When I first started dancing folklorico as a college student at the University of Texas at Austin, my dance teacher, Michael Carmona, told us about Dia de los Muertos. I remember painting my face like a skeleton and dancing in our community in celebration of our ancestors. I have noticed that with the release of the Disney movie Coco, it seems like this event is even more popular than ever. Yet, I notice that when we dance as skeletons our movements take on additional meanings.
What is Dia de los Muertos?
Dia de los Muertos is translated as Day of the Dead in English. It is celebrated on November 1 and 2 in Mexico and all around the world. Mexicans believe that on these days the souls of the departed return to earth to visit their family and friends.
What is the history of Dia de los Muertos?
It is very difficult to pinpoint the origin of anything. However, scholars acknowledge that the customs surrounding Dia de los Muertos have an indigenous influence. For example, the Aztec people held special offerings and ceremonies to honor children and adults who had died. It was known asMiccailhuitontli and Miccailhuitl which is translated as Little Feast of the Dead and Great Feast of the Dead. This is just one example because Mexico is a very ethnically diverse country whereby indigenous andmestizo groups celebrated the death of their loved ones through song, dance, ritual, and offerings. In the sixteenth century with the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Catholic friars noticed that the indigenous people incorporated their own ceremonies celebrating the dead during the Catholic feast day of All Souls Day.
How do we celebrate Dia de los Muertos today?
Loved ones prepare for a visit by the deceased by creating an altar that is displayed in their home. The altar is decorated with all the favorite items of the departed including pictures. In addition, food is prepared and placed on the altar so that the loved one may return and partake. In my city of Laredo, Texas, many celebrate by visiting the cemetery and put flowers on the graves. Others attend a mass in memory of their loved ones. Many buy pan de muerto (bread of the dead) which is a type of sweat bread that has bone shapes and is sold at the local bakeries. Different villages, cities, and regions celebrate this custom in many different ways.
Who was José Guadalupe Posada?
José Guadalupe Posada (1851-1913) was an illustrator, print maker that worked for many different Mexican periodicals and presses. He is most known for his illustrations of calaveras (skulls) that were dressed in fancy clothing and infused with political satire. One of his most popular drawings was of a rich, female skeleton wearing a fancy hat with a feather on it. Posada dubbed this drawing La Calavera de la Catrina. Posada’s skeletal illustrations were not greatly appreciated until after his death. Since the 1920s and 1930s these skeletal images have been closely associated with celebrations of Dia de los Muertos.
How is Dia de los Muertos a Bodily Memory?
Folklorico dance groups celebrate Dia de los Muertos by dancing with their faces painted as skulls. Then, our dances take on additional meanings. Yes, we are still performing our Mexican cultural history when we dance. Yet, on Dia de los Muertos we are also performing as skeletons bringing to life the bodily memories of our ancestors. Oftentimes, when the dancers perform it may appear that the skeletal Catrina image depicted by Posada has come to life. I usually dedicate my own dancing to my beloved father, grandparents, aunt and my loved ones who are no longer physically on this earth. I remember them with every zapateado, grito, and skirt flourish. Sometimes I can feel their presence with me even stronger. This is the power of our dancing.
Written by Gabriela Mendoza-Garcia Ph.D.
Berdecio, Roberto and Appelbaum, Stanley. Eds. Posada’s Popular Mexican Prints. Mineola: Dover Publications Inc., 1972. Print.
Carmichael, Elizabeth and Chloë Sayer. The Skeleton at the Feast: Day of the Dead in Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991. Print.
Delsol, Christine. “La Catrina: Mexico’s Game of Death.” SF Gate. October. 2011. Web. 6 May. 2014.
Well, summer is around the corner and I decided to share a few of my favorite books for folkloristas. These books make great summer reading for children. For adults, we can read these books to expand our knowledge. The books are available at amazon.com, your local book store or your local library.
Lupita’s First Dance: El Primer Baile de Lupita by Lupe Ruiz-Flores-This is a bilingual book which tells the story of Lupita and her first time dancing folklórico with her class. At their school concert her partner does not show up. What should she do? I read this book to my folklórico students and they loved it.
