Michael Heralda found his life’s vocation in a dusty book bin in a yard sale 17 years ago. But he is neither author nor bookseller. He is a storyteller and a philosopher for our time, fostering people’s understanding of what is and is not authentic in the modern world.
“The key to remember is that everyone is indigenous; everyone on this planet is indigenous,” said Heralda, who performs his Aztec Stories at ¡Vivan los Muertos!,the Autry’s Day of the Dead celebration, on Saturday. “But how far have you removed yourself from it?”
Aztec Stories is part music, part narrative, and part performance art. It is really part of Heralda’s campaign to encourage young people to learn more about their Native heritage, if they have it, and about their authentic history if their heritage is from someplace else.
Heralda got an inkling about that Native heritage in a used book all those years ago. He hadn’t been a big reader in his youth, because he’d never found anything that interested him. But with his wife’s encouragement, he began reading, and he liked it.
“Whenever we would go to yard sales, I’d make a beeline to any boxes that had books, because you can get them for a quarter; for 35 cents you can buy a hardcover book,” Heralda said. “I happened to pick up this one book.”
It was Aztec by Gary Jennings, the historical novelist known for his willingness to go almost anywhere to track down arcane details about his chosen subject. For Aztec, Jennings traveled to remote areas of Mexico in the seventies, when large swaths of the country were still considered dangerous for foreigners.
“I went home and started reading it, and I couldn’t put the book down,” Heralda said. “It wasn’t so much (Jennings’) writing style. It was more the fact that, as I read the book, I felt like I knew what he was talking about. I felt in here that I knew this. And I thought it was so strange because I didn’t really know anything about my history, my culture.”
As a Los Angeles-born Mexican-American, of parents who hailed from Arizona, Heralda was more than intrigued: he was hooked. He wanted to learn more about the real history behind the fictional story he had just read. So he headed to the Southwest Museum’s Braun Research Library, which had plenty of scholarly sources about the Native groups of Mexico. Among them were translations of the few indigenous books known as codexes that escaped the Spanish priests’ fires during the Conquest. The originals, most notably the Maya Dresden Codex and the Florentine Codex, an ethnography produced by the Spaniard Bernardino de Sahagún in collaboration with Mexica scribes, today reside in European museums.
“I would make my notes and read the chapters I wanted,” Heralda said. “The more I read, the more I felt I knew, on an intuitive sense. I just dove deep. I just started finding everything I could find, book-wise, that was on the Aztec people.”
But in a sense, it wasn’t knowledge that set Heralda free. Knowing about all the genocide and slavery and poverty the Conquest inflicted on Native peoples saddened him.
“I decided I was going to write songs about what I was learning as a way of cleansing, out of my body, and sharing information and perspectives that I had about what I was reading,” he said. “That became the very first CD.”
But the music had trouble finding an audience. For starters, the record labels had a hard time classifying this music. And it was also incredibly sad. Heralda realized he still had some work to do, and it was time to leave his books behind.
“I realized that everything I had learned up to that point was in books, and books present a specific perspective. And in this case, pretty much everything that’s written is from a European perspective. So that’s when I knew that in order to grow, I needed to go to the source. So I needed to go to Mexico, and I needed to find people there who had indigenous knowledge.”
He found a school near Cuernavaca, the Universidad Náhuatl in the town of Ocotepec, Morelos, that taught courses on indigenous life, including philosophy, music and musical instruments, food and lifeways. He spent a week and a half in a summer immersion program, absorbing, learning and making contacts.
“I knew as soon as I arrived that I was meant to be there, that I was called there,” he said. “Everything up through my life had been pushing me up to this point. It was an immediate connection with the instructors. They understood what I was trying to do and they immediately gave me a wealth of information.”
The university’s founder, the scholar and artist Mariano Leyva, is a longtime street theatre activist who Heralda says is credited with bringing the Day of the Dead tradition to the United States in the 1960s.
“During that time, the Chicano movement was building up, and they were hungry for that kind of information,” Heralda said. “It went over really well.”
A few years later, Heralda became concerned that Day of the Dead had gone over so well that it was beginning to be commercialized, and he began a project to explore the true origin of Day of the Dead so that people can have a better idea of its significance. The result was “The Journey to Mictlán,” his recent CD. He sees it as a way to expose people to concepts central to the Day of the Dead, including the idea that beings — really, all matter in nature — does not die or disappear; it just changes form.
“Energy never ceases to exist,” he said. “It just transitions into something else. It’s cycles of nature .… That’s fact. It’s fact because they can document it in a laboratory, so now it’s fact. But Native peoples have always understood this. Intuitively, they’ve known this. So it brings some validation to indigenous knowledge, indigenous culture, indigenous beliefs. And more importantly it brings an awareness of the concept that Native peoples had an indigenous philosophy, which many people still don’t know today.”
But Heralda believes that the reason the Day of the Dead has become so popular in the United States, and the reason it continues to have power in Mexico, is that people today are looking for an authenticity and spirituality that they perceive used to be at hand but has been lost. The color, smoke and ceremony of the celebrations, the altars and the food, can be a way of recapturing that spirituality, not least because all those elements are not part of the workaday world.
“I’ve done presentations where people who are obviously not from this continent will come up to me and say, ‘I really love the Native cultures and I feel bad for what happened long ago,’” Heralda said. “The first thing I tell them is, ‘Don’t feel bad about us losing that indigenous side of us just to survive.’ I say, ‘I feel sad for you because you lost yours way before we did. You lost that connection. And essentially this is why you’re gravitating toward this, because you know intuitively that you’re connected to it, but you’ve been so far removed from it that you hunger.’”