Watsonville’s Ruby Vasquez keeps Mexican folk dancing alive
“Every region in Mexico, every state, has its own unique style of dance,” says Watsonville native Ruby Vasquez. As she speaks, her eyes shine with a passionate enthusiasm for the Mexican folk dancing that has played such a major role throughout her life. “In the style of Jalisco and many other styles in the Mexican dances, one of the main articles of clothing that is a common thread for the women is a rebozo,” she explains as she gently twirls the multicolored woven garment in her hands. “You’ll still see in Mexico women using the rebozo as a daily article of clothing. They use it like a shawl, in the marketplaces to display their produce, and they use it to carry their babies with them. For me, at a young age learning about the different dance styles from each state and the outfits that represent them allowed me to start growing up and start making connections with other cultures. There are a lot of commonalities that you can make and you can really draw on those connections when you get exposed to them.”
Vasquez, a longtime member of the Watsonville-based dance group Esperanza del Valle (Hope of the Valley), performs traditional Mexican folk dances—complete with intricate, hand-sewn costumes—at festivals and events throughout Santa Cruz County. The company, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2010, is truly made up of people like Vasquez who love to dance. “The heart of our company is that people really value the dances that we’re doing, the traditions that we’re trying to maintain and pass on here in the community, and that we really respect the culture that we’re representing,” She says. “Our dance company is a hobby for us. None of us get paid to do it.”
“We go to Mexico and learn dances that the indigenous communities use as part of their traditional rituals. We get their permission so that we can portray their dance in our own way.”
It’s also interesting to note that many of the members of Esperanza del Valle are of Mexican descent, but some of the members are not. “That’s not even a criteria,” Vasquez says. “It’s people who’ve been in the community of Watsonville who have been raised in Watsonville and living side by side with the Mexican people—either newly arrived immigrants or third and fourth generation Latinos—who just feel a connection and want to be part of the group in that way.” Wearing colorful garments and performing indigenous Mexican dances to traditional music, the group performs not only for the love of dance but in the hope that the next generation of Watsonville residents will heed tradition and carry the dances well into the future.
“I’ve been dancing since I was 5 or 6 years old,” Vasquez explains. “I started dancing with a local woman who was offering folk dance classes on the patio of her home and so my mom would take me and my two sisters and one of my cousins. It was a very homegrown, grassroots type of thing. We would all go once a week to her house and learn how to dance. It’s been a big part of my life and kind of helped shape who I am as a person. I’ve always been so grateful to my parents for having found this teacher so I could begin dancing at such a young age.”
Vasquez danced her way through grade school and high school, resting her feet only during college so she could focus on her studies. But upon graduation, she joined Esperanza del Valle and has been a principal dancer with the group ever since. “What we do in Esperanza del Valle is try to maintain the authenticity of the traditional styles that come from Mexico, but at the same time we know, just like everything, that culture is an evolution, so we have taken liberties to stylize and incorporate our own touches on the dances,” she says. “We go to Mexico and learn dances that the indigenous communities use as part of their traditional rituals. We get their permission so that we can portray their dance in our own way. Those types of protocols I think are important. Instead of just going down there and taking it, our company wants to make sure that we give the recognition to the people it belongs to,” Vasquez says.
Having been a teacher with Pajaro Valley Unified School District for the past 22 years, Vasquez has seen first hand how cultural identities can become lost once children are integrated into an American way of life. It’s true of any children with foreign heritage, especially the third and fourth generations that are born in the United States, that cultural ties dwindle more and more with each generation, eventually drifting away into obscurity. Vasquez is loath to see such a thing happen in Watsonville, and is therefore determined to retain the cultural identity of the Hispanic community through dance. “Dancing in this style has helped me gain insights into the traditions and the culture of the Mexican people,” Vasquez says. “When I was growing up, it really helped me understand where Mexico is, that it’s a diverse and complex country, and that although we have stereotypes and one way of labeling Mexico, through dance I’ve learned that it’s just so diverse and there’s no one label that can be put to that country. This diversity also applies with the dance styles there.”