What can you do with a Rebozo? Què Puedes Hacer con un Rebozo? By Carmen Tafolla-This bilingual book really connects with our dances because it talks about the different uses of a rebozo. A young girls tells us the many ways the different members of her family uses a rebozo. For example the rebozo is used: to accent a dress, to play hide and seek, as a hair decoration, to keep warm, etc.
Danza!: Amalia Hernández and el Ballet Folklórico de México-This book features the unique artwork of Duncan Tonatiuth which is a treasure in and of itself. It traces the life story of Amalia Hernández and her founding of the Ballet Folklórico de México. It starts with her youth, dance training, setting her company, and traveling throughout the world.
The Man who set the Town Dancing: El Hombre que puso a Bailar a Todo el Pueblo by Candice Stanford-This bilingual book recounts the story of my dear friend Josè Tena of Las Cruces, New Mexico. The book begins with Josè Tena dreaming of teaching folklórico one day. Then, he begins to research the dances of New Mexico and puts them on-stage for the world to appreciate. This book ends with a brief biography of the life of this remarkable folklorista, as well as, with diagrams and explanations of four New Mexican dances. I must admit this book is a bit harder to purchase since it is out of print. I scoured amazon until someone finally sold a copy.
Todos a Celebrar!: Hispanic Customs and Traditions Alphabet Book by Maria Alma Gonzalez Perez-This bilingual book is perfect for our littlest of dancers who may not know how to read yet. Each alphabetic letter corresponds with a Mexican cultural tradition. It is a great way to reinforce the alphabet while learning the about the many Mexican traditions.
El Baile Calabaceado: Tradición de la Fiesta del Vaquero by Raúl Valdovinos García-This book is written in Spanish. It covers the history of the calabaceado dances as performed in La Misión in Baja California. Most importantly, the author writes of how this dance which started as a regional dance became representative of the entire state of Baja California. A very important book for those of us that teach and perform calabaceados.
Dancing in the New World: Aztecs, Spaniards, and the Choreography of Conquest by Paul A Scolieri-Many of us teach the Aztec dances to our dancers. This book really highlights the importance dance played in the conquest of Mexico. Included are drawings from the era, as well as documenting the ways that dance was a form of resistance, retaliation, and conquest. For more of my ideas on this subject see my blog post entitled Aztec Dance: Re-writing History
Mi Vida, Mis Viaje, Mis Vivencias: Siete Decades de la Musica del Mariachi by Miguel Martínez-This book is written in Spanish. Here, Martínez tells of us his life and how he became a trumpet player with the famous Mariachi Vargas. You will learn how in the early 20th century mariachi musical groups did not include the trumpet. He narrates his struggles and successes as a member of the Mariachi Vargas. I purchased this book on amazon a few months ago. It might be a bit difficult to find since it is out of print.
The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II by Luis Alvarez-Those of us that dance the pachuco/a dances of the 1940s should purchase this book. It gives a detailed account of the various injustices, discriminatory practices, and stance against assimilation that the pachuco/as were fighting against. It is a good backdrop to understanding the pachuco/a culture and the dances that we depict. For more of my ideas on this subject, please visit my blog post entitled Chicana/o Rebellious Dancers: The Pachuca/o Zoot Suiters
México’s Nobodies: The Cultural Legacy of the Soldadera and Afro-Mexican Women by Christine Arce-This book brings to light the role of the soldaderas throughout Mexico’s Revolultionary War (1910-1920). It has great historical accounts which you can use to frame your own Revolutionary Dances. Also, the author emphasizes the role of Afro-Mestizo women throughout history. Please read more of my ideas on this topic on my blog post entitled Five Historical Facts about Las Adelitas or Las Soldaderas
This month I am writing about our Chicana/o ancestors from 1940s who showed their rebellious ways through dance, music, dress, speech, and culture. Yes, I am talking about the Zoot Suiter or the Pachucos and Pachucas of this era. As they danced the jitterbug in their zoot suits they defiantly retaliated against assimilation. Yet, this story begins with a killing….
