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Aztec and Mayan dancers set off a day-long celebration of Mexico's independence from Spain on Sunday in the Sonoma Plaza with drum beats and incense.

The ceremony was the first in an afternoon full of the colors, dances and rhythms from various regions of Mexico on the eve of Mexican Independence Day.

At least 1,200 people filled the plaza, such as Dominican University psychology major Sandy Torres, 21, of Sonoma and her younger sister Esme, 6, part of the Danza Azteca Xantotl group of Santa Rosa.

"We like to pass the culture down to the little ones," Torres said, giving her sister a smile.

Mexicans at home and abroad start the day before the official Sept. 16 holiday with a celebration called "El Grito," meaning a call or a cry. It's an echo of the call to war by Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, who, according to history, rang the bell 203 years ago that started the war against Spain.

"It is the day the struggle for independence started," said Victor Flores, consul for political affairs with the Mexican Consulate-General in San Francisco.

Flores stood with Sonoma Mayor Ken Brown before the crowd and a phalanx of equestrians wearing various traditional Mexican cowboy attire.

A woman on horseback delivered a U.S. flag to Brown. A man on horseback delivered the Mexican flag to Flores.

The holiday is a day of patriotism and civic ceremony, said Alejandra Cervantes, executive director of Nuestra Voz of Sonoma. The nonprofit leadership group has organized the event in the plaza for the last five years.

"We want people to know — why these colors, why these people, why this food," Cervantes said.

Aromas of Mexico wafted from food stands selling sopes, tortas, frutas and enchiladas. Girls lined up in colorful dresses and flowered head dresses. Boys stood in handsome dress shirts and hats for the performances.

The dances represented different regions and cultures of Mexico, put on by Quetzalen, Sonoma's Mexican ballet folklorico.

"Most of our kids were born here. We don't want to lose these traditions, we don't want to forget where we came from," said Noemi Kiki Lobato, 36, of Sonoma, who watched all three of her daughters — ages 12, 10 and eight — perform.

Among the male dancers, Sonoma Valley High School senior Angel Santoyo, 18, has been studying the traditional dances with Quetzalen for nearly three years.

"I feel very proud of what I'm doing because it relates to my family's history," Santoyo said.

Fellow dancer and troop leader Victor Ferrer, 25, a Sonoma graphic designer, said holding the event in the heart of Sonoma holds special meaning.

"In Sonoma, there is a marked line between communities," Ferrer said. "These celebrations breach those boundaries."

Consul Flores echoed the thought. The area used to be part of Spain and then Mexico before becoming part of the United States, he said, pointing to the flags atop the old Sonoma City Hall.

"There is a very strong history, a very strong relationship between the two countries," Flores said.

As the children performed, Jose Luis Segura, 68, of Vallejo danced from the sidelines in a traditional charro suit from the Mexican state of Jalisco.

The retired correctional officer with San Quentin State Prison and his wife came to Sonoma on Sunday to celebrate because Segura feels like Sonoma is his "birth place." Segura rattled off the names of his favorite teachers at Sonoma Valley High, where he studied after moving to Sonoma in 1963 as a 17-year-old.

But mainly, he said, it'd be no fun to celebrate alone at home.

"To make it fun, you have to have people," Segura said.