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Celebrating culture and breaking the myth of the Latinx monolith

Celebrating culture and breaking the myth of the Latinx monolith

Editor’s Note: Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15-Oct. 15, was established by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 to celebrate the cultures and folks from Latin America. While progressive then, the recognition also imposed a damaging image of homogeneity onto a diverse group of South, Central, and North American Latinx peoples, further marginalizing Indigenous and Afro Latinx communities. In efforts to rewrite this narrative, El Tecolote interviewed leaders of Chavalos de Aquí y Allá and Tradición Peruana, two organizations who participated in Calle 24’s “Fiesta de las Américas.” In sharing their stories, we hope to recognize what Latinx communities have always known: only by recognizing difference can we achieve unity. 

“Every time that I have gone or moved places, I have tried to look, as we always do… for community,” said Diana Aburto Vega, artistic director of Danzas por Nicaragua at Chavalos, an organization that promotes Nicaraguan cultural arts and provides humanitarian aid to transnational Nicaraguan communities. 

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Vega danced folklore professionally in Nicaragua before immigrating to the United States and later moving to the Bay Area, where she began dancing with Chavalos in 2010. 

Vega describes dance as both “the highest expression of [Nicaraguan] culture” and “a form of community outreach.” “We try to stay as authentic as possible when it comes to all of our artistic expressions and representations,” Vega explains. To do this, Vega incorporates Nicaraguan paintings, drawings, and pottery into performances and coordinates artistic exchanges, inviting Nicaraguan artists living domestically and abroad to perform in San Francisco. This accuracy “creates that linkage to the audience…and has extended that community and that family,” Vega said. 

The group Chavalos Danzas por Nicaragua performs at Fiesta de las Américas, an event organized by Calle 24, in San Francisco’s Mission District on Sept. 18, 2021. Photo: Katherine Castillo

However, Chavalos’ work continues beyond its cultural programming. During COVID-19, Chavalos collaborated with Mission Meals to feed those most impacted by COVID-19. The Mission Meals and Chavalos team “were like líderes de campesinos that started feeding the community,” Vega remembers. “That was something quite beautiful…we kept everything safe, everybody fed, and everybody…culturally fed as well.” 

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Holistic community care is central to Chavalos’ mission. Vega compares the organization’s outreach to a tree’s branches; equal importance is given to the creative and physical needs of the Nicaraguan community. During COVID-19, Vega said, “the artistic expressions and cultural events are what kept us together, are what allowed us to continue linking up, to continue making community.” 

The group Chavalos Danzas por Nicaragua performs at Fiesta de las Américas, an event organized by Calle 24, in San Francisco’s Mission District on Sept. 18, 2021. Photo: Katherine Castillo

Still, doing the work is difficult. Chavalos relied heavily on the generosity of volunteers to grow and gain sufficient visibility to receive grants and sponsorships. Yet, the passion of Chavalos’ members sustains the organization. Chavalos’ staff includes mituliracial Nicaraguans, those who immigrated from Nicaragua, and Nicaraguans who were born in the U.S., but “if there’s one thing in common that we all have,” Vega said, “it’s that love for Nicaragua…[that] is the reason why we do this.”

Because she loves her people and country, Vega must confront the reality that after 200 years of Nicaraguan independence, “the political crises that are happening in our country definitely do not represent anything that is [in line] with independence.” Nicaragua’s history of political instability and oppression of Indigenous peoples leads Vega to define independence in her own terms. “I came to the conclusion that freedom for us Nicaraguans exists within us right now. [Independence exists] if we can continue to celebrate who we are, in our heritage, in our background, and in what’s within us, not necessarily because we feel independent or because we are free.”

The group Chavalos Danzas por Nicaragua performs at Fiesta de las Américas, an event organized by Calle 24, in San Francisco’s Mission District on Sept. 18, 2021. Photo: Katherine Castillo

Vega reminds her dancers that “this is the work that we do 365 days a year: celebrate our Latinidad. It’s not just this month.” However, she also urges the dancers to remember their histories: “The person who knows their past won’t repeat it.” 

Vega’s own immigration story began with a mission: “to bring Nicaragua to wherever I will go and to whoever I will know.” While Chavalos remains one of few widely-known local organizations furthering Nicaraguan visibility, it hopes, through continuing cultural programming and humanitarian aid, to create space for future Nicaraguan cultural organizations. 

Juan de Dios Soto—co-director of Tradición Peruana, which promotes Peruvian culture locally through cajón and dance performances—also uses art to cultivate community. Cultural arts function “like a bridge for the community,” Soto explains.

The Tradición Peruana “familia” incorporates Peruvian paintings, sculptures, and photography into exhibits in order to maintain authenticity. A recent event at the Mission Cultural Center retold the history of the cajón, 

“[how] it has travelled the world…[and] how it has served as an important element in uniting various Latino and African communities.” 

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The group Chavalos Danzas por Nicaragua performs at Fiesta de las Américas, an event organized by Calle 24, in San Francisco’s Mission District on Sept. 18, 2021. Photo: Katherine Castillo

Soto learned to drum as a child, a skill transferred “from generation to generation.” For Afro Peruvians, Soto explains, “drumming isn’t solely about drumming…the cajón and la danza, for us, it’s part of our cultural roots.” Dance and cajón connect not only Afro Peruvians to their heritages, but Afro Latinx folks from Haiti, Cuba, and other countries to one another, Soto adds.

The cajón’s transnational history, Soto explains, reflects how “talking about Latino heritage means talking about a world of learning…about the cultures of Indigenous, Black and white people.”  Afro Peruvian identity in particular “is a fusion of Spanish, African and Indigenous cultures,” Soto concludes.

Members of Tradición Peruana pose for a portrait after performing at Fiesta de las Américas in San Francisco’s Mission District on Sept. 18, 2021. Among them, at the center, representing Calle 24 Latino Cultural District, Susana Rojas and Aura Barba, Executive Director and Marketing Coordinator, respectively. Photo: Katherine Castillo

In every exhibit, performance, and program, Tradición Peruana aims to preserve Peruvian culture for younger generations. For Soto, rediscovering the arts and rediscovering community are one: “the arts are intertwined, it’s like one supports the other. Everything goes hand in hand.”  Tradición Peruana’s Carnaval float, for example, contained various design, visual, and performance elements yet remained cohesive.

Finding community was especially crucial during COVID-19, when artists struggled to survive financially. However, Soto recalls how Tradición Peruana learned “other ways of creating…we started teaching classes over Zoom. We began performing shows over Zoom. That’s how we learned to survive.” 

The group Chavalos Danzas por Nicaragua performs at Fiesta de las Américas, an event organized by Calle 24, in San Francisco’s Mission District on Sept. 18, 2021. Photo: Katherine Castillo

The survival of Peruvian culture relies on both funding for cultural arts and collaboration within the Latinx community, Soto states. While Soto’s original mission was to “promote Afro Peruvian culture,” Soto also strives to “bring together a really divided community.”  Soto urges Latinx folks to rid themselves of colonial prejudices and instead “work on building our own community and identity…[and] to accept one another as we are, as Latinos, to accept our roots.” 

The challenge to pursue unity while honoring differences continues to confront the Latinx community. However, as Chavalos de Aquí y Allá and Tradición Peruana illustrate, cultural arts can break the myth of the Latinx monolith, creating space for folks of all races and traditions to honor, remember, and celebrate their heritages. 

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