Winter is finally really here in LA. It’s cold, the sun is down and I’m muddling my way through a conversation in Spanish with Rocio Arambula, Grandeza Mexicana’s wardrobe mistress. She’s standing in the forest of color that makes up Grandeza’s costume shop, lovingly repairing cloth by hand. Her fingers pick at a seam – behind her, over 100 costumes wait for the company’s upcoming show Diciembre Mexicano. Last time I wrote about Grandeza,I focused on Rocio’s work and the company’s community spirit.
But this day, I met its soul. Emerging quietly from between the dresses, Artistic Director Jose Vences joined our conversation. I’d already heard a lot about Jose. Everyone in his company spoke of him with an air of reverence, emphasizing his perfectionism. I got the sense that this meant exhausting work across the board, with each company member channeling Jose’s level of commitment to build something greater than themselves: to build Grandeza.
Although I had started stitching together a story for this article before meeting Jose, no sooner had I asked my first question then he said, “Hold that thought.” This was a man of vision. Jose had his own story.
“Nobody is a prophet in their own land,” he said. Jose came to the US at my age, and since then has been working to bring folkloric dance from his native Mexico the quality and recognition it deserves. It took coming to the US for him to discover his calling. Ever the perfectionist, Jose talks about adjusting the recipe for the upcoming show every year, since its first presentation in 2009. It’s the only show that makes him cry, he says.
For Jose, Diciembre Mexicano is deeply personal. The name makes no reference to Christmas, because, Jose explains, in Mexico the whole month of December is holy and filled with celebrations and rituals. The show mixes folkloric dancing, choral singing, the devotional art of Lalo Garcia and acted scenes that follow the chronology of celebration, not the chronology of the bible stories. For Jose, it’s not enough to retread the familiar stories. For him, it’s about recreating the feeling of growing up in Mexico in a month when everything is magic. It’s about a visceral experience that brings adults back to their childhood and introduces children to their cultural traditions.
But there’s a difference between tradition and understanding. Part of the purpose of Diciembre Mexicano, the one show in the year in which students from Grandeza’s Academy perform alongside the professional company, is to use dance as a tool for critical inquiry into what youth learn in church, so that they understand not only what they are doing but why. Jose Vences speaks of the Academy as a door to the future. The metaphor is for his company, as youth are prepped to become professional dancers and take their place on the stage, but also for their future as Mexican-Americans whose relationship with tradition will shape the country’s cultural future.
Folklorico dances always end with the Jalisco dance, but not Diciembre Mexicano, which lingers for one last devotional song after the festive Jalisco. Jose acknowledges the many facets of culture and devotion he’s working with, serving Mexicans from many regions who worship in very different Evangelical and Catholic traditions. He talks about different expressions of devotion, from solemn reverence to laughter. His goal is to encompass them all, to give the show resonance with each audience member, to draw out their memories and emotions, to make this show personal.
I shook Jose’s hand and went in to watch the dancers rehearse, somewhat shaken. I was struck by the strength of this man’s personality, at how, even in a brief conversation between racks of brightly colored costumes, he had created another world with his words, a private world from his youth.
I walked back to my car in the dark, contemplating what I’d seen and heard. I knew I’d see them all soon again. Before I left, Jose and the board members who’d shown me in invited me to the show as their guest. I had the feeling of stepping through a barrier. Of being invited into this family’s magical December.
Grandeza Mexicana Folk Ballet’s Diciembre Mexicano performs on December 5 at 7:30 p.m. & December 6 at 2:00 p.m. at Downey Civic Theatre. Tickets are $20-35. Click hereor call (562) 861-8211 for more information.