Imagine seeing your favorite elementary school staff member show up to school one day in full Aztec dance attire with an array of indigenous instruments to perform for you. For Voorhies Elementary this is a reality thanks to Jael Rivera, also known as Mino Ocelotl.
Rivera was born and raised in Kern County to his mother, the first generation in the US from Juárez, Zacatecas, and his father from Pueblo, Oaxaca. According to Rivera, his father’s tribe is named “People of the Clouds” because they reside in the mountains and are known to be secluded. His mother’s roots stem from the Chichimecas tribe (The People with the Red Heads, which were painted red). Miztec dialect and other variations are considered to be spoken by Rivera’s family and culture.
All the way up until junior high Rivera was unaware of the origins of his father’s language, he also had little fluency in Spanish. That all changed when he started learning for himself about his ethnicity, culture, and ancestors.
He did this exploration of identity through native practices, playing ancient instruments, and dancing.
“[Aztec dancing] has been a thing ever since the first native that gave the sign that it was good to go to practice our own practices again in a time where we aren’t punished.”
Although music was self-taught for Rivera he eventually found a mentor in Xavier Quijas Yxayotl, known as the grand master of making clay flutes. His mentor passed the responsibility of teaching how to play the flutes to Rivera, who continues to teach the skill to this day. Yxayotl’s clay flutes can be admired in musical scores like in Mel Gibson’s movie Apocalypto.
“I actually started off going to the Mercado Latino and buying those little toy flutes” Rivera stated. He then recalled mimicking his mentor’s playing.
Rivera started performing for a Voorhies kindergarten class after a curious teacher found out about his talents and background. Now, the entire school enjoys presentations from Rivera and his Mexica community, who he plays music and dances with especially for Aztec ceremonies.
This group of performers is described as diverse, Mechicano indigenous peoples from Aztec, Mayan, and other backgrounds. Rivera realized that many students relate to him through their own Mexican heritage, some students even shared that their family is from Pueblo too.
“Don’t forget about your tribe…It’s good to take in traditions from [another tribe] but try not to get rid of completely your tribe,” explained Rivera. “Every culture, every ethnicity is beautiful in its own way…and there’s a lot of lessons to learn from our own culture, but it’s always good to learn the lessons of other ones because there is that Medicine Wheel that has the red, yellow, black, white colors. And each of them represents each race, each ethnicity- we all have something to learn from each other.”
For Rivera, learning about himself has given him purpose, which he hopes to pass on to the students. Although he initially had concerns that the Central Valley wouldn’t be accepting of his community he was pleasantly surprised to find the art form well received, and an openness to learn more. Now he reports feeling more comfortable living in Bakersfield knowing that the community has embraced his heritage.
Rivera compared his past events for Día de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, saying that his anticipated performance in Hollywood, Los Angeles could not live up to the excitement he had for performing for his own hometown.
The main goal Rivera is focusing on is engaging youth with their culture. He conveyed his passion for teaching while demonstrating how a clay flute is made. He fondly described sharing with the students that the flutes represent the voices of Mother Earth. Water and earth combined make the ingredients for the clay, the fire cooks it and hardens it, then Rivera always asks if the audience can guess where the wind, the fourth element, is from.
“We are the wind.” As Rivera reveals, we are the fourth element. We are all necessary.