Viva Los Mejicas

ae danceMexican folkloric dance group celebrates its 40th anniversary at UCSC

once a Mejica, Always a Mejica,” reads the motto for Grupo Folklórico Los Mejicas; it’s a tagline that holds both literal and symbolic meaning, one that represents more than the simple association of having once participated in the group. It indicates something deeper, an acknowledgement of where one has come from, and the promise to take that knowledge into the future. And now at the impressively ripe age of 40, the group has certainly accumulated a substantial amount of members who will always consider themselves as such.

Los Mejicas, a Mexican folkloric dance group at UC Santa Cruz, strives to celebrate and preserve the beauty of the Mexican heritage and culture through dance. The group, which is one of the oldest student-run organizations on campus, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year with “Mejicas, Hoy y Siempre,” their spring concert that takes place on June 8 and 9 at UCSC’s Mainstage Theater.

According to Professor Olga Najera-Ramirez, a former member of Los Mejicas and the group’s current faculty advisor, the group was initiated by and for people who wanted to know more about Mexican culture during an era when ethnic studies were just beginning to take shape. “At the time—this is in the early ’70s—many of us had grown up in environments where you were taught that your mission in life was to assimilate and integrate fully into mainstream American culture, and that meant that you were not allowed to speak Spanish in public schools, and there was very little opportunity to learn about Chicano history or Mexican culture outside of your own home or your community,” explains Najera-Ramirez, who teaches in the anthropology department at UCSC. “So folklórico was very attractive as a place where people who had the same interest could get together and share what they knew, and also get connected to people who knew even more.”

Originally founded as an opportunity to get students together to engage in and learn about Mexican culture and history, as well as speak Spanish with one another, the group developed its mission to promote knowledge of Mexican culture, in the spirit of uniting a community. “For me the goal of the group is to represent and spread Mexican culture through dance, and in doing so people come together, and they build friendships and long-lasting relationships that go outside of the dancing space,” says Edgar Ontiveros, who has been a member of Los Mejicas for four years. Ontiveros also sees the group as playing an important role in making Mexican culture visible. “Mejicas opens up and provides opportunities for members of marginalized communities to really find a voice, and to be proud of who they are, and to explore their roots and empower themselves,” he says.

Growing up in Tijuana, Mexico, Ontiveros says he was always surrounded by folklórico. “It was just something that I took for granted, but when I came here to university and I realized that I was kind of far away from home, I started getting in touch with folklórico as a way to feel connected with Mexico,” he says. And the group continues to be an avenue that connects that culture with campus life. “The group provides a space where you can feel welcome at this university,” he says.

ae dance2While Ontiveros is preparing to graduate, Lydia Enriquez is in her first year at UCSC, and has been a member of Los Mejicas for the past three quarters. “It’s a really great opportunity to learn about my culture, and learn the dances, and learn more about my history,” she says.

Enriquez was not familiar with the group or its history at the beginning of the school year, but has been impressed with what she has learned. “It’s amazing how much time they’ve spent here and how it started, and how big this group has grown, from a group of just 10 girls making their own costumes,” she says. “Now we’re over 60 members about to perform Mainstage—it’s really amazing to know how much time has passed and how much everything has grown.”

Speaking of the upcoming 40th anniversary concert, Enriquez promises a memorable show, to which Ontiveros adds, “It’s going to be one big celebration of something that started a long time ago and is still strong and alive here on campus.”

The concert will offer eight dances from eight regions in Mexico—one of which is a four-song set choreographed by Ontiveros—to articulate the diversity between different regions. “The idea is not just to reproduce dances, but to stage them in such a way that you try to sort of capture the regional flavor,” says Najera-Ramirez, who explains by making an analogy to the United States. “If you go to Texas, it’s a very different feeling than if you go to New Orleans, or if you go to New York—it’s all the U.S., but they all have sort of regional inflections, and so that’s what you get from the performance, that’s what you’ll experience.”

Enriquez adds, “People might think there’s one specific costume and one specific song that describes everything, but there are so many kinds of dance, and it represents a story that we plan to tell.” With that in mind, the regions included in the program are Sonora Bronco, Sinaloa, Yucatán, Baja Norte, Guerrero, Aguascalientes, Chiapas, and Jalisco.

Participating alums and a local dance group will give the anniversary program the feeling of a cultural reunion. And it’s a sentiment that Ontiveros expresses when reflecting on his experience with Los Mejicas. “I’ve had many great experiences—within the group and also outside of the group—with the relationships I’ve built,” he says. “Within the group, I’ve found a sort of family and a space where—even though it’s linked to a university—I feel that it’s a space where I can build relationships, and be able to connect with other Latinos and non-Latinos that are interested in Mexican culture. It’s just been great. I feel like I’ve grown a lot through the group, and with the group, because it’s not just dance—it’s the opportunity to be able to wear and present your culture with pride.”

Los Mejicas’ 40th Anniversary Spring Show, “Mejicas, Hoy y Siempre,” takes place from 7-10 p.m. Friday, June 8 and from 5:30-8:30 p.m. Saturday, June 9 at UCSC’s Theater Arts Mainstage, 1156 High St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $12/adults, $10/students and seniors, $8/children, age 6-12, No cover/children 5 and under. Tickets available online at santacruztickets.com, or by phone, 459-2159. For more info, visit losmejicas.wordpress.com.

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