Mi Cultura: How It Moved Me

The dictionary defines the word “culture” as “the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group”. While this definition is technically correct, I see it as a kind of one-dimensional resolution of a word that holds so much meaning in just two syllables. I, personally, know that culture is something important and unique in every person. I mean, isn’t it amazing to know that you carry certain traditions and knowledge from different people and places inside you? Some people even have multiple legacies within them! Yet, a lot of individuals, especially in younger generations, see their culture in a one-dimensional way, the way I see the very word’s definition. Although our generation is creating new traditions, and is making amazing changes that our ancestors were not able to accomplish, I also think it’s important for young people like us to explore and hold on to the history and traditions of our heritages. Culture definitely doesn’t define who you are completely, but by exploring it you have the chance to understand your roots to a deeper extent. Doing this can lead you to discover things you may have never known about your family, your heritage, and even yourself as a person. If I hadn’t considered this, I wouldn’t have discovered many of the hobbies and interests I now have, and I wouldn’t have opened my eyes to the rich diversity of the “Mexico” part of my Mexican-American bloodline. This is why I am convinced you should try to learn more about your roots and your culture. I promise that in doing so, one way or the other you won’t be disappointed; I certainly wasn’t.

When I was young, I was aware that I was of Mexican descent. I knew it was something special, as I observed the way my aunts and uncles sang songs like “Cielito Lindo” and prayed in Spanish over and over again at family gatherings. I grew up knowing I was Mexican-American, but I never really quite understood it to a full extent. I was unaware of the rich diversity of my Mexican culture, such as the history behind its music and food, the Mexican role models idolized over the centuries, or the story behind every folkloric dance. You could argue that I was young and that I wouldn’t really understand the importance of culture in an identity at that age. But this feeling of being unfamiliar with my heritage continued as I grew. It wasn’t until my mother enrolled me in both a youth mariachi group and a ballet folklorico group that I realized what kind of beauty I was missing out on.

For a bit of background, I had been playing classical violin for a while when my mom discovered and enrolled me in the Chicago Mariachi Project (CMP for short). She later explained to me that she enrolled me because mariachi and Mexican music is something beautiful and that the songs are more than songs, they are beautiful written poems and she would love to see me learn these songs she grew up with. At the time though, I didn’t fully know what it was. Regardless, I auditioned and got into the beginner’s group. Now, as I mentioned before, I knew and heard certain mariachi songs like “Cielito Lindo”, because these songs were incredibly famous not only in Mexico but across the globe. But when I entered CMP, I realized that there were more songs and styles to Mexican music than what I already knew. As I went to each class, I learned more and more about the history of mariachi music and how it has influenced the culture of Mexico today. My teachers not only taught me how to play and sing the music, but how to feel it too. Through the music they were teaching me, I was able to discover mariachi singers I had never even heard of, but who are now my idols. One of these artists was Linda Ronstadt, who was of Mexican descent but didn’t really speak Spanish. Yet, despite this, she recorded many albums where she sang mariachi songs that her father taught her. She sold millions of records, and touched many people, especially the people of Mexico. As I grew, I have found that aspects of her story remind me of myself. Much like her, as I began to sing in Spanish and listen to the music of Mexico, I grew closer to and discovered more about my parents’ culture. I even improved on my own Spanish speaking and social skills. Every time I walked into the music classroom for a three hour class on a Saturday morning, I didn’t feel forced. I felt free and eager to learn about this type of music that I had never really looked into. I became so determined to learn the music well that I practiced my violin and singing for hours until I mastered a song. Through this hard work, I found myself rising through each group, from beginners to advanced. Each year I re-auditioned and in my third year, I got put into the advanced group.

When I entered the advanced group, I thought I had already learned almost everything about the music of Mexico. Boy, was I wrong. Our group studied more songs that I never would have discovered had it not been