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Friday, December 10, 2010

"It's A Way Of Connecting With My Culture"

By Kelly O'Quinn

El Día de los Muertos
The OC Fairgrounds is swarming with people; children sticky from candy and popsicles running from their mothers’ cries of, “¡Ven aqui!”, teenagers chasing each other with confetti eggs, and men standing around drinking beers. Onstage there is a bright blur of red, white, and yellow as a group of women turns and stomps in unison to Mariachi music. They’re dancing in the Jalisco style of baile folklorico. Literally translated as “folk dances”, baile folklorico is the umbrella term for the many diverse regional dances from Mexico that are performed at cultural events in the southwest region of North America and across Central and South America. The nine women onstage are part of the Macondo baile folklorico dance group, comprised mainly of current and past students of Savanna High School in Anaheim. The audience is captivated by the way the young women twirl the skirts of their red, white, and yellow dresses around them in keeping with the fast tempo of the guitars, violins, and trumpets of the Mariachi band, their hemlines slicing the air as they are brought up, down, and around the dancers’ bodies. Originally from the western Mexican state of Jalisco, this form of dance features quick, strongly defined moves accented by strategically placed stomping of the heels, offering a wildly flirtatious note to the story being told by the singer of the Mariachi band sharing the stage. The dance comes to a close with one last loud note from the violin player as the dancers hit their ending pose - left arm curved above their head holding the hem of their skirt, the right hand holding the other side, curled around their waist. After a few seconds of holding the pose, smiles beaming out onto the crowd, trickles of sweat running rivulets from hairline to jaw, the women hurry offstage to change for the next song.

I find my way to the back of the stage where Macondo has their “backstage” set up - an improvised tent made of a large portable cabana with tarps hanging down as makeshift walls. Inside the tent, the group - Aldo, Luis, Franco, Daniel, Jaime, Fernando, Jacob, Gersael, Perla, Carolina, Estefania, Natalie, Jackie, Erika, Janet, and Lizbeth - is in a frenzy getting ready for the next dance - a slow, romantic style from the Veracruz region of Mexico. Colorful skirts are thrown onto the ground or any available surface as the women rush to pick up the white dresses they’ll be wearing for the next dance. “Ay, Perla! Come zip me up!” “Have Aldo do it, Fani! I can’t find my hair piece!” In a blur of color, fake hair pieces, and the quick fffzzzip of zippers, the group is ready to go back onstage. Third in line at the bottom of the steps leading up to the stage, Fani realizes the crimson flower in her hair is slowly slipping down to her shoulder. After quickly asking around for a bobby pin to no avail, she grabs the arm of one of the girls filing offstage. Motioning to her flower, there seems to be a telepathic understanding between the two of what needs to be done, and the girl slides a bobby pin out of her hair, handing it to Fani. As she walks onstage to take her spot, Fani pins the flower in place just in time to strike the opening pose.

The music starts up with a slow whine from the violin as the girls, dressed in all white, turn slowly, holding each side of their skirts out horizontally to create a half-circle shape with the fabric. In this dance, their movements are much slower, a flow of motion created with small steps and large turns. This dance is frequently performed during el dia de los muertos (or day of the dead) celebrations on the first two days of November, a Mexican holiday in which families remember their loved ones who have passed on. Floating unsmiling around the stage, the girls dance to depict the myth of La Llorona, or “the weeping woman”, whose story is being sung by the guitarist in the back left corner of the stage. It is believed that long ago a beautiful Mexican woman by the name of Maria drowned her children in order to be with the man she loved, who then rejected her. Not being able to withstand her pain, Maria committed suicide and is condemned by God to wander the earth until she finds the souls of her murdered children. When dancing La Llorona, the women wear either all white to represent the purity of the children lost or all black to represent the dark actions of Maria. The story and dance comes to a close as the women sway to a slow stop, arms outstretched to form a diagonal line, faces looking down to the right.

After the women leave the stage, the mariachis move to center-stage, plunging forward into an upbeat salsa number, allowing the dancers to take a break backstage. Now that it is just the crowd and the music, spectators are able to let go of their attentive audience persona and try a few moves for themselves. The first people to trickle out in front of the stage are an old, weathered man and a young woman who appears to be his granddaughter. His hand on the small of her back, hers resting on his shoulder, clasping their other hands in the air, the two move seamlessly into the quick 1-2-3 movement of the dance. While their moves aren’t perfect, the two are smiling and laughing the entire time, simply enjoying each other’s company and the music. More couples join them in front of the stage, each dancing in their own style, laughing it off when they stumble over their partner’s feet or miss their signal to come back in from a spin. Nobody’s dance is perfect, but that is not their focus. Watching the couples let go and just dance, joining the rest of the crowd in clapping along with the music, everyone smiling and simply enjoying the day is a feeling unlike any other. It’s a rush of freedom, acceptance, and pure joy.

