Traditional popular culture means being part of a community that fosters values, customs, traditions and historical memory. They are transmitted from generation to generation and are converted in this manner into patrimony. This mode of transmission is very important for the formation, development and preservation of the identity of a people. The conservation of this patrimony achieves instilling conscience into a community. In this sense, teaching and promotion of cultural values are fundamental for educating the community to maintain its traditions. And, more than anything, all of this is important in a North American context, where the risk of forgetting is greater.
Greetings and welcome María! Tell me about yourself. Where were you born, how long have you lived in Madison, and why Madison?
Well, I’m the child of Mexican parents. I was born in the United States, in Minnesota. My parents were immigrants. We lived for some years in different states, and eventually we came here to Madison, when I was 14 or 15. There’s 16 of us siblings! I grew up as a migrant, growing up working and traveling throughout the states, accompanying my parents. When the moment came for my parents to retire, and the family kept getting smaller, they decided to settle down here, in Madison. I graduated from the school that I have now spent 25 years working in. I’m very proud to have been born from Mexican parents. I was the smallest, my parents couldn’t work any more, so my parents decided to come to Madison. That way my younger sibling and I were able to study. We lived a poor life, but the little they gave us, they gave with care, love and respect. It was all that we needed. Those infancy and adolescence days were the sweetest and I remember them with love. I’d live them again without changing anything. It was a very clean childhood, peaceful and simple. Because of this it was very beautiful, despite the discrimination in this country. Before it was really apparent; now it’s more hidden.
I got married at 19 years old, we had kids, and I was married for 24 years. My husband, who was also Mexican, knew folklore dances, and that’s how we began to dance in the folklore styles and to create a ballet. We made it so big that we began to travel around all these different parts of Europe. I didn’t know the folklore at all, I grew up here after all. I grew up living a lifestyle that was more American than Mexican, despite the fact that my parents were Mexican.
I had parents that were educated and knew how to educate as well. They taught us how to get ahead, working and doing everything with passion. Now, I’m more than convinced that it doesn’t matter how others view things; if you believe in something, then keep moving forward and life will compensate you for it. You always reap what you sow. Now, discrimination doesn’t bother me and doesn’t matter to me. I’m proud to be Mexican and that’s what I transmitted, and still transmit, to my children. It isn’t a crime to be Mexican. All respect to the American flag, but nobody can take my origin from me. Folklore is important in this sense and my children grew up dancing. Although they do other things now and no longer dance, they continue to view it and are happy that I continue working with it. It’s a lot of work. Everything comes through practice and requires education.
When and how was Ballet Folclórico born?
Ballet Folclórico has been around for 5 years. It began because two girls wanted to learn a dance! They ordered the outfits from Mexico and it grew into a spectacle. The public liked it and lots of people began calling me to teach them. That’s how the ballet was formed. Today it’s considerably big and it’s got it’s renown to it.
What do you want to express with this ballet?
All I want to say is that, simply, just because you’re outside of your country, doesn’t mean you should lose your respect for it. It’s who you are and who will come in the future. And what’s more beautiful than teaching your identity through folklore dances? Above all it’s because lots of our students were born here. They don’t know the folklore. Getting involved in all this means knowing one’s origins. For that reason, I always talk about the history of each dance, so the people dancing know it and where it comes from. Of course, one must recognize that the United States are nice, many of us were born here and will die here. But that doesn’t mean we have to lose our roots. This is what I hope to express.
I know that Mexican folklore, from what I’ve always heard, is the result of a cultural fusion between that of the Aztecs beings transferred through customs brought from Europe, Africa and the United States. Could you confirm it for me? What type of dances are danced in your group and how do you create the choreography?
Yes, I can confirm it. Each state in Mexico has its own dances, and origins. For example, the state of Veracruz has Spanyard influence. I danced for 20 years, through which I learned all of the dances. I took classes from important dancers and continue to grow as a dancer. The steps are all the same, the music is the same as always, and the choreography I change to my style. For little girls, I start by teaching easier dances. For bigger students, I teach them more difficult ones. It’s like a ladder.
How hard is it to fight against the creation of stereotypes, like La Bamba for example, so that the true Mexican culture shines through, without falling into the trope of copying choreographies that are focused on making money, globalization and the standardization of communities?
Simply by representing all of the states of Mexico in the best way that I can. We do this through dance, the outfits, and now through pamphlets that explain each song, what it means, and the type of dress as well. For example, La Bamba comes from the state of Veracruz and is the result of mixing Seguidillas and Fandangos from Spain with Zapateados and Guajiras from Cuba. The female outfit includes lots of variations from Spanish origins.
Maintaining traditions also means fighting against innovation. What do you do? How hard is it?
It’s difficult. It requires a lot of work and lots of patience. You have to put your passion into it to maintain a tradition.
How many people participate in your ballet? How many children still want to folklore dance? Do you only have Mexican students, or are there also other Latinos? What age do your students have?
Since I’m the only person that teaches and runs everything, I have about 15 girls. The majority are of Mexican origin, at least from the paternal or maternal side. All are between 5 and 17 years old. It’s important that it’s a small group. I require seriousness and l am serious in what I do. I like to work well and to focus on all the girls in the same manner. That way I can divide them by age and give them the opportunity to be on stage. I give all of them my time. For anybody that wants to join, I let them come practice and see and then we talk. Often, girls come because their parents want them to dance, not because they want to. If I can tell that they don’t really want to dance, I prefer to say no.
Speaking of Mexican culture and immigration… What has been, and still is, the role of Ballet Folclórico within your own integration process into Madison?
It’s very important. But, sometimes I get sad because I think that something could happen to these families, to the parents of these girls that were born here. I try to not think about it, to move forward and dance so that the girls will also not think about it. We are living through hard times, where something big could happen at any moment, so I try to take this fear away from them.
How has the Madison community received the Ballet?
Really well. Lots of people call me and more and more people are recognizing it. Lots of companies call so we can come dance for them.
What are some disappointments?
Wardrobes are really expensive and we as a ballet have tried to fundraise in Madison, but there’s no help. At least not enough of it. What a shame! Because they don’t understand how important it is. There are people that help us, but it could be a lot greater, considering how Madison is a wealthy city.
I don’t ask for money, I ask for donations, because I’m not here to make money. Plus, I don’t want the money for myself, but to help parents pay for the wardrobe.
What’s the most satisfying part about running your Mexican dance group?
I love seeing the girls dance. They are my pride and joy, and only for this reason is it worth moving forward.
What would you like to say to the Latinxs reading this interview?
That ballet will push us forward, that it’s here to represent Mexico and we shouldn’t forget it!
For the people that would like to get in contact with María Díaz’ Ballet Folclórico, how can they reach you?
We’re on facebook under the name ‘María Díaz Ballet Folclórico. My number is (608)-417-0593 and our e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you María for remembering the beauty of folklore dance and the importance of reviewing history so that we understand what we are today. We are who we are and no one can take that from us.