More Global Dance

milky way Dancers! tijuana mexico!*

Tecktonic is a dance movement and scene started in the suburbs of France and has since spread around Europe and Mexico. It combines elements of breakdance, urban hip hip moves and other styles. To me it is very reminiscent of the kind of dancing done at Los Angeles backyard parties in the 80s. I was told by an authority on the subject that this kind of dancing was called pointing.

This group which I think is called Milky Way or perhaps that’s just the style not only dances well but makes some pretty graphically interesting videos. They have many more up but this is my favorite. Just like in any style of dance some folks have a better style than others. My favorites are the second dancer and the last one. Enjoy!

Buraka Som Sistema – Sound of Kuduro

I’m quite sad that I only came across this song and video recently although it was released about a year ago. It means I could have enjoyed it that much sooner. To be honest, despite my scouring of Youtube for various kinds of global dance there is really nothing I’ve seen recently (okay, maybe the Kurdish Halay dancers) that has blown me away like this clip of Angolan breakdancers. Add MIA into the mix and whoa, I’m out of words!

De que parte?

My grandfather’s letter to his carnal, 1946

When I was in elementary school (Hillcrest Elementary in Monterey Park) I was often asked the question: “What are you?” Sometimes I would act coy and answer “What do you mean?” but I knew what they meant. Then they’d ask “What’s your nationality?” and I’d say “American” but I knew that wasn’t the answer they wanted. Then they said “No, your parents.” And I’d say “They’re American too.” After being surprised by that answer they would finally ask “Aren’t you Mexican?” And I’d answer “Yes” but thinking to myself : Of course, I’m Mexican. The whole school is filled with Mexican and Chicano kids with the odd Cuban or Central American kid thrown in. The rest of the students were Asian and I’m sure they weren’t asked such questions.

Then I would get asked the question that I’d been really trying to avoid in the first place “What state of Mexico is your family from?” There is no Mexican that has not been asked this question, I even ask it to other Mexicans myself. I’ve always felt awkward answering though because my family has been here for a few generations and I have no real ties to any state in Mexico. I have no grandparents to visit, no Mexican cousins, no houses to visit during the holidays and yet I had to give an answer. I would reply “My mother’s family from Sonora and my father’s family from Michoacan.” Then there’d be this “Oh” as if my response said everything they could possibly want to know about me. In Mexican culture the state you are from is a big deal and there are enough cultural variations in each state for this assessment to be real.

For instance, I’ve always had a slight prejudice against people from Guadalajara, Mexico. Perhaps it’s been because most of the folks I’ve met from Guadalajara here in Los Angeles tend to have more money and also more European heritage which I think makes them slightly snobby. Lately too, as I’ve been doing research on my family genealogy and history, I’ve really come to identify with the states of my maternal great grandparents: Sonora, Durango and Chihuahua. So perhaps, that’s influenced my preference for the northern states.

My paternal grandfather’s family has always been a bit of a black hole. The story passed down to me was my paternal grandfather was deported soon after my father was born and not allowed back into the US. My grandmother told me she was in love with my grandfather but her parents objected to their relationship and kept them apart. They weren’t married when my father was born. She told me my paternal grandfather would send letters but my grandmother’s father threw them away and eventually the tenuous lines of communication faded away.

After asking my dad a million times for info about his father, I finally got it out of him that he had some of these letters. I was thrilled! What secrets would I uncover? Would the mysteries and the countless fictional narratives I’ve created around this man finally be resolved? I’m still working my way through the letters and there’s quite a bit to analyze and decipher. I’ve been impressed by my grandfather’s writing skills, for a laborer/farm worker (perhaps he’d been more) he’s very articulate.  It’s also interesting to notice the language variation between when he writes to my grandmother in a flowery and romantic way and the letter to his “carnal” (above) which is infused with border lingo.

The most shocking discovery about my grandfather’s past and one I would never have dreamed of, is that he and his family are from Guadalajara! My prejudices come back to haunt me. I knew he was from Jalisco but because he has always been so mysterious to me, I just assumed it might not be totally true. Guadalajara is where he finally returned after his unsuccessful attempts to make it to the US. There are few letters from a prison in Texas where he was kept after being caught trying to cross. Many sore spots surrounding his non-existence in my family’s life still persist, things better left unsaid on a public blog. My mother and father did try and look for him once in Guadalajara but their attempts were as unsuccessful as my grandfather’s border crossing skills.

According to the letters my grandfather and great-grandmother lived at this address:
Familia Ybarra-Ramos
Calle Independencia 110
Guadalajara, JAL, 44100, Mexico

Perhaps one day I will make a pilgrimage to Guadalajara and search the city for familiar faces.

excerpt from letter:

Pues yo cria que te avain castigado duro la migracion. Pero veo que eres invunerable y no hay frontera que se te cierre.