Vasquez’s longstanding acquaintance with Mexican folk dance as well as her role as an educator have made her truly understand the importance of keeping cultural identity alive in the community, thus leading her to begin a children’s dance group of her own.
The idea for the children’s dance company must be credited to Vasquez’s 6-year-old son. When he was merely 4, he would dance around the house mimicking his mother’s fancy footwork. “I asked him if he would be interested in learning Mexican folk dance. He said yes, so I started a group,” she explains. Instead of simply going to the class as the “teacher” in the traditional sense, Vasquez envisioned that her children’s dance group be based on community involvement. This vision led to the class being taught not only by Vasquez, but by other members of Esperanza del Valle as well as members of local high school and young adult dance companies as a way for them to gain experience of passing on the Mexican traditions to younger children. “We have about 23 kids who come to dance,” Vasquez says, although she wishes she could accommodate many more in the small classroom generously provided by the Watsonville campus of Cabrillo College.
“I just know how much this style of dance has offered to me and how much I’ve learned as a person about how to interact with people of other cultures,” she says. “It’s great to make those connections and to draw those similarities and to find those ties that we all have with one another, but it’s also important to know how to respect the differences that do exist. I want my son and the kids in the community who are in my dance group to have exposure to that.”
At the upcoming SantaCruzDance.com Ethnic Dance Festival, Esperanza del Valle will be performing a farrago of dances in the traditional styles of the various regions of Mexico. Vasquez is thrilled that her company will be participating in the festival, but she can’t stifle her excitement at being able to watch the other dance groups perform as well. “We’re going to be able to go as an audience member and either just passively enjoy it for the music and the beauty if that’s what we want to go for, or we can go to start trying to draw those global connections as a more active participatory audience member. You start to realize that there are so many connections between cultures,” she says. “I get emotional when I talk about it because it’s just been so important to me. Dance to me is emotional, it’s political, it’s cultural, it’s social—our dance company has members who have been in the group for 30 years. Those are relationships and family ties that we have with each other. For me, dance is so much of who I am and what I do.”
Listening to this animated, vivacious woman tell her story leaves no doubt that her life has truly been touched by her intimate relationship with Mexican folk dance, and that her heart’s desire is to keep this vibrant cultural tradition alive in the community of Watsonville.
SantaCruzDance.com Ethnic Dance Festival
Where in Santa Cruz can you see the pulsating undulations of belly dancing, the heart pounding desire of salsa and the exciting colors of traditional Mexican folk dance all in one afternoon? The answer is at the first annual SantaCruzDance.com Ethnic Dance Festival. On Saturday, Oct. 10 from 11 a.m. until 7 p.m., Mission Park and The Arts Center (Actors’ Theatre and Motion Pacific) located at 1001 Center St. will be teeming with dancers and dance seekers alike. Participants can sign up at SantaCruzDance.com for a dance workshop taught by the performers in one of 12 different genres. Indian, Hungarian, Venezuelan, Brazilian, African, Mexican and Japanese dance styles will be performed, just to name a few. Prefer to simply sit back and take in the beauty of ethnic dance? Just visit Mission Park and observe the ethnic heritage of 12 countries represented through indigenous dance and music. Enhance the cultural experience by indulging in toothsome fare from India, Brazil and Mexico, which will be sold at the festival.
“The Ethnic Dance Festival came about through working on National Dance Week (NDW),” says Abra Allan of SantaCruzDance.com. “Santa Cruz has such a strong, vibrant, diverse ethnic community here and that came up a lot during NDW. We wanted to have an event that would infuse ethnic dancing and music, and we hope that this festival will take place every year in the fall,” Allan continues. The performances at the festival are free to the public, and the dance workshop fees are based on a sliding scale. For those that are interested in participating in the workshops, you can register online at SantaCruzDance.com or come to The Arts the Center the day of the festival.
For the full schedule as well as additional information about the Ethnic Dance Festival visit SantaCruzDance.com or call 246-4227.