As part of the media team at Danzantes Unidos, I captured some shots at Danzantes Unidos Festival 2016 that took place in East Los Angeles. These are highlights of three nights of showcase performances.
I saw the shadow of my bicycle from tree to tree as I rode atop the Los Angeles Riverbed between the 105 and the 91 freeway going south. I saw the silhouette of a little girl riding her bike on an afternoon sunset after she finished her homework and had dinner, and I remembered. I had not ridden my bike here probably for the past six years. The smell, the river scent, the industrial feel, the dry river, all felt the same.
I rode parallel to Banana Park where I grew up and lived the first twenty years of my life. I lived on the east side of the river, in The Sans, the worst neighborhood in Paramount, so they would say. Parallel to the river, parallel to the 710 freeway, I passed under Somerset Boulevard, to my right, I passed the Compton Golf Course, went past the Home Depot, past the empty lot of land—empty since I could remember—past the horse stables, past the wooden houses underneath Atlantic Boulevard bridge that connects Long Beach and Compton, past the edifices made of cargo containers that probably entered the Port of Long Beach, and then past the graffiti mural walls behind some factory, and into a darkness.
I rode through the underpass of the 91 freeway, a vast dark area the size of a hardware store with a dirt ground. Gang graffiti outlined the walls—it has always been there. Gang members operated there, for they were often underneath the bridge. I remember the feeling riding my pink bike that my dad bought me at Paramount Swap Meet, or at a yard sale when I was around 8 years old. The sight produced a feeling of fear. Anxiety. Paranoia. A gun shot going off. Falling. Dead. I would pedal as fast as my legs could give. It always seemed eternal passing through this underpass. The senses were vibrant and present: the smell of damp earth, white crusty bird poop sprinkled on the bike path underneath the freeway where the birds housed their nests, a chicken fence outlined the bike path, and the sound of the 91 freeway above me echoed loud in this empty dark space. The rush of cars above me made the ground seem to shake. The wind pressed against my face and a hundreds of mosquitoes splattered on my face, holding my breath to not inhale them in; they crashed into my eyes and fluttered for freedom as they stuck to my eyelashes. I pedaled faster than any other place. I did not care that my legs burned. This was about life. I felt an immeasurable fear as a little girl, but I refused to not go through it. It wasn’t fair that someone else, something else could keep me from going through, from traversing to the other side. And I did. I sped as I went up the ramp to see the south side of the path leading to Long Beach. And I breathed again as if I had held my breath underwater this whole time. I breathed liberty, fresh air. Blood rushed through me, an adrenaline to my feet, and I was close to flying.
The river bed does not look the same as before, as it did 10 or 15 years ago. A wall four feet high, now outlines the bike path on the side of the river. I remember the days as a little girl, living right by Banana Park, my sister, my cousins and I would go over to the riverbed and go down to the river, only a few inches of a dense brownish composite, that could not be water.
Our cousins, Rocky and Abraham sometimes brought dead animals up from the river, poking at them with sticks. We’d crowd over it and observe. We must have been fascinated at some aspect of this act, wonderstruck at our keen observing. I wonder what joy we obtained from this, or why was it that we did it.
Other times, as we were older, Laura, my sister and I would leave the house after disputes with our family, tensions, or before tears could burst out of our eyes in front of each other. We’d go outside and walk up to the riverbed. We’d sit at the edge of the bike path atop the riverbed and stare at the setting sun. Sometimes we’d talk about the situation, other times we’d sit in silence. Perhaps to remind ourselves that there was something larger than our present reality.
When I bought my own bike at the age of 18, after any strong sentiment, I’d get on my bike and ride up to the bike path and race as fast as my legs could give, as fast as the strong emotion–mostly anger, frustration, stress, anxiety–would last. It was liberating. I felt like I could run forever sometimes. I always loved the feeling of feeling like I could run away. In that time, I’d listen to “Learning to Breathe” by Switchfoot, one of my theme songs during that time, during my bike rides.
These moments in time bend dimensions and 10, 15 years later, I’m able to grasp the notions of my past and my present as I feel the wind again, feel the adrenaline in my veins, see the artful sunset, always a testimony of what it means to live. Now, I don’t bike for those reasons necessarily, or perhaps I do. The experience allows me to reflect on how much I’ve grown. The absence of being here for the past six years, is only a reflection and a testimony that I did leave, I did follow my dreams. I did choose to be fearless and follow my gut, follow what I most desired always: to be free, free to express, free to live, free to want to soar in these “abundant skies.”
It had been years, probably since I was in elementary school, that I had pulled my hair straight back into a bun. I made sure, as I always did, that there were no little cuernitos sticking out. I probably did my hair about five times until it was as slick as it could be. “Parece que te lo lamió una vaca,” I remember my mom telling me those days when I stood in front of her mirror to do my hair, tied with colorful bolitas.
Ever since I turned seven, I did not let my mom touch my hair. I always felt uneasy with all the cuernitos, the little hairs sticking out of my pony tail. But that day, at 21 years old, my hair stood as slick as it ever did as I got ready alone in one of the backstage green rooms. I was in front of a mirror getting ready for my first Folklorico performance. I could hardly breathe. I did not know if it was because I had tightened my red skirt so tight, or because of the nerves of performing for the first time in front of a few hundred people at the Stevenson Event Center at UC Santa Cruz. My hands shook as I applied saturated hues of pink and purple eyeshadow on my eyelids. I dabbed my my cheeks with pink powder.
Throughout the whole process, I occasionally found myself staring at my own reflection, wondering if the person I kept looking at was really me. I kept staring, trying hard to convince myself that this wasn’t the child staring at herself in front of mami’s tocador anymore. It was another person. I stared at myself as if I was an infant realizing for the first time that I had a reflection.