The border that isn’t

San Francisco trash can. Caution, items may escape.

This weekend in San Francisco I was asked a couple of questions that sort of surprised me and for one reason or another have lingered in my thoughts.

Someone asked me if I was Native American but they meant north of the US border native. It’s a common enough question but still interesting that the border still somehow defines a “regular” Native American person from an indigenous person in Mexico. I recognize no borders when it comes to my pre-European heritage.

Another person after hearing me speak for a few minutes asked me if I was from New Mexico. To this person’s ears my heavy vowel and soft consonant accent reminded them of their family from the region. Do Chicanos in the Bay Area not have accents? Anyways, I explained the accents are similar because they are derived from border languages of Spanish and indigenous dialects that moved west with folks from New Mexico, Arizona, Sonora and Chihuahua. But the accent here in Los Angeles is changing. It’s only the old-timers that speak like George Lopez nowadays. Glad to hear it’s alive and well in the ranchos of New Mexico.

Interesting that both of these simple questions brought up many more issues of identity than I was prepared to deal with at the time. Don’t ask me these kinds of things while I’m enjoying a beer, unless you’re prepared for a brutally honest response or a long, rambling answer.

The Year In Books: History of the Crypto-Jews in Mexico


History of Crypto-Jews in Mexico

I’ve previously mentioned my research into my family genealogy and the history of the Southwest. Through genealogical DNA testing it was discovered that my grandfather shares a DNA sequence with those that consider themselves Cohanim, a patrilineal Jewish priestly caste believed to be descended from the biblical Aaron. When I received this news, I was floored! As strange as it seemed to me at the time, Mexicans with Sephardic Jewish heritage are not as uncommon as I might have believed, especially in the Southwest. Around the time Columbus bumped into the New World (which was really the “One World” to a good chunk of my ancestors), Spain decided to kick out all the non-Christians from it’s kingdoms. That meant that communities of Moors and Jews who had lived together for centuries were all of a sudden forced to uproot themselves or convert to Christianity.

The diaspora of Muslims and Jews spread across Europe and North Africa. The conversion to Christianity wasn’t always a safe bet either, these conversos as they were known were often persecuted and hounded. Some were spied on and once caught practicing their old religion were brutally punished. Then the Inquisition started and it was bad news for conversos. Large number of Jews fled to Portugal where they were tolerated for the most part – the skills they brought with them were valuable and needed. Eventually, the King of Portugal with pressure from Spain decided to kick the Sephardic Jews out of his country too.

It is believed some Andalusian Jews and Moors mixed in with the recently arrived communities of Gypsies/Roma. There is little hard evidence (that I’ve found) to back up this theory but a look at the faces of modern Calós (Gypsies of Spain) is evidence of the blended heritage of this ethnic group.

The New World seemed like the most practical place to flee from the growing persecution of the Inquisition. According to official documents, a great number of conversos and other Portuguese and Spanish of sketchy heritage fled to New Spain (almost all of North America was considered New Spain at the time) . One of the most famous of these conversos was the founder of the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, Luis de Carvajal y Cuevas and his nephew Luis de Carvajal (El Mozo). Unlike other conversos who practiced their religion covertly, El Mozo openly declared himself Judizante (Jewish) and was taken in by the long arm of the Inquisition as it expanded it’s reach across the Atlantic. The Carvajal family are most remembered because they were actually burned at the stake in 1596 for the crime of practicing Judaism. Due to the increased scrutiny converso and crypto-Jewish families received in Mexico City and other populated places, there was a push to move to the outer reaches of the New Spanish territory. The book To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico is an academic study researching the crypto-Jewish heritage of New Mexico’s founders. Most of the evidence for this theory is circumstantial, people are determined to have crypto-Jewish heritage based on such factors as having Portuguese ancestors or palling around with known New Christians/conversos. References to lifestyle habits are scrutinized and studied and documented in order to determine New Christian and hence Jewish ancestry such as bathing on Friday and relaxing or hiding out on Saturdays (the Sabbath).

One may ask, how prevalent was this Sephardic heritage in the history of Mexico and the Southwest? The answer leads to a number of very interesting theories and investigations…

[Part two]

Dia de los Muertos: Altars

Altar dedicated to my grandmothers and some favorite revolutionaries: Emma Goldman, Zapata and Phoolan Devi, 2008.

