Once a year during the outdoor Dia de San Antonio fest on June 13, at the Tigua tribe’s Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, dozens of women and men don colorful costumes, a red sash around their waist, brown moccasins and headbands to celebrate their culture through authentic Native American dance and food.
From sunup to sundown, the dancers perform ritual dances outside the Tigua Cultural Center, 305 Yaya Lane. Hundreds of people, both Indian and non-Indian, watch the dancers and taste traditional food like meatballs, chile colorado, sopa de pan or bread soup, and albondigas, meatballs.
The traditional celebration is one of several indigenous holidays during the year that the 8,000-plus-member tribe organizes to teach their children Tigua history and culture and keep the old traditions alive.
In addition to the most sacred feast of Dia de San Antonio, the tribe also opens up the reservation to the public for: Dia de San Juan, June 24; Dia de San Pedro y Pablo, June 29; Dia de Santa Kateri Tekakwitha, July 14; Dia de Santiago, July 25; Dia De Santa Ana, July 26; and Pueblo Reunion Day, October 12.
Javier Loera, 58, War Captain of the Tigua Tribe for the last five years, said he has seen changes in traditional Tigua practices and traditions during his lifetime.
“The culture has been changing because it has been dominated by (mainstream) American culture,” Loera said. “However, we still have our language and our beliefs and our identity as Tiguas.”
Emerald Gomez, 23, an employee at the Tigua Cultural Center, says that although she hasn’t seen all that many changes to Tigua culture, she admits that some traditional practices are no longer done.
“The culture is the same, but we have lost some stuff because our ancestors have passed away and they took stuff with them that they have never shared with us,” Gomez said.
Tigua children learn about their culture, the language, called Tiwa, and history from their parents, at a day care center on the reservation and in pre-kindergarten.
“The parents and day care teach the kids the culture, the traditional dances, food, language and all that,” said Incarnacion Albitrez, 69, a a member of the Tiguas who doesn’t live on the reservation, and is retired from a local gas company. “We have a day care and education department that is located five miles from Tigua Indian Culture Center and that’s where they teach them the language and the culture,” he said.
Gomez said it’s hard for Tigua children to become fluent in their language when they cannot practice it in the local public school.
“Kids lose interest in our culture because they are too busy and because they are in public schools. Spanish is like our second language. The kids are not interested in learning the Tiwa language because we don’t use it that much,” she said.
Tigua culture began to change with the Spaniards who arrived in the “New World” in the 15th century.
“Our history started with the Pueblo Revolt when our ancestors were brought down (to El Paso) from New Mexico,” said Gomez, who works at the Tigua Cultural Center answering visitors’ questions about the tribe. The revolt occurred in the 1680’s.
“The Spaniards used to steal our food and would take everything away from us,” she explained. After the revolt they were captured by the Spaniards and forced to resettle in the El Paso area. “That’s how our ancestors got here,” Gomez said.
The Tiguas were an agricultural people and once brought to this region they grew corn, beans, and chile, with irrigation from the Rio Grande. Eventually, the Tiguas accepted Christianity but still kept their own beliefs.
“The Spaniards never let them (Tiguas) continue with their culture and traditions. They tried to force Christianity on them. If they were caught doing spiritual practices they were punished because supposedly they were doing witchcraft. The Tiguas would speak Tiwa behind the Spaniard’s backs and practice their own beliefs but would pretend they were Christians,” Gomez said.
Loera said that the Tiguas have a great respect for Mother Nature.
“The earth is our mother. Nowadays we want to dominate mother and it has consequences. Our belief is to live in peace with the earth; we need to take care our mother because we just have one mother,” Loera said.
Tiguas are allowed to marry outside the tribe, Gomez and Loera said.
According to Loera, because most members are interrelated, they tend to marry outside the tribe.
“Most of us get married to Hispanics/mestizos,” Loera said.
Couples have two marriage ceremonies, one inside the church and the other in front of the War Captain. “They cover the male with the blanket and then the female is covered with a shawl. This means they are united,” said Albitrez, whose native names are Pony and Horse.
Although Tiguas want to share their culture and traditions with the public, they have established policies and rules to protect some of their more sacred traditions. For example, the public is not allowed to take photographs at ceremonies or other events and Tiguas are not allowed to share information about certain aspects of their practices.
“If someone says too much information about the Tiguas they can be punished,” Loera said.
The tribe has its own police and fire department on the reservation on the east side of El Paso to handle security and fire prevention issues, but criminal matters are usually referred to the local police. The tribal council makes decisions for the tribe, but women are not allowed to be part of the council.
“The people who work in the government in our tribe are males,” Gomez said.
According to Loera, female members of the tribe are only allowed to give their opinion at council meetings but not vote on decisions. As U.S. citizens, however, they can vote in local, state and federal elections. “Women cannot vote in the tribe… but this may change in the future,” he said.
According to tribe members, many of the nation’s 8000 Tiguas live in one of their two reservations, in Ysleta and Socorro, although some also live in El Paso or in other areas.
“The changes are good and bad,” Loera said. “Now we have cars and stores… we have clothes, go to the store to buy meat. Back in the days we used to hunt. The bad thing is we don’t have as much privacy as we used to have. Now we need to ask permission to the government to hunt to get our minerals, plants, our medicine.”
For those interested in observing the Tigua’s public ceremonies, here are the names and dates of their feast days: June 13 is Dia de San Antonio, June 24 is Dia de San Juan, June 29 is Dia de San Pedro y Pablo, July 14 is Dia de Santa Kateri Tekakwitha, July 25 is Dia de Santiago, July 26 is Dia De Santa Ana and October 12 is Pueblo Reunion Day .
For additional information on the Tiguas, contact Maneger: Nancy Torres 915 859-7700 or visit ysletadelsurpueblo.org/