When you have trouble pronouncing the ‘muertos’ in Día de los Muertos, you join baile folklórico

A USC folklórico dancer shares her journey with dancing and her complex relationship with her Mexican heritage.

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During those first few moments on stage, my favorite adrenaline rush greets me once again. The sound of gritos from my instructor and fellow dancers, the crowd in an uproar. I feel larger than life.

Ironically, it’s in the moments that follow that performance, like when my friend’s sweet mother congratulates me in Spanish, that I’m brought back down into that small corner where I, and other “no sabo” kids, reside.

I’m proud of my Mexican heritage. It has defined my childhood, my taste pallet, and it keeps me grounded to this day, and yet, it feels like something I’m not qualified enough to claim. Simply because I’m missing the most important qualification: speaking Spanish.

When my mother immigrated to the U.S. at age 12, she spent years struggling with learning English, an existence she swore she would never let her kids endure. And she kept that promise too well, only teaching me English, with some scattered Spanglish.

It’s a reality I’ve begrudgingly coexisted in for as long as I can remember. However, looking past all the teasing, I still found a sense of community at home, in my neighborhood, at school, and at all spaces that were predominantly Latinx.

That all changed when I entered college, 1,546 miles away from my home in Houston, to a predominantly white institution in sunny Los Angeles. Navigating university was already a challenge for a first-generation student like me. Here I was, clinging to my heritage for comfort and desperate for the connections I had back home.

Then I saw it, in the fall of my freshman year: a familiar, bright colored dress, draped on the side of an involvement booth.

“Grupo Folklórico de USC,” the sign read.

For those unfamiliar, baile folklórico is a Mexican traditional dance that varies by region. Each state in Mexico has its own vestuario (dressware), footwork, faldeo (skirt work), and music that’s reflective of the region’s culture. What they all have in common, though, is that each dance tells a story.

I danced folklórico in kindergarten, for a very brief period of time, but had always wanted to dance it again growing up. There was also a subconscious desire to “feel” more qualified of my heritage.

I stopped by to say hello, and before I knew it, dozens of practices, four performances, my election as president, and four showcases later, I’m a senior preparing for my last Día de los Muertos showcase ever.

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“It’s just a unique thing to be a part of, it’s something that most people, not even Mexican American people really know about it,” said Adrian Becerra, my dance partner.

This year, Becerra and I will be dancing “La Pequeñita” for our upcoming showcase, a partner dance from the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Chihuahua has been a region I’ve only admired from a distance, simply because the style of dancing was too difficult for me to attempt.

Now, with almost four years of skills under my belt, I couldn’t turn away the opportunity to give it a shot. Not to mention, Becerra and I are both seniors graduating next semester, so it was now or never.

Becerra grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood, 30 minutes outside of Sacramento, so avenues to his heritage were hard to come by outside folklórico. He has danced folklórico for 16 years. It was a hobby his parents initially got him into that turned into something he genuinely enjoyed, so much so he intentionally sought out a group in college.

“Aside from the little bit of Spanish that we spoke in the house growing up, I never really had anything that made me feel all that Mexican,” he said. “So it was cool to have this that really helped me feel connected to where my parents came from.”

Beyond its connection to community and Mexican heritage, dancing folklórico is also a way to rekindle part of a culture that has been lost to generations of assimilation to this country. Looking back at our group’s origins, dating back to the 1970s, Grupo Folklórico de USC’s establishment was an exclamation to our institution, and the ones surrounding it, that we’ve always been here, and we will still be here.

Since its re-establishment in 2017 by an alum who still dances with the group to this day, our instructor Dahlia Monroy has been with the group since 2018. As a USC graduate student at the time, it so happened she planned on attending the first practice as a member.

That was up until she was asked to fill in for the instructor, two hours before practice. She’s been teaching the group ever since.

“I always say, learn it now so that it doesn’t die with me or it doesn’t die with whoever you’re learning it from, you keep on passing down that tradition,” Monroy said. “I think one of the most powerful things about folklórico is that it’s something you have to learn between each other.”

For over 10 years, dancing folklórico has helped Monroy learn more about herself, and how she wants to support people like her, especially younger folks. She’s a fourth grade bilingual teacher at Pico Union, and has recently started her own folklórico group with the kids at her school.

Every Monday and Wednesday, fall and spring in the USC Village, and simply every time we put on our shoes, it’s a commitment to keeping the tradition, our culture alive, and most of all, it’s a celebration. For me, it’s also an exploration of my identity as Mexican American, and the pride that comes from being my mother’s daughter.

“If I’m able to see folks connect with their families, connect with their culture, connect with themselves really, and at a time that is so pivotal to their development as adults, I’ve done my job, " Monroy said.

Looking back at 18-year-old me, I realized my misguided search for “qualification” came from a place of insecurity, and dancing folklórico led me to discover that heritage was never a competition. Rather, it’s meant to be indulged in, shared with one another in spaces like the one folklórico creates, and celebrated together with folks who love the art and our culture.

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Folklórico has given me the confidence to stand firm in my identity, acknowledge my Spanish shortcomings, and show off a little zapateado de tres here or there.

This Sunday, I’ll be on that stage once again, dancing alongside the people I cherish the most and honoring my loved ones who are 1,546 miles away. As my last Día de los Muertos performance, I’ll be giving it my all, so that the community may enjoy everything folklórico has given me. Afterall, heritage is to be shared, and not compared.

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