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CULTURAL ENCOUNTERS : Drumbeats and Culture Clash : Civil Rights: First Amendment issues arise as an Aztec religious service in a vacant lot disturbs some of the neighbors.


HIGHLAND PARK — Paztel Mireles calls his congregation to order by blowing on a conch shell and beating on a drum. Encircling him, 30 children and adults perform an Aztec dance they describe as a prayer.

The trouble is, Mireles' church is a vacant lot in Highland Park, and some neighbors don't see the dancing as much of a blessing.

Every Saturday since early January, Mireles' group has been meeting at 240 S. Avenue 57 to dance, to learn about Aztec culture and to pray.

"This is our church," said Hector Perez-Pacheco, a 26-year-old florist who lives in Echo Park. "This is where we give thanks to Mother Earth."

The dancing began at the lot after Tricia Ward, a Highland Park artist, got developer Willard Michlin's permission to let the community use the property until he builds condominiums when the housing market improves.

Ward and John Maroney, her architect husband, cleared the property of trash and enlisted young volunteers to create a 90-foot-long sculpture of a serpent, using dirt, river rocks and bits of tile.

They named the property "La Tierra de la Culebra"--the land of the serpent, which is a symbol of fertility in Indian culture, Ward said.

Then they invited Mireles' dance group, the Cuauhtemoc Aztec Dancers, to join in a December celebration of the winter equinox. Since early January, the dancers and others who want to learn Aztec ways have been returning to La Tierra de la Culebra and filling the neighborhood with the beating of three hand-held drums--to the chagrin of some residents.

"I went and spoke to at least six people who are totally upset about the whole thing," said Richard Baeza, an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department's Northeast Division, who during his shift last Saturday received several calls complaining about the noise from the drums.

Christina Gibbons, who manages an apartment building across the street from the lot, said she has lost one tenant because of the noise and is having trouble filling three vacancies.

Other neighbors see the dancing as a boon to the neighborhood. Rosemary Ulate, who lives around the corner from the lot on Omaha Street, often brings her 2-year-old son to watch the dancers and listen to the drummers.

Ulate, who complained of a threatening gang presence in the neighborhood, said she is happy to see people gathering in the neighborhood to do something constructive. "I think the neighbors are a little more at ease" since the dancing began, she said.

In an effort to work out a compromise with those lodging protests, Ward, the dancers and other Indian representatives met Tuesday with field deputies to Councilmen Mike Hernandez and Richard Alatorre, a Los Angeles police officer and residents. The dancers agreed to begin the ceremony no earlier than 11:30 a.m. and to limit the drumming to two hours.

Michael Lee, a Hernandez field representative, said that to curtail the dancing might infringe on the First Amendment rights of the Indian dancers.

"I'm not happy, obviously," said Gibbons, who was at the meeting. She would not say if she planned to pursue the matter.

Mireles' dancers aren't the only group using the lot. Ward teaches geology and cultural history to at least 30 Los Angeles Conservation Corps youth, who are also helping to complete the serpent sculpture there.

Michlin, president of Kismet Real Estate Investments Inc., said he doesn't regret allowing the public to use of the lot. "Having community activities on a piece of property during the day is not a problem," he said.

One neighbor, Teresa Lopez, has joined the dancers. A soft-spoken 16-year-old, Lopez was watching the dancing when Mireles beckoned her to join the circle. "I'm just learning. I don't know how to do the steps," she said.

Mireles, 50, who works at a printing press near downtown, wears a long pony tail and white headband and has legs made muscular from a lifetime of dancing. His manner is warm and gracious, and he greets the dancers with a handshake and an embrace.

At his suggestion last weekend, the dancers and he did 100 pushups between the dances. During a break, he questioned dancers about Aztec culture and asked them to figure out difficult multiplication problems in their heads.

If a respondent failed to answer a question correctly, he asked the entire group to do additional pushups or deep knee bends.

At an earlier, less physically demanding class, the theme was the family. Judith Garcia, Mireles' wife, told a circle of women to talk about their mothers and fathers. The subject prompted many to shed tears.

Minnie Ferguson, a 25-year-old UCLA graduate student, said later that the women became emotional because "we're conscious that our people have had to struggle a lot." Sitting on the serpent's back, she recalled how her mother used to return from a Los Angeles factory where she made figurines with her hands cut and bleeding from the fine wires she used in the job. "It hurts us," she said, to remember such matters.

Others called on men to treat women better and take responsibility for their families. Sitting against the chain-link fence, the men in the group listened quietly.

Most of the dancers in the group have Indian roots. But Mireles said anyone can join in who has "a relationship with Mother Nature." Indeed, Naomi Goffman, whose ancestors come from Poland, Lithuania and Russia, is a part of Mireles' troupe and said she feels welcome.

A native of Mexico, Mireles worked as an engineer and math instructor in Mexico City before moving to Los Angeles 12 years ago. He said he moved here because of a nomadic impulse and out of a desire to talk about his culture.

"We come from an old, old tree with old, old roots," he said. "My body is just keeping the dance."

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