Mexican/American: A Bridge, Not a Cultural Divide

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On a blustery Thursday night, the scent of homemade tamales wafted through Founders Theater at Velocity Dance Center. Nancy Blanco and Fausto Rivera hosted this December 11 Speakeasy performance lecture, entitled El Norte. The discussion primed audiences for the upcoming Nextfest NW, which will showcase works December 12-14 centered on the theme, New West. Three dancers from the Seattle-based company Bailadores de Bronce also shared traditional folklórico dances from the 40-year-old company’s repertoire. Just before beginning the performances, Rivera and Blanco posed the question, “Does this work look like it’s from here?”

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Velocity’s El Norte Speakeasy Event
Photo by Tonya Lockyer

Blanco performed a solo in which she explored the idea of immigration as movement. Using music from a wide swath of Mexican music and dance, she recalled a series of memories, set in front of video projection of historical and present-day scenes. Blanco spoke about the strong role social dance played in her childhood, remembering how her uncles would rouse the children from bed at family parties so that everyone could dance together. The panelists in the talkback afterward also reminisced about their exposure to music during quinceañeras and other social gatherings—music that they didn’t hear anywhere else growing up in the United States. In this way, social dance still functions in Mexican culture as a place to meet a potential spouse or to mingle with family and friends.

Diamond Box, a black and white film by Rodrigo Valenzuela, showed men’s weathered faces as they spoke in Spanish about the ordeal of crossing the US-Mexico border. Subtitles competed with minutia of facial expression as the men looked into the distance or around the corrugated iron shack. They recalled walking for days in the desert, getting caught by immigration, being deprived of food and water, and being forced to leave companions for dead along the passageways into Arizona and Texas. This film movingly suggested the universal sentiments of going into the unknown and desiring a better life. During the panel discussion, talk turned to living in the US illegally and how, for undocumented immigrants, dance can be something to show off and be proud of, in stark contrast to the many other things they must hide.

Rivera spoke about growing up “between cultures” and how dance can be an appropriate reflection of his ambiguous thoughts and feelings about belonging. In his solo, Rivera performed one side of a ballroom-style dance, holding on to no one, craning and searching for an invisible partner. Because Rivera began his studies in dance with folklórico, he remembers finding ballet and modern’s emphasis on formalized technique to be “weird” compared with his experiences in traditional Mexican styles. While discussing the concept of relating to audiences, panel members voiced their opinions against making traditional dance more entertaining to a broader audience base by adding high kicks and skirts that fly above the dancers’ heads. Mexican-American cultural fusion walks a fine line, Rivera remarked, between innovation and allowing itself to be othered as “cute ethnic dance.”

Delana Guerrerro, Luna, and Federico Garcia rounded out the evening with two demonstrations of folklórico performed by the two women in vibrant, flowing dresses and a charro suit and sombrero for the man. These dances, featuring glorious swirling skirts and devilishly fast footwork set precisely to the music, hail from two distinct regions in Mexico: Jalisco and Veracruz. These three members of Bailadores de Bronce are present-day interpreters of Mexican culture, and yet they do their utmost to preserve the dances as they have been performed traditionally. According to Rivera, it should have been obvious to the audience that the works performed at El Norte originated in Seattle, and the panelists said that they were frustrated because they feel no sense of belonging here. Many third or fourth-generation Americans are not perceived as citizens here, but simultaneously they are strangers in the countries of their ancestors.

Seattle is a tricky city. It is 65% white, according to a recent article in the Seattle Times, and less diverse than most large American cities. We are also very liberal and would like to think of ourselves as a post-racial city, but that is naive. El Norte presented many pertinent and difficult questions: How do we as a city close this gap through art? How can we appreciate another culture without appropriating it? The artists in this discussion reported feeling like they didn’t have the authority to innovate, to take the traditional styles and re-interpret them for the modern day. But, who gives that authority to white choreographers interpreting Western culture, or, ultimately, to anyone? Seattle is primed and ready for artists to lead the way in demonstrating how to get a handle on this spectre of white privilege. Perhaps we can work toward answers together through conversations like these.

Visit Velocity’s website’s for more info about the Speakeasy Series and NextFest NW.

More information about Bailadores de Bronce can be found here.