A History of Mexican Folklorico in Southern California

Choreographer, artistic director, and dance advocate Gema Sandoval writes about Folklorico in the growth of this art form from its origins and how it evolved into the present day as a central expression of Mexican American culture.  One of the founders of Danza Floricanto, she is widely recognized as a leader in the Southern California dance community.

Mexican folk dance has been a part of California since the late 18th Century.  In those days the itinerant dance maestro went from Rancho to Rancho teaching the latest European dance fads to a multigenerational clientele.   When the Californios held their meriendas and bailes, this was the perfect opportunity for every eligible bachelor and young señorita to display their skills in dancing the cuadrillas, polkas, waltzes, and schotises their itinerant teacher had taught them.    In those days it was fashionable, even necessary, for the “gentlemen farmers” to have dance as part of their social and courtship repertoire.  It was the same throughout the territory of New Spain, which would later become Mexico.

Fast forward to 21st Century Mexico.  There folk dance has two faces.  One face exists in the pueblos and the regional plazas as an authentic indigenous, primarily religious expression of a people who, over five centuries of Spanish influence, have syncretized Christianity with their native religious beliefs.  This fusion has created dances such as Negritos, Santiagueros, Aztecas, Pascolas and many others that continue to be part of the annual religious celebrations throughout Mexico.  They last hours, even days and are, therefore, difficult to replicate outside of their natural context.

The other face of dance in Mexico is the secular adaptation that began as a regional  manifestation of the people of a specific geographic area, who danced and played during social occasions, and passed on their dances from generation to generation.  Today we call this  “Mestizo” dancing.  Curiously, regardless of its regional origin, this type of movement is always based on some type of footwork, and because of its social nature, has always had presentational possibilities.  It has become a very successful theater transplant in the last fifty years, this, in large part, as a result of Sol Hurok’s global producing skills.  He toured the Moiseyev, Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, and Bayanihan so successfully from the 1960’s until his death in the late 1970’s that people all over the world wanted to travel to Russia, Mexico and the Philippines to get to know these countries better.  We in the United States were no different.  These dance companies became de facto Good Will Ambassadors for their countries.

But in Southern California Mexican folk dance took on another meaning.  When, in 1968, Sal Castro, a Los Angeles high school teacher who fought for Chicano students’ rights, presented the student demands to school administrators, among the demands was a request for a folklorico dance class.  Folklorico became a political statement about who we were and the importance of retaining our cultural roots.  Within ten years every Middle school, high school and four-year institution of higher learning in the Los Angeles had a folklorico class as part of its offerings.   These were the ’60’s so it was not uncommon to end a dance presentation with both audience and performers yelling “Chicano Power.”   Many of our current political leaders evolved as activists  through a folklorico class:  Antonia Hernandez, long time director of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund.  Armando Duron, political activist and Art collector, Vickie Castro, past Los Angeles School Board member to name a few.  And, of course, me.

Today, we have folklorico groups throughout the United States and Canada.  I’ve met many of them at the annual Associacion Nacional de Grupos Folkloricos (ANGF) the national Mexican Folk Dance Association.  And in California, Danzantes Unidos, the State Folklorico organization hosts an annual dance conference attended by over one thousand members from throughout the state.  Forty years later, the presence of folklorico is no longer a political statement.  It is a cultural retrieval and affirmation effort, one led vigorously by Maria Luisa Colmenares, the organization’s president.  More importantly, it is an artistic voice represented on many stages throughout the Southland.

We have two predominant schools of folklorico training, both in Mexico and the United States.  One follows the teachings of Amalia Hernandez, founder and artistic director of Ballet Folklorico de Mexico.  This method is infused with ballet training and provides a very stylized version of the art form.  The other follows a more holistic format, attempting to maintain the original purpose and intent of these dances.  But, as is the case with all closely related art forms, they influence and inform each other more and more as time goes on.

Folkloricos as we know them today began in the late 1950’s with Carolina Russek, Lola Montez and Lilly Aguilar, Corina Valdez. Their repertory was usually Spanish dance with one or two Mexican folk dances included. Then in the late 60’s and as a result of the Sal Castro request to the LA Unified School District, Amalia Hernandez sent Graciela Tapia to Los Angeles.

Almost concurrently, at the request of Allegra Fuller Snyder, UCLA hired Emilio Pulido.  Soon after he arrived he would travel up and down Southern California teaching at UC San Diego, USC, Loyola Marymount, UCLA, Cal State LA, and UC Santa Barbara, all in a week’s time.  As a result of his efforts all these universities gave birth to student folkloric companies.  His students were the first generation of Southern California’s folklorico dancers, teachers, and company directors.

Benjamin Hernandez followed Emilio Pulido in the early 1970’s and he began teaching at Cal Poly Pomona and East Los Angeles College.  More importantly, around 1973 he founded Mexicapan Folklorico along with Patricia Barragan.   Mexicapan was the first professional Mexican Folk Dance company to be created at this time and it set the standards for all the folklorico companies that followed.

Danza Floricanto/USA was born in 1975.  Its founders, Gema and Francisco Sandoval and Juanita Lopez, were once members of Mexicapan, but they decided to work independently and created Floricanto. The company is now 38 years old.

The latest group of folklorico companies were formed as a result of dancers from Los Angeles who went to Mexico to study under Amalia Hernandez during the 1990’s.  When they returned they decided to form companies.  Among these are Folklorico del Pacifico, directed by Adriana Astorga and Grandeza Mexicana, directed by Jose Vences.

I have been part of this journey, for almost 40 years.  I have gone from student activist. to dancer  to dance teacher, to dance artist, to choreographer.  And I don’t really know where one role ended and the other began.  Or maybe all of those things are very much still in me.

© Copyright 2012   Gema Sandoval All rights reserved