Cultivating a Ground Para Zapatear: Collegiate folkloristas gather to network and strategize for their communities - Danzantes Unidos®
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Cultivating a Ground Para Zapatear: Collegiate folkloristas gather to network and strategize for their communities

Article written by Rosa Angelica Castañeda
Photographs taken by Richard Magaña and Rosa Angelica Castañeda

In mid-February, collegiate folkloristas set their shoes aside as they connected through an educational and insightful conference.

“It is really interesting to see, not just the challenges that we all face, despite how different we are; it is interesting how we can come together,” Jazmin Rodriguez stated, an undergraduate student at UC Irvine. “Now we have connections, and we’ve made networks that we would not have made.”

More than two dozen folkloristas participated in the third annual University Folklorico Summit (UFS), a three-day leadership and cultural arts conference for collegiate folklorico groups to network, share best practices, and learn about becoming a sustainable organization at their institution. The summit, held at UC Irvine, attracted attendees from Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Long Beach, Cal State San Marcos, San Jose State University, UC Irvine, UC Riverside, UC Santa Cruz, University of the Pacific and Moreau Catholic High School in Hayward.

University Folklorico Summit Initiative was launched in 2013 after Danzantes Unidos dissected the challenges many groups face to simply exist at their university campus.  The statewide Mexican folk dance non-profit thought it vital to create a platform to empower student leaders.

This year’s theme, “Fostering leaders, enriching our communities” comprised of a series of six educational workshops: “Pathway to Leadership,” by Olga Najera-Ramirez, an Anthropology professor at UC Santa Cruz and the Advisor of Grupo Folklórico Los Mejicas de UCSC; “Folklorico as an Art,” by Lalo Garcia, a respected sacred and cultural artist from Los Angeles; “Community Outreach,” by Leticia Garcia, a PhD student at UC Irvine; “Folklorico Organization 101,” by Lorena Becerra, Founder and Director of Los Danzantes del Pacific; “Financial Stability,” by Dr. Maria Patrice Amon, a PhD graduate of UC Irvine Drama Department and a J.D. from California Western Law; and “Movement,” by Itza Sanchez, Artistic Director of Grupo Folklórico Luna y Sol de San Jose State University.

Acquiring a set of tools

Giving the leadership workshop, Dr. Olga Najera-Ramirez pointed out the prevailing marginalization that groups, organizations, and productions of color endure at their institute. She shared some of the challenges the UC Santa Cruz folklorico group, Los Mejicas has faced—a lack of support for adequate practice and performance space and a proper academic integration through an academic department.

Hardships are an opportunity for self growth through organizing and a strong leadership. Najera-Ramirez used Los Mejicas as an example of creating sustainability though a core group, one not only in charge of the group’s duties, but a leadership who directly addresses challenges. Los Mejicas’ core is composed of two co-directors, two costume coordinators, an events coordinator, a finance director, and a historian.

As funding is a prevalent factor for many performance groups, Dr. Maria Patrice Amon spoke on the tactics and tools for financial stability. In order to carry out a financial plan, Patrice Amon pointed out the efficacy of having a financial manager, whether it be an integrant of the group, or someone outside—an opportunity to collaborate with students knowledgeable in that field and not necessarily a dancer. Part of the financial tool box included writing donation letters, brainstorming fundraising ideas, and setting SMART goals.

Lorena Becerra, Founder and Director of Los Danzantes del Pacifico

Lorena Becerra, Founder and Director of Los Danzantes del Pacific

Lorena Becerra, leading the “Folklorico Organization 101,” stressed the importance of aligning the group’s goals with those of the institution and to be knowledgeable of university initiatives to have a strong stance backed up by the university’s own objectives when asking for institutional support.

“Prove you’re an academic. You go and you research,” Becerra said. “They can’t argue with what they have said themselves.”

John Mejia Aguas, first year student at Cal State University, San Marcos, and also one of the maestros for the folklorico group Danza Folklorica Tukwut at the university, saw the information as primordial to the visibility and continuation of the group on campus. Established in 2011, the group is starting to grow as Mejia pointed out.

“Knowing this information really backs us up … Now we need a solid logo, one we can do to mark on anything we do, posters, emails … It will be like our signature. When people see our logo, they’ll think Danza Folklorica Tukwut. That way we can get more out there and get more noticeable and from there get more organized than before.”

