By Rory O’Sullivan
Ballet folklorico, traditional Mexican folk dancing, has become a defining part of Cinco de Mayo celebrations across Southern California and the nation. With women swathed in bright red and green layered dresses twirling to blaring ranchero music with performances hard to miss.
Mexican folk dancing first gained popularity during Mexico’s 1810 War of Independence against the Spanish. In 1952 Amalia Hernandez formed the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, in Mexico City establishing the dance as a mainstay of Mexican culture. The dance soon became a staple of celebrations of Mexico’s Independence Day throughout Mexico, just not on May 5th, because May 5th is not the day Mexico gained independence from the Spanish.
“We really don’t celebrate it here,” said Mexico City historian, Eric Rojo. “It’s actually an American Holiday.”
Although celebrated in small elementary school dances to large commercial ‘fiestas,’ in the US, as Mexican Independence, Rojo maintains the holiday’s roots are in California and have little significance in Mexico. An informal poll done by the Voice News found few people knew Cinco de Mayo represented the Battle of Puebla against the French, 50 years after Mexico won independence from the Spanish.
The battle had implications for the American Civil War and Rojo argued that France’s goal was to break up the United States by helping the Confederacy. The Mexican’s aided by President Abraham Lincoln and the Union derailed France’s timetable and denied them the opportunity to continue to supply the Confederacy.
“The battle of Cinco de Mayo helped save the Union,” said Rojo.
Latinos soon after the battle in 1862 started commemorating the day, not with Mariachi music, which wasn’t invented or folklorico dancing which was waning in popularity, but instead Rojo said they had speeches and meetings. Today Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of Mexican culture with Ballet folklorico at the forefront.
Most Southern Californians have seen the brightly colored costumes streaking across stages and the rhythmic tapping of their striking black shoes as their dance partners twirl them around in a choreographed act that rivals any Broadway production. Their dance partners are dressed much more subtly, typically with all-black suits similar to traditional mariachi costumes.
“It brings pride back into the community,” said Ballet Folklorico de Herencia Mexicana (our Mexican Heritage) director Richard Solorzano. “You can see the older generation and how they respond to it.”
Becky Cervantes who danced as a little girl said her daughter and granddaughter are now part of BF de Herencia Mexicana. She said the way they respect each other and their attention to the craft positively shows Mexican culture.
“It’s a really neat family feeling in the group,” said Cervantes. “If you watch us on stage you can see the love and camaraderie like ‘yeah girl’ you got that turn.”
BF de Herencia Mexicana is popular enough to have 10,000 followers on Facebook and book several performances each week. They will perform at the Mosaico Arts and Music Festival on May 3rd in San Bernardino’s Perris Hill Park for Cinco de Mayo.
Solorzano said there is plenty of diversity in Mexico and it comes out in the dances. Ballet folklorico is not any one particular style of dance, but reflects the regional and ethnic diversity of Mexico and encompasses all traditional regional dances. Solorzano said ballet folklorico helps bridge the gap between past and present, serving as a link between pre-Hispanic cultures, outside cultural influences and the culture of modern Mexico.
“Mexico has one of the richest cultures in the world,” said Ballet Folklorico de Los Angeles director. “There are too many dances to learn in a lifetime.”
She said every region has their own style based on the climate and the influences of their unique culture and those factors dictate the footwork, the costumes, and the music.
In Veracruz along the Atlantic Coast there is more of a German influence and the music will include an accordion or heavy brass instruments and the dancing has elements of polka thrown in. In the south where it is warmer, the Spanish influence is prevalent in the dancing and a distinctive African sound to the music.
“The women from that region look like they’re in flamingo costumes,” Kareli Montoya said because of the bright pink dresses they wear.
“I feel a lot of the groups here don’t know the history, they just do it, put it on stage because it’s fun and the parents like it because their kids are in it,” said Montoya. “Yes, the dancing is cool but you have to know the why before you perform. To me it’s all about the history, celebrating the Mexican culture.”
Ballet Folklorico de Los Angeles will also perform at the Mosaico Arts and Music, accompanied by the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra.
UC Riverside Chicano Studies Professor Dr. Armando Navarro said that Cinco de Mayo has a rich history and should be celebrated. He was not happy that most people in America, even those with Mexican ancestry don’t know the history and use it as a reason to party.
“It’s a bad thing if you lose the historical significance,” said Dr. Navarro. “It’s important for all of us to celebrate the history of Mexico.”
Where you can see ballet folklorico around town
20th Annual Cinco De Mayo Celebration at 5:30 PM 8015 Auto Dr 8015 Auto Dr, Riverside, CA 92504, for info email Alfredo@RiversideCountyBcc.org
The Moreno Valley Hispanic Chamber Of Commerce will present a free event on the campus of Moeno Valley College starting at 10:00 AM, for info visit www.mvhcc.biz/
44th Annual Corona Cinco de Mayo Parade and Fiesta at Corona City Park starting at 10:00 AM for info visit www.coronacincodemayo.net
Mosaico Arts and Music Festival at San Bernardino’s Perris Hill Park starting at 2:00 PM for info visit www.sanbernardinosymphony.org.
St. Mary’s Ballet Folklorico of Redlands will be at the El Torito in San Bernardino starting at 5:00 PM for info visit www.stmarysdance1974.com/
UC Riverside will have events throughout the day commemorating Cinco de Mayo for more info email firstname.lastname@example.org
Downtown Riverside Art Walk starting at 6:00 PM for info visit http://www.riversideca.gov/museum/