I grew up with very conservative and overprotective parents. It took a long time and a lot of courage to put on makeup. Heck, I’m sure I put it on wrong the few years of wearing it during high school. I only tried to feel a bit beautiful.
At the age of fifteen, after my quinceañera en Jalisco, I got away with wearing a little bit of mascara. Getting ready in front of my Nina’s mirror in the mornings, Mama Conchita from México would always tell me, “Cuando se ponen maquillaje las muchachas, se vuelven feas,” prolonging the vowels in feas. What did she know? She’s from un rancho, she had never even worn makeup. I tried to proceed with another layer of mascara before mami passed by and saw me. “Ya. No te pongas tanto. Vas a parecer payasa.” I remember staring at my eyelashes, barely noticeable, and I wondered if that is really how I looked, like a circus clown. My eyelashes were so thin, that wearing mascara barely made me look as if I had any.
Caminábamos por la colonia Benito Juarez to catch el camión to el centro. As we walked, we heard whistling. Some muchachos who were around our age were whistling at my sister and me. Oh, how I wanted to hide! How I wish I had not worn mascara. Estaba llamando la atención, like mamá had warned me. I felt my dad’s condemning stare, first aimed at the boys, and then turning towards me and my sister. We sat near a window inside the bus. My father stood at the edge of the two seats as if to guard us. He stared down at Laura and me, his face so serious. The only thing I could think was that I should have not worn makeup. I did not want to be pretty anymore. I felt so unease. I tried to rub off some of the makeup, pretending my eye was itchy.
Now I was at UC Santa Cruz, putting on fake eyelashes. It was all about accentuating your features, we had been told during the makeup tutorial. I continued staring at myself, but I could not formulate an opinion on how I looked. My mother wasn’t there behind me this time, walking by as I got ready to make sure I didn’t look like someone who wanted to grow up fast like all the other niñas, or that I wanted to allure men. Válgame Dios, que no me mirara que quería llamar la atención de los hombres porque esos no mas estaban viendo a ver con quien. For my parents, my innocence was the only thing that would save me from maldición. I wonder now if my mother ever felt free to feel pretty. In her world, feeling good about yourself, owning how you want to look, feel, was shameful.
I was almost done. I started at my reflection, a serious face stared back. Why was I so serious? I had waited for this moment all my life, to dance, to dance Folklorico. I examined the red roses adorning my trenza, my neck adorned with the Sinaloa blouse, golden arracadas dangling from my ears. I almost couldn’t recognize the woman in the mirror; the only thing familiar was my serious face, the same face I’d have after mama’s or abuelita’s comments or dad’s condemning gaze. I remembered the feeling of shame back in those days.
“10 minutes before we go on,” I heard our dance director call.
I felt the rush. Only one thing was missing. With shaking hands, I opened the seal of my Loreal red lipstick. Perfectly new. I had never seen such a saturated and smooth hue of red. I had never worn any type of color on my lips; I stared at the natural amarth pink hue of their delicate skin, their thin shape. I wonder if in the developmental face, my lips formed this way from the stigma of wanting to feel beautiful, from the tense feeling of being noticed and condemned by my parents. My lips had internalized all of this: they shied away from being noticed, from speaking truth, being kissed, sharing secrets. But now, in that moment, blood rushed to them, their color no longer defined by someone else.
I began with my left upper lip. The scarlet consistency painted my lip like a smooth oil paintbrush onto a canvas. I began from the center to the left side, making sure I didn’t go past my natural lip outline. The bright camerino tungsten lights fought with the bright red, red like the color of Snow White’s lips, red like that red apple she bit, red like the color of things that stain. But no, this red was different. It wasn’t malicious. This red had grace. I proceeded to the top right lip. Then the same to the bottom. The contour was perfect. My lips were beautiful. Lovely. Dramatic. Alluring. Alive.
Nothing in my face had ever been accentuated like my red lips. I felt a joy spring from within. I felt beautiful. The joy gave way to a smile, like red curtains being opened for the audience anxiously waiting to see what lies behind them, never able to imagine the wonder that awaits them, a sight to be amazed. Yes, my smile was radiant. I was radiant and glowed like the light. It was my time to feel beautiful.
Today, what I remember most from that day are the gritos, los chiflidos, the bright lights, la música, la energía que surgía dentro de mí, the ever-present passion finally feeling free.
And my smile. Red. Radiant. Proud.
I was beautiful.
Inspired by “Shades of Red,” by Jasminne Mendez.
Camera hung on on my neck.
I reached for my camera as I saw the singularity of miscellaneous items at the stand across the street from me.
que año tras año se enraíza en mí
tu barro sangriento entre mis manos
arroyos empedrados que cruzan mis pies
al contemplar tu cielo azul
como una pluma de ave me siento
volando sobre tu verde paraíso eterno
respiro la simplicidad del existir
El olor a queso seco y canela recien cocida impregnan el aire y mi ropa. Como mi tostada de frijol con guacamole, chile y mi queso seco asado en el comal. Durante la cena, escucho a mi abuelo contar de cuando se perdió en un aguacero y se fue rodando con una piedra bajo un barranco, para que después llegara a su casa para encontrar a su mamá y tías ya rezando el rosario para que Dios lo tuviese en su gloria. Compartimos unas buenas carcajadas. Acabo de tomar mi canela con leche. Después de una larga charla, les doy las buenas noches con un abrazo y una sonrisa en mi corazón.
Hoy fue el primer día que documento los escritos e historias que cuenta Guadalupe Castañeda Rivas. Mi abuelo escribe sobre su experiencia creciendo en Milpillas de Allende.