Both my mother and grandmothers have always had different kinds of altars in the house, some have been religious and others, just a pleasing way of placing favorite objects. Until I was an adult I didn’t give much thought to this tradition, even though I found myself replicating them in my own home. The unusual use of materials and creative placement is what usually catches my eye in other people’s altars. I was already well acquainted with the examples I’ve seen here in Los Angeles – a public altar aesthetic that is familiar to those who attend Chicano produced Dia de los Muertos events i.e. lots of papel picado, glittery, bright colors. In Mexico I was able to see quite a few traditional and native altars or ofrendas (as they are called in Mexico) and have included these photos as examples of the various regional styles.

Private home, Nezahualcóyotl

Ofrenda for the rockeros, El Chopo, Mexico DF

Art Gallery, Oaxaca

Public ofrenda outside of a school, Oaxaca
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Happy Halloween!

In Spain this is what is considered ghoulish. Revenge of the Las Indigenas-Oaxaca

What a difference a year makes! Last year I was sipping chocolate con leche in the beautiful zocalo of Oaxaca, watching the nightly parades of disfraces and bandas as they made their way through the cobblestone streets. This year, I’ve barely had time from work and my commute to even think about Halloween and Dia de los Muertos. For me, this is my holiday season, the time of the year I celebrate, decorate and look forward to. Unfortunately, the weight and responsibilities of daily life and the rat race have rudely interrupted my commitment to festivity. So this year, it’s about memories and I’ll start with photographs from last year’s celebrations in Mexico. Enjoy!

No orange pumpkins for sale

As tempting as they look, only returning ghosts are allowed to partake in these delicacies

Candied squash

Market in Oaxaca

Mercado in Mexico DF

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Los Huehuentones & La Cultura Mazateca

Huehuentones performing in Oaxaca City, Mexico, 2007

Last year, I spent a festive Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca City, Oaxaca. During the week long celebrations, representatives of the various indigenous groups from the region head to the center of the city to perform music and share their cultural traditions, most notably the display of altars. Of all the various musical groups that performed in the zocalo, the group I was most impressed with were the boisterous and playful Mazatecos from Huautla de Jimenez, Oaxaca. They moved through the crowds dancing, singing, hooting and pulling startled European women from the crowd to dance with them. What I especially appreciated about this music, besides it’s liveliness and the awesome masks they perform in, were the violins, as can be heard in the clip I took above. For a longer video of these particular musicians, please see here. (I suggest starting at the three minute mark).

Ventana a Mi Comunidad: Huehuentones

The costumes and masks used in this celebration are part of the Mazateco Dia de los Muertos traditions and are called Huehuentones. The charming boy in the clip above explains (in his native Mazateco and in Spanish) Huehuetones are depictions of gente de ombligo, people from the navel, as they are believed to have sprouted from the center of the earth. The Huehuentones masks depict various animals and other characters and are made from wood, paper mache and tree bark. You can also see the influence of Halloween masks in some of the Huehuentones costumes.

Ventana a Mi Comunidad: Silbando entre los Montes

Mazatecos also have an amazing way of communicating in their mountainous, highland towns, they whistle! The whistling is understood because their spoken language is tonal. In fact, speakers of the various dialects often have trouble understanding each other due to tonal variances. The clip above gives an example of a whistled conversation.

Ventana a Mi Comunidad: Dia de Plaza

This section of video shows a market day in a Mazateco village, narrated by another equally charming boy in his indigenous inflected Spanish. Popular foods of the region are chayote, yucca, yams, achiote, guavas and various other fruits and vegetables that I am unfamiliar with, including a giant seed pod filled with cotton ball looking sweet fruits. Another interesting fruit is the huasmole which is mashed up and cooked with yerba santa* (an anise like herb) and steamed in banana leaves.

Baile Flor de Naranja, Huautla de Jimenez

However, it is this video above that best reflects a real Mazateco celebration. A simple party in the middle of the house with the soon to be eaten food, including a live turkey, given special honors on the dance floor. The dancing abuelita with the silver trensas is the star of the show and my new hero. Like her, I want to be able to fall on my butt, get up and continue the party! I never want to be too old to dance, sing and laugh.

By the way, Huautla de Jimenez is best known for the infamous Maria Sabina, a curandera who used psilocybe mushrooms in healing vigils called veladas (click for mp3 samples). You might have seen the ubiquitous t-shirts of her smoking a joint, sold at various tourists shop in Mexico.

*If anyone knows where I can buy a yerba santa plant, please tell me. I’ve been looking for ages!

Casa Xochiquetzal

Emergency bar in a combi/mini-bus, Nezahualcoyotl

It’s rare when something can move me to tears…okay, not that rare. I’m a regular crybaby but I couldn’t stop the tears after watching this short documentary on a sex workers retirement home (well, despite their age, some have not yet retired) in the Tepito neighborhood of Mexico D.F. It’s produced by Vice but don’t let that dissuade you, it’s very well done.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three