Last month, the Spirit of Mexico cultural group gave its final performance after 10 years of performing the Mexican Baile Folklorico (folkloric dance) and promoting the cultural education of Latino youth in Winnemucca.
“The mission of our group was to empower our youth by giving them the history and meaning behind Mexican traditions and Folklore dance, and providing an avenue for them to share what they learned with our community through dance,” said Spirit of Mexico group coordinator Lily Avalos.
The Spirit of Mexico group in Winnemucca started through St. Paul’s Hispanic Youth Group in 2009 under Father Don Don de Leon, with Avalos and her mother Angelica Mercado as facilitators. Later the church youth group decided not to continue the Spirit of Mexico and the group continued under the leadership of Mercado, with Avalos as the group coordinator.
The group was formed after youth group members of the Catholic church brainstormed ways to celebrate the annual feast day for Lady Guadalupe celebrated on December 12. The youth decided to raise funds, learn and perform dances for Lady Guadalupe and the church community. After the performance, the group decided they wanted to continue learning dances and performing.
“My mom learned the dance as a child from her father and through a scholarship at a dance academy in Mexico City, which she had to leave after the death of her father when she was eight years old. Baile Folklorico and our heritage has always been a cornerstone in her life and that of our family as well as a passion for the empowerment of our youth,” said Avalos. “Angelica had previously led a Mexican Folklore dance group made up of children in the early ’90s in which I participated, but little did we know the journey we were about to take on with the Spirit of Mexico!”
Avalos said each dance is representative of a specific state in Mexico, with each state having its own cultural traditions, food, music, dance and feast days.
“Over the past 10 years the 110 group members that passed through learned a total of 72 different songs and dances representing 13 Mexican states (Colima, Jalisco, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Michoacan, Sinaloa, Chiapas, Veracruz, Nuevo Leon, Zacatecas, Baja California and Chihuahua),” said Avalos. “Footwork and skirt movement is different for each state, varying from barefoot dances of Michoacan with their history in the indigenous culture to the fast and complicated light tap like steps of Veracruz inspired by the Spanish style of dance.”
Most of the costumes used in the group were handmade by Mercado, which helped ensure that the costumes were authentic in style and that they had the proper weight and movement for various choreographies. It also included sewing fabric skirts for teens and adults, with 100 yards of ribbon on each Jalisco dress, painting flowers on skirts and hand-embroidering flowers. Accessories were mostly made as pieces online were much too expensive and fundraising occurred in the event that a costume needed to be ordered.
Avalos said the biggest requirement of the youth dancers was to be committed, especially once performances were being planned. The kids rehearsed three days per week for two hours each, year-round with most participants attending all three days with the exception of the little kids, who attended one or two depending on their skill level.
Rather than participation or group fees, there was a suggested donation amount of $10 per month per child to help cover insurance costs and allow the practices to be held at the high school.
“Participants were also expected to help with fundraising as needed for costumes and/or when the group took on a fundraiser to help someone in need whether it be a cancer patient or a family facing tragedy, the group would come together to raise funds and help,” said Avalos. “We were very conscious of the need for a healthy activity for low-income families.”
The group performed throughout the years at various events including private parties, weddings, Quinceaneras, retirement parties, community events, school events and non-profit event dinners. The biggest event of the year was the tri-county fair, for which the group spent up to six months preparing for and included 26-30 different dances over the three-day event and up to five different costumes per dance. The group participated in the 2015 Elko Cinco De Mayo festivities and took home an award for their float in the parade.
“I learned that dance and performing can help children and teens at many levels, from their self-confidence, socially and even in their coordination with their sports,” said Avalos. “Seeing the transformation in our dancers from day one being uncertain and shy or completely self-doubting to confidently taking the stage and helping teach others, sharing with them their newfound sense of cultural pride was an amazing experience.”
Mercado said her goal from the beginning was to help local youth discover the beauty of their culture and give them a healthy accessible activity, motivating them to make good choices and stay out of trouble. Her long-term goal was that the youth participated would then mentor other youth in the community, whether it be through a youth group or dance group.
The difficult decision
Avalos said while the Spirit of Mexico has been a great experience, it also requires many volunteer hours of dedication and costume making from herself and her mother. Over the years she said they have had to sacrifice many family celebrations, vacations and events or schedule them around group commitments and practices.
The group has also transitioned to be more of a children’s group, meaning even more time spent making custom-fitted costumes and more time to learn dances. Avalos said her mother spent many years making costumes full-time in the summer along with configuring choreography, researching dance supplies, etc.
“This being a full volunteer position for my mother and myself, we had to decide if we were willing to increase our time commitment even more,” said Avalos. With this new dynamic, we knew children would come through and few would continue through high school as other interests pulled them away as we had seen, so it became a continual cycle of starting from the ground up. Ultimately after 10 years, we made the very difficult decision, it was time to have time for our families and homes.”
“We hope the families that participated will pay it forward, help other youth see the beauty of their culture and the potential they hold to make the world a better place by sharing it! We recently got word that one of our original participants is starting a youth dance group in her community,” said Avalos. “Many are enrolled in college or have recently graduated, we’ve had some participants get married after meeting in our group, some went back to get their GED while participating in our group, some have gone on to join other dance groups as a continued creative outlet and some are in the process of getting their education degrees. They continue to be an example of upstanding Latino youth in our communities and it was an honor to be a part of their story!”