Doctoral student and member of Ballet Folklorico de UCI, Letty Garcia led the “Community Outreach” workshop emphasizing the need to understand what community is, to comprehend the particular needs and the uniqueness of the communities you work with.

“It is important, going back to the idea of community, to recognize who is in our community and what groups are active and what groups are local, what groups are farther away because we are a large support system for each other.”

Speakers conveyed the significance of visibility as a folklorico group, through institution websites, collaboration with local community groups and schools, maintaining an alumni network; and in particular, the value to have an educational component not only for the dancers, but for the audience as participants.

Letty Garcia highlighted the need to understand what the group as an organization aims to provide and to see it as an opportunity to become community educators.

It is important “to create cultural consciousness,” Garcia said. “It is key to tell people, ‘This is what we do and it’s no just about these big skirts; there’s a history to it, a theoretical practice.”

Understanding the broad folklorico platform

Through an educational perspective, Lalo Garcia, an LA based cultural and sacred visual artist spoke on the influence folklorico dance took on his professional career.

Having come to the states at a young age, dance became an integral part of his identity formation. In his workshop “Folklorico as an Art,” Garcia spoke on his initial interest to research the dances he took part in which later served as a professional foundation through the education and training for the work he now does.

“You become aware of the responsibility that you have, not only as dancers, but as companies,” Garcia shared. “It is a compromise because we are definitely portraying a culture. We need to do it the right way because we are representing real people. The images we portray go beyond the stage.”

“We become symbols that speak to people … It is a bridge of connecting people,” Garcia said. “In every piece I try to put in a little history; it still needs to serve as a teaching tool.”

Lalo Garcia, sacred and cultural artist.

UFS serves as a platform to bridge collegiate folkloristas across regions, to understand the institution structure within a group and within its institution and community at large. Dancers carry a responsibility to the culture and history that is illustrated, one that should righteously be acknowledged in the space it exists in.

A visual artist and dancer in the two year-old group, Folklorico Mariachi Association at University of San Diego, Debby Romero expressed how the summit impacted her.

“Getting this knowledge made me appreciate the art form more because it made me understand my identity, and that is always really important because you have to love what you’re doing in order to do it with ganas,” Romero said. “It gave us a really strong foundation of how we want to build our group, what our expectations are. It made us excited to go back on campus and gather our members and say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do, here’s the action plan.'”

For this year’s UFS Director and undergraduate student at UC Irvine, Athalia Magaña, folklorico opened an opportunity for her to grow as a leader.

“I’ve been dancing folklorico all my life, but never really had a leadership role. When I came to the university and got involved with the folklorico group, I saw a need for someone to take initiative and lead to overcome these barriers,” Magaña stated. “It takes many people to step up and become leaders, and this conference shows that. We have multiple representatives from different universities and that shows that not one person is leading, but a group of people.”

For Daisy Cruz Sanchez, an undergraduate student at Cal State San Marcos, the summit inspired her in meeting people at various universities and was an opportunity to see herself as an emerging leader in her group.

“I think coming here to the summit gave me an overview of what a leader would actually do and a ballet folklorico group. Taking in all these types of advice, I can take this and give my own word, ‘This is what I think is good for the group.'”

The summit would not be a complete folklorico conference without danza. Students partook in the movement workshop to learn “No Te Rajes Tijuana,” a calabaceado, a style from Baja California, a state in Mexico. It was led by Itza Sanchez, advisor for Grupo Folklorico Sol y Luna de San Jose at San Jose State.

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The summit wrapped up with a discussion circle on the participants’ experience at UFS, a recognition of this year’s UFS leaders and some words by Danzantes Unidos Board Chair, Rudy Garcia, his gratitude to see a successful event take place.

“It was very exciting to see the interaction going on, and that is what Danzantes Unidos is all about, increasing the network between our folklorico community, because we are at a cultural plane. We are all dealing with Mexican culture in particular, but world culture in general, so we should use it as a foundation and grow from it,” Garcia expressed. “As you go on to your professional life, keep this a focus in your life because it gives [you] an identity, a center of strength to face the world.”

The afternoon ended with a circle of folkloristas sharing dances on top of tarimas.

The next University Folklorico Summit convening will take place at Danzantes Unidos Festival 2015 in Fresno on Saturday, March 28 during lunch time. Collegiate groups are invited to take part in the ongoing growth of the network; RSVP by emailing UniversityFolkloricoSummit@danzantes.org with your name and group information.

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