonen, I would have been there in a minute, because it’s so beautiful, so powerful and meaningful. It ties everything together,” explains Alba. She now views the Xilonen ceremony as “the first, original quinceañera.”
Locally, the Xilonen has been celebrated for nearly 30 years by the White Hawk Aztec Dancers of Watsonville. The annual event, held each summer, has become so well known in Latino communities throughout California, that young women travel from all over the state to participate. Despite that popularity, it often flies under the radar locally. Even Alba, who has lived in Watsonville for 18 years, didn’t know about it until about eight years ago.
“It’s very special for me,” says Alba. “It really brings together my experience being Mexican in the United States, being a woman, being a part of the community. This film is about my community. It’s about the tradition of my ancestors. So it’s very, very important to me.”
Alba captures the Xilonen experience on film by following a local girl and her family through their year-long preparation for the ceremony. While the film is a colorful and vibrant portrayal of Aztec drumming and dance, Alba also stresses the importance of the training that the young women go through. The entire experience is a rite of passage that empowers the girls and stays with them throughout their lives.
“I think young women are constantly bombarded with these messages from the media, (about) everything that is wrong with you and how to fix yourself,” says Alba. “It’s all about looking cute and sexy, and so this is the antidote to all of that. This is something that empowers them and gives them a sense of place, a sense of how important they are, about the contribution they can give to their community.”
High expectations are placed upon the young women participating in the Xilonen ceremony. They each have to earn their eligibility by maintaining good grades and performing community service. The young women must also attend events held throughout the year in order to learn the indigenous traditions and dances. To help them through the process, the participants are mentored by Xilonens, or women who experienced the ceremony when they were girls.
“I think it’s very important to the girls,” says Alba, “because they feel they are being honored, they are being celebrated, they have received these words of wisdom and guidance one-on-one from older women. So it’s something that’s a very meaningful conversation.”
Local residents might be more familiar with Día de Los Muertos, the Mexican holiday that celebrates those who have died, than with the Xilonen ceremony. But Alba points out that the two traditions have a lot in common: Both are cultural rituals that celebrate a transition in life, while paying respect to nature and the earth.
Alba’s documentary highlights the sort of community-building activities that the Watsonville Film Festival likes to promote, according to festival co-founder Jacob Martinez. Each year, the festival committee seeks to feature films that are either made locally, or provide entertainment value or a positive message for the community. Part of that positive message, for Alba, is reconnecting to tradition.
“Very often we lose (traditions),” she says. “I think they are valuable in so many ways. Really, I see them as the glue that keeps us together, that gives meaning to what we do in our regular lives, and when we lose that perspective is when we start getting in trouble.”
The Watsonville Film Festival runs March 14-16. ‘Xilonen: Ceremony of Tender Corn’ screens at 5 p.m. Saturday, March 15 at the Mello Center, 250 E. Beach St., Watsonville, followed by a live performance by the White Hawk Aztec Dancers. Tickets are $5/door, no cover/students under 18 with ID (or $1 without ID). View the entire festival schedule and purchase tickets at watsonvillefilmfestival.org.