Why do people leave their homeland? What hardships do immigrants endure or experience? How do families handle the separation? How do you navigate a new language and culture without forgetting your roots and heritage?
These are some of the questions that choreographer Elisa de la Rosa asked herself and her collaborators when they began to work on Tortillas y lágrimas (Tortillas and Tears). The multimedia project ran April 6 and 7 at Teatro Bilingüe de Houston.
De la Rosa’s family has its own immigrant story. In the 1950s, her grandparents left Mexico for Texas. They were not fleeing persecution or seeking asylum; they came to have a better life for herself and her children. Their journey involved hardships as they made their way to their new home.
Contemplating this story is what planted the seed for de la Rosa’s ambitious performance piece. Tortillas y lágrimas is a dance concert that is inspired by her research about Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the United States.
Joining her on the journey to bring the dance concert to fruition were students from MacArthur Ninth Grade School and MacArthur High School. The young dancers form part of the De La Rosa Dance Company. De la Rosa is the company’s artistic director and choreographer. She is also the dance educator at the ninth grade campus.
She also collaborated with filmmaker Kassandra Sánchez-Alvarado to merge dance improvisation with digital media. The duo previously worked together. De la Rosas’ Inmigrante includes a dance film documenting the process of migrating across the Rio Grande made with Sánchez-Alvarado. The film was shown at the Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston or the MATCH on October 3, 2017. Inmigrante centers on the sacrifices made by Mexican immigrants. The film was incorporated into Tortillas y lágrimas.
Tortillas y lágrimas was de la Rosa’s thesis presentation. De la Rosa will soon graduate with a master of fine arts in dance from Montclair State University in New Jersey. Professor and dance director Lorraine Katterhenry reviewed Tortillas y lágrimas. The hour-long performance included 12 dances scenes. It proved to be a culmination of de la Rosa’s experimentations with improvisation, Aztec dance aesthetics and digital imagery.
Highlights included the solo “Paloma Negra“ (Black Dove) by guest artist Vanessa Martínez. The dance is about unrequited love that turns into the realization that she — the black dove — can stand alone on her own strength and will. Martínez’s dance is beautifully choreographed using feistiness and anger to transform pain into strength. Martínez is a dance teacher at Aldine Ninth Grade School.
The eighth performance in the set of dances is a huapango titled “Redoblando.” Huapango is one of the most representative Mexican genres and more difficult to execute due to the mastery that must be had in the handling of the instruments. The dancers invited everyone on stage to dance creating a united community.
Food is a major component of the immigrant experience and of Tortillas y lágrimas. People miss the food from their hometowns. They hold on to memories of family meals, parties and elaborate farewell dinners.
Maíz (corn) has been the base of the Mexican diet since its cultivation in the pre-Hispanic era. For the ancient Mexicans, corn is the very material with which the human race was created.
The tradition of the tortilla of pre-Hispanic origin dates back from between 1500 BC and 1200 BC with the process called nixtamalization. The labor-intensive process involves the selection, cooking and soaking of corn to obtain an alkaline solution to separate the outer husk of the grain and impregnate it with vitamins and minerals to create a highly nutritious product that is ground and transformed into batter for the tortillas. For the Mexican food aficionado, the result smells of harvest, history and alchemy.
It is not unusual to hear immigrants say that it is impossible to find a decent corn tortilla in the U.S. Perhaps they miss the hand-made, fresh tortillas. Even within families there is always a debate as to who makes the best tortillas.
In the “Tortillas y lágrimas” dance, a table holds center stage as the heart and center of family and life. The dinner table is a place of solace and community. It is what binds the family together. It is where the matriarch communicates and holds ultimate power. It is over dinner and tortillas where stories are exchanged, secrets revealed, tears spilled and dreams begin.
At one point at the dinner table, the dancers use a lazo (lasso) to connect to each other. There is real struggle in these moments as the ideas of inner conflict and journey are conveyed. The lazo is used in many Mexican wedding ceremonies. The loops made with the lazo are symbolic of love that binds the couple as they share the responsibility of marriage. It could also be interpreted as “the ties that bind” a family, no matter the distance between them.
Crystal Reyes-Reyna, another guest artist, gave a heartfelt, emotional performance in “Un viejo amor” (An Old Love). She reminisces about an old love that has left her heart but not her memory. Reyes-Reyna is a former dance teacher at Carver High School.
De la Rosa’s solo in “Inmigrante” was beautiful and compelling as she used the moment to tell her grandparents’ story. She danced in front of the film by the same name that depicts a bleakness and hardship along the dusty fields, railroads and migrant farm workers working under the heat of the sun. To bring comfort and a reminder of her homeland, she wraps herself in a bright, colorful blanket. For Mexico is color. The ancient cultures of Mexico used bold colors and to this day, modern Mexicans still do. Colors express origin, emotion and action.
With a nod toward the ancestors and Mexico’s pre-historic cultural roots, Tortillas y lágrimas ended with “Mundo Azteca.” The celebratory dance was an artistic expression of the cultural spirit of the native people of Mexico. Once again the dancers dressed in ceremonial costumes reminded the audience of the earth and our connection to it.
Of the dance concert, Katterhenry lauded the performances.
“The use of costumes, music, props and dance inspired a real sense of self for the students for the students who took the performance very seriously,” said Katterhenry. “They were committed 100 percent. With de la Rosa at the helm, the students saw a strong woman with a respect for the past and an eye toward the future. She created a community event that allowed for reflection, education, appreciation and celebration.
“The students saw their teacher publicly acknowledge all who helped make the event a reality so that they realize that shows don’t just ‘happen.'”
De la Rosa could not be more proud of her students.
“I am incredibly proud of our students,” said de la Rosa. “They did a phenomenal job!”
Leslie Magallanes Bocanegra
Crystal Reyes Reyna
Elisa de la Rosa
The De la Rosa Dance Company will bring the project back for an encore this summer at Talento Bilingüe de Houston on June 15 and 16. The shows will start at 8 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at www.tbhcenter.org. Box Office: (713) 222-1213.
Director of Written Communication & Spanish Media
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