In Los Angeles, California in 1942 Josè Díaz attended a party near Sleepy Lagoon which was a popular place for Mexican-American or Chicano youth to hang out. He was found bleeding to death. Immediately, the police began looking for the killer. They swept through Chicano neighborhoods and rounded up six hundred youths. Twenty-two Chicanos who were members of the 38th Street Gang were charged with murder and assault. Scholars who comb through historical evidence now note that this trial was unjust. This was known as the Sleepy Lagoon Incident.
Then, on June 7, 1942, Vicente Morales who wore a zoot suit took his date to the Orpheum Theatre for a night of dancing. Sometime during this evening, a group of white sailors beat him up while shouting profanities. They stripped him of his zoot suit and his girlfriend had to cover his naked, beaten body with her own coat. The police arrested him on charges of disturbing the peace. He went to jail. So, began the Zoot Suit Riots where hundreds of Service men roamed the streets of Los Angeles targeting Chicanos wearing Zoot Suits. The pachucos were beaten in front of a crowd, stripped of their zoot suits, and arrested by police for vagrancy, disturbing the peace and other charges. The news media added to the hype by labeling the Zoot Suiters as un-American and juvenile delinquents. Eventually the Zoot Suit riots were quelled after an outcry by the Mexican government.
Why Dress in Zoot
During this time, Americans were fighting in World War II. All citizens were expected to fight for their country and support the war. Many Chicanos fought during World War II but they were still segregated in schools, movie theaters, hotels, restaurants, etc. They were discriminated against at work and were the targets of prejudice. However, the Chicana/o youths were not powerless. Instead, of succumbing to demands that they assimilate to American society. They rebelled and created the Pachuca/o style (Alvarez 2008, 155, 15-18, 78).
The pachucos and pachucas of the 1940s were known for wearing
their rebellious attire known as the Zoot Suit. Luis Alvarez in The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and
Resistance During World War II (2008) quotes a former Zoot Suiter from Los
Yeah everything was brown. And the coat came down to here [pointing to the knees], right down to here. And the silver chain from the pocket, and the wide, like a pancake, hat, with a real wide brim. …And we would dress up that like that to go to the dances. All of us. All wear the same thing. With the big chain, we’d twirl the chain (Alvarez 2008, 86).
The pachuca wore a short skirt, a pompadour hair do, and “loud” make-up. Some wore pants and blazer types shirts the equivalent of the male zoot suit (Ramírez 2002, 15).
Dancing Pachucos and
Pachucas in the 1940s
The Zoot suiters of the 1940s danced the jitterbug (Delgado 1971,
5). This was a very difficult dance involving intricate footwork and partnering
skills. They twisted, hopped in a synchronized, fast pace together with their
dance partners. Oftentimes couples incorporated dance tricks involving amazing jumps
Zoot suiters listened to jazz music. This music would later evolve into bebop (Alvarez 2008, 144). They also liked music by artists Artie Shaw & His Orchestra, Benny Goodman, & Harry James. They really loved dancing to the music of Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five especially the song Caldonia. Later on, they would dance to anything by Chubby Checkers (Delgado 1971, 5).
To listen to Caldonia by Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five, please see below.
Also, new songs with pachucos as a theme became the rage. One very popular melody was the song called Pachuco Boogie by Edmundo Tostado or Don Tosti. One reason this song was so popular is because the singer uses the unique Pahcuco/a slang in a musical conversation (Alvarez 2008, 140).
To listen to Pachuco Boogie, please see below:
Dancing the Zoot Suit
Style in Folklórico
Zoot Suit style dancing gained national attention when featured in the play Zoot Suit (1979) and film (1981) by Luis Valdez. Valdez depicted pachucos and pachucas dancing with their zoot suits. With that, folklórico groups across the country began incorporating Zoot Suit style dancing in their repertoire. Frank Trujillo of The National Chicano Dance Theater based in Denver, Colorado choreographed his own Zoot Suit dance suite based upon family research (Nájera-Ramirez 2012, 172). In their program Trujillo gives a brief history of the Sleepy Lagoon incident and the Zoot Suit riots. He choreographed an entire suite of dances depicting the Zoot Suiters. The National Chicano Dance Theater toured the United States in 1980 showcasing this suite alongside other dances. (Chronology: Cuatro Epocas Program).
