DENVER – With arms outstretched to the sides and holding a wide green skirt typical of the Mexican state of Jalisco, Carra García Montoya leads a group of about half-a-dozen girls doing turns and skirt work as they prepare to perform at one of the largest cultural events in the state since the coronavirus pandemic began more than two years ago.
Cinco de Mayo — which is not Mexico’s Independence Day — may mean drink specials at the local bar and a chance to don sombrero hats for a few Coloradans, but for Montoya and her family, and the parents of the girls learning ballet folklórico, it’s not just about the dance and the skirts, it’s also about keeping families together and preserving Mexican culture for generations to come.
It’s for precisely this purpose that the Colorado Mestizo Dancers was founded in 1991.
“It's important to the community that they not forget,” said Jacob García, director of the Colorado Mestizo Dancers. “Having a good background of where you came from and what your culture is, it gives you the guideline to your future, to set some good roots and to know where you’re from and what your culture is.”
Growing up in Denver in the 60s, García remembers a time when being brown-skinned was not only discouraged but frowned up in Colorado. Not only was there bullying from peers at school, but the pressure was also palpable at home – García recounts the times his own parents would dissuade him speaking Spanish inside the house as doing so would prevent him from advancing in life and ultimately, from fulfilling the American Dream.
But as he grew older and formed a family, he realized his children had no knowledge of their culture other than the occasional outing to a Mexican restaurant.
“Our children had no Mexican heritage. They knew nothing about Mexican dancing,” García said. “I mean, we’d go out for Mexican food but we just didn’t have any Mexican culture, so we wanted to do something to keep our Mexican culture alive.”
That’s how García, along with Sandy Valdez García — a childhood friend from his neighborhood with whom he would eventually fall in love and marry — started a small dance group at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on West 36th Avenue (in what is now the Highlands neighborhood) before moving from that location about six months later and forming what would later become the Colorado Mestizo Dancers.
The group is so named because it’s made up of mestizos from the San Luis Valley and the New Mexico area – people with Native American, Mexican and European ancestry.
The history of Mexico’s ballet folklórico dates back to the early 1950s, and it’s not just a dance. Embroidered in the many colorful dresses girls and women wear during these performances is also rich history, particularly that of the Mexican Revolution.
“We do a dance named “Jesusita,” and the background story is that war is going on and a bunch of soldiers need help, and a bunch of women get together to help them,” said Idalynne García, a dancer and junior instructor for the group. “(The story shows that) women have pride too and women can be like men, too. They don’t have to just sit at home and cook, they can be out in war.”
Idalynne, Montoya’s daughter, was born into the group 15 years ago and is now teaching the younger generations these same stories through dance, just like her mother and grandmother did before her. For this teenager, Mexican folk dancing provides an avenue to not only stay physically active but also share her culture with friends, family and strangers alike.
“It’s definitely showing who I am and like, I'm not just some girl that's out there that does not know nothing about her culture. I know a lot about my culture because of the dance group,” she proudly states.
And as a parent, it’s events like the Cinco de Mayo festival that Montoya says are so important – not just for the dancers who have not been able to perform for over two years due to the coronavirus pandemic, but for the Latino community as a whole.
“I was raised here in Denver. My family, my parents, were raised here in Denver. It is my history. It is what was important here in Colorado — before it was Colorado, before it was America — and that's important, to keep that alive here despite people moving in and, you know, changing,” she said. “With my daughter being the seventh generation here, I want her to be able to pass this on to her kids because in 20 years, when she does choose to have a family, they need to know the history as well, and we don't want to lose that.”
Something that has been lost over the course of the pandemic, however, has been the group’s dance studio. García said a friend of the dance group offered their salón for free, but when the virus arrived to Colorado, that friend lost her space, and the group lost their studio.
“It’s been really hard to find another place lately,” García says, as he looks toward the children practicing under the former Elitch Gardens carousel house in the Highlands neighborhood. “In the past, we never seemed to have problems finding a community partner who would let us come in and spend a couple of hours teaching class at the gym or at the community center, so we're looking for someone who would be our partner and let us come in to keep this going in the community.”
Montoya shared those sentiments, saying that while it’s been wonderful that they’ve been able to use the community space at the former Elitch Gardens site to practice, the need for a dance studio is paramount.
“Having mirrors on the wall, that’s one thing we miss in a dance studio because the girls, they can’t see themselves and it may feel right to them, but it’s different to be able to see it,” Montoya said.
The floor is also an issue, as cement is really hard on their shoes which have leather soles and nails on the bottom.
“And safety. We’re out here in the elements and if it gets dark or if it rains or if it gets really windy or there’s hail or whatever, we either can’t have class or we all hide under here and wait until it passes,” Montoya said. “This is also a community space, so if the community is using this for the night, then those are nights that we can’t practice and the girls miss out on a week.”
The group doesn’t only perform during the Cinco de Mayo festival in Denver. They perform at other events like the Carnation Festival in Wheat Ridge, at festivals throughout Brighton, Denver’s Parade of Lights and yes, even on Sept. 16 – the real Independence Day celebration in Mexico.
If you’d like to see the Colorado Mestizo Dancers perform, catch them this weekend at the 33rd annual Cinco de Mayo festival. Besides music and dance, there will be Chihuahua races, a taco eating contest, a low rider car show, great eats and drinks, kids’ activities, artisans and crafters, and much more.