I meet up with the dancers backstage, where the men are getting ready to go on to perform the second to last dance. It’s time for the women to take a breather and chat while putting away stray hair pieces, shoes, and skirts. They only have one dance left, another Jalisco number with the men to put an energetic end to their set. As they put away their white dresses and don the colorful Jalisco skirts, there’s a sense of relief and accomplishment among the women. “I’m just happy I didn’t drop my fan this time,” Perla exclaims as Fani ties a ribbon into her hair. “Ahh! That was so funny last time! And you just had to keep going without it...” “Like nothing was wrong! Ayeee...maybe next time we should just tape it to my hands!” The girls burst into giggles imaging Perla with the fan taped to her hand. Finally ready for the last dance, the girls line up at the steps and join with their male partners, swapping bobby pins, checking each other’s lipstick, and making sure everything is in place. They want to end on a good note, as the last dance is the one that will stay fresh in their audience’s memory.

Baile Folklorico is truly a melting pot of cultures with influences from Spanish, African, French, Asian, German, Irish, and Italian cultures. Immigrants from Europe, Asia, and Africa settled in the different regions of Mexico, bringing with them cultural dances, food, and language; but the most prominent influence in baile folklorico is from the Spaniards. In 1519, when Cortes and his army landed in Veracruz, Mexico, the Spanish dance of Flamenco was introduced to the indigenous culture and became the main basis of most styles of baile folklorico. With the Spanish came African slaves, who introduced drums to the tropical music popular in the Eastern part of Mexico. This Caribbean style of music paired with flamenco dance steps became what is now the Veracruz style of folklorico. To the North, in Nuevo Leon, German settlers introduced polkas, waltzes, and the accordion, creating a style of folklorico most closely related to country-western dance and music. Other Mexican states, such as Puebla, San Luis Potosi, Yucatan, Michoacan, Guerrero, Nayarit, and Jalisco, have all been equally influenced by indigenous tribes and Spaniards. Baile folklorico remains one of the few representations of the truly diverse Mexican culture.

Señora Franco, the second mother to the young adults who are part of Macondo, started teaching the group back in 2003. “I wanted them to have a place where they could come and learn about their culture,” she explains. In a world where ugly stereotypes dictate how developing teenagers view themselves and others, Señora Franco was drawn to giving this small group of students a safe haven to connect with their peers. After seeing so many teens of her own Mexican background join gangs, drop out of school, or become mothers much too early, Señora knew someone had to make a change, “Teaching this group isn’t just something I do for fun, it’s my way of showing these kids that there’s more out there than what’s on the streets or on the TV.” And show them, she has. With the help of a few Savanna High alumni in 2003, Señora started the Macondo baile folklorico group - a place where teenagers could come from all walks of life to learn about Mexican culture, themselves, and form lasting friendships.

The group, which meets twice a week for two hours each practice, mainly consists of from Mexican backgrounds; but there are a few exceptions. Jacob, whose family came to America from Europe hundreds of years ago, and Daniel, whose grandparents emigrated to America from Vietnam as newlyweds, originally joined Macondo for extra credit in their Spanish class. “At first, we really just came because we needed the extra points,” says Jacob, “but it was fun! And we liked hanging out with the other kids and performing.” “Plus, girls like guys who can dance!” Daniel chimes in with a laugh. Dating and extra credit aside, Jacob credits folklorico with helping him be more open to other cultures. “It’s not that I was ever racist or anything, I just didn’t take the time to learn about other cultures. Like, whenever I thought of Mexico, I’d always think of burritos and Cabo. The typical stuff, you know? But I’ve learned there’s a lot more to it. Like the stories behind the dances, those are awesome! And I like how they tie into the Mexican holidays and traditions. There’s just a lot there that I didn’t realize before.”

Not only do the members learn through dancing, but they learn from each other. One past member, Susana, who still spends time with the members of Macondo, credits the group with showering her that she didn’t have to follow a stereotype. “It made me very confident in who I am. I feel that the like, how the whole like stereotypes of being Mexican didn’t fit with me...I don’t fit in that category of I’m a gangster or I’m lazy or whatever...I became more confident of who I am and where I came from and that’s what formed me, I think. Just the influences of the older generations, of the older alumni, going to college made me want to be like that.”

As the older ones, such as Perla, went on to college, they continued to stay involved. “I couldn’t leave them behind!” she tells me, “They’re my family, my little brothers and sisters.” Even though she just graduated from UCLA, Perla still stays involved with the group, attending practices and performances. This is the dedication that keeps Macondo alive. “I’ve seen these kids go from awkward, insecure children to confident adults, and that’s what means most to me. I don’t care if we win an award or competition; my reward is seeing them go out to the world sure of themselves and proud of who they are.”

Reporting Log:
2 hours observation of rehearsal
4 hours attendance of Día de los Muertos performance
Lengthy interview with Susana Cruz, past member
Shorter interview with Señora Franco
Spoke with members in passing: Perla, Jacob, Daniel


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