At the Asociación Nacional de Grupos Folklóricos (ANGF) conference in 1982 held in Alamosa, Colorado the Bailadores del Bronce folklórico group from Seattle, Washington wowed attendees with their performed of Zoot Suit style dances (ANGF Conference IX Syllabus). Randy Robert López was a member Bailadores del Bronce and performed at the ANGF conference. The group was directed by Elma Gonzalez Radke. He tells me that sometime between 1978 and 1979 all the dancers created these choreographies. He says that the dances were created in a collaborative effort each adding new steps and sequences (López 2019).
Also, the Grupo Folklórico Semillas de la Tierra in Alamosa, Colorado would learn these dances from Juan Rios who was a former dancer with the National Chicano Dance Theatre. They premiered their own Zoot Suit dances in the early 1980s with a poetic recitation by Abelardo Delgado. They also dedicated the Zoot Suit suite to the pachucos and pachucas of the 1940s. Nowadays as a Tejana, I have seen/heard of folklorico groups such as the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Ballet Folklórico and the Round Rock Ballet Folklórico perform Zoot Suit style dances. I know that there are so many of us that remember the rebellious Pachuca/os through dance.
Many of us continue to create, innovate, and pass on the
songs and jitterbug dance styles of the zoot suit era as a way to remember our
ancestors who were unjustly targeted as anti-American. No longer wanting to fit
into the melting pot they showed their unique individuality through dress,
speech, music, and dance. We keep their rebellious spirit in our hearts as we
perform our Zoot Suit dances.
Written by Gabriela Mendoza-Garcia Ph.D.
To read my latest research please purchase the book Dancing Throughout Mexican History (1325-1910)which is
written by Sanjuanita Martinez-Hunter and edited by myself. It is available for
purchase on Amazon.com.
Alvarez, Luis. 2008. The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance During World WarII. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Asociación Nacional de Grupos Folklóricos
Conference IX Syllabus. 1982.
Delgado, Abelardo B. The Chicano Movement: Some Not Too Objective Observations. El Paso: Barrio Publications.
López, Randy Robert. 2019.Correspondence by author. March
Nájera-Ramirez. Ballet Folklórico and Mexican Identity. In Dancing Cultures: Globalization,Tourism, and Identity in the Anthropology of Dance. ed. Héléne Neveu Kringelbach and Jonathan Skinner, 161-176. New York: Berghahn Books.
The National Chicano
Dance Theater: Chronology-Cuatro Epocas Program. n.d. Artes Chicanos.
Sanchez, Yolanda. 2019. Round Rock Ballet Folklorico Photograph.
Ramírez, Catherine S. 2002.
“The Pachuca and Chicana Style Politics.”
Meridians. 2(2): 1-35.
Mexican Folklorico Dance is an art form that is passed down from parent to child and teacher to student. Yet, oftentimes we fail to really dig deep and closely look at what our dance movements tell us about ourselves as a people. We need to ask ourselves the following question. What are we trying to say when we dance? Read More
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As I write this account, I note that it has been forty-one years since the Asociación Nacional de Grupos Folklóricos or ANGF first began as a non-profit organization. The purpose of ANGF is “to serve as a voice for the promotion and preservation of Mexican folklore traditions…” This is accomplished by organizing an annual conference whereby participants meet to learn regional dances, music, and traditions of Mexico and Latin America countries by renown teachers. Read More
Alura Flores de Angeles was a woman who was ahead of her times. She was born in 1905 the daughter of an indigenous man from Xochimilco and an American born Protestant missionary. At a time in Mexico when more than 50 percent of the population was illiterate, Flores de Angeles graduated from the National Preparatory School in San Ildelfonso in 1924. She was a star athlete who participated in the swim, volleyball, and basketball teams. She graduated from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) majoring in Physical Education. Flores de Angeles stated that as part of her Physical Education training she learned Mexican folkloric dances. Read More