Dancing with the ancestors

Hispanic New Mexican cultural traditions kept alive through folk dance and language by seniors at NHCC

By: - May 8, 2023 5:00 am
People dance with each other in a rehearsal hall.

Seniors dance at a free folk dance class, part of the National Hispanic Cultural Center’s Siempre Creativo program, on May 4, 2023. (Photo by Gino Gutierrez for Source NM)

For the seniors laughing in a rehearsal hall as they twirled and bumped into each other, it was about more than just dancing. Many were there to help keep the rich Hispanic New Mexican culture alive.

On May 4, the New Mexico Hispanic Cultural Center hosted the first class in a series of free dance programs for senior citizens. A full room of shuffling shoes on the wooden floors accompanied the start-and-stop music as the strangers practiced together for the first time.

Between dance breaks in the warm room, seniors talked to Source NM about what brought them out to the cultural center. For many, a deeper pull than just a good time led them there.

Toni Martorelli said she hasn’t danced like this in decades. She said she was eager to come with her friends to dance and help keep the culture alive.

“I love the fact that it’s our local folk dancing,” she said.

Two women laugh while dancing together.
Dance partners Toni Martorelli (left) and Marietta Benevento (right) share a smile and laugh as they dance together. (Photo by Gino Gutierrez for Source NM)

The dances taught on Thursday — La Varsoviana, La Camila, La Vaquera, Valse los Paños and Valse la Escoba — date back to the 1800s. Instructor Lucy Salazar said these dances are New Mexican culture.

“It’s what I grew up with, and it’s what everybody did before radio and TV and everything came,” Salazar said.

The attendees agreed. Many showed up to learn the dances their parents did before them. Cynthia Romero, 75, said she wanted to learn how to dance like her grandmother and uncles, a tradition she feels is being lost to time.

“It’s nice to hear the traditional music and to see people, because a lot of our culture and other things are moving on,” she said.

Romero said she used to attend a lot of local dances with live music in northern New Mexico, but now most of the dances are only at big festivals.

Cousins Genie Martinez and Anna Santistevan also came to learn to dance like their families. Martinez’s mother used to dance La Varsoviana — the first dance taught at the class on Thursday. Martinez said she wants to pass this on to her kids, too.

“It’s really important for me to carry on with it,” she said.

Santistevan’s children are already involved in the flamenco dancing world. Santistevan said all of this rich Hispanic culture, unique in New Mexico, needs to be presented to the world.

“Our traditions are so beautiful,” she said. “We’ve been cultivating them for hundreds of years.”

Martinez said the isolation of these dances in New Mexico is what makes them special. She connected this cultural tradition to the unique Spanish language that was also isolated in the state, which she said needs to be preserved as well.

Maria Dolores Gonzales is a sociolinguist and retired professor from the University of New Mexico. She explained, while taking a dance break, that the Spanish language in New Mexico is unique because it’s a combination of southern Spain and Mexican dialects.

It needs to be revitalized after efforts to assimilate people to speak English removed it from many households, she said.

A woman draps her hand over the shoulder of another woman.
Maria Dolores Gonzales (right) dances with a fellow attendee. (Photo by Gino Gutierrez for Source NM)

As Salazar kept giving the dancers instructions into the microphone over the rhythmic music, Gonzales pointed out that “we’re all speaking English,” even despite the music being in Spanish. She said Hispanic communities used to hear the music in Spanish and speak Spanish.

The transition away from that, she said, happened with the “English elite movement” that forced Spanish out of the classrooms. It caused many communities to transition to speaking primarily English. 

Her own parents experienced this. Although Gonzalez’s parents only spoke Spanish growing up, officials punished them at school for speaking that language. So her parents spoke only English with her in the home where she grew up.

“Their comment was, ‘We don’t want you to suffer punishment for speaking Spanish in the classroom so we’re going to teach you English,’” she said.

That pushed Gonzales into the study of language and preservation efforts. She now leads a language immersion program where people can learn to retake their Spanish language heritage.

Gonzales said this all goes hand-in-hand with the Mexican folk dances taught at the Hispanic Cultural Center over the next few weeks. She said she wants to see the preservation of the physical traditions, too. She said the dance classes will help do that.

“I’m a real proponent of preserving the culture,” she said.

Socialization after isolation

The full room of dancers was a stark contrast to the empty halls forced at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the seniors said it was great to see a full room of people having a good time together in-person once again.

Santistevan said it was good to share this experience with her family and see everyone talking face-to-face again.

“It makes such a difference to be able to be around people,” she said.

Gonzales said she lost a lot of social confidence after the isolation of the pandemic, and ran into others with the same issues. She said the dance classes are a way to get that back.

“We have to be able to break out of our comfort zones and do different things so that we can take back that confidence that we had before,” she said.

Another attendee, Orlando Vigil, said this is a great way to make new friends. He lives just down the street from the center in southwest Albuquerque, and said this helps the community come together again.

He said he and his wife were largely alone during the pandemic.

And, Vigil added, it’s a great way for the older community to exercise. Many other attendees said the same.

“Nothing but positives here,” Vigil said.

A man and a woman smile as they dance together.
Orlando (right) and Luana (left) Vigil shares a smile as they dance together. (Photo by Gino Gutierrez for Source NM)

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Megan Gleason
Megan Gleason

Megan Gleason is a journalist based in Albuquerque. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico, where she served as the editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. Other work has appeared under the New Mexico Press Association as well as in the Independent, Gallup Sun and Silver City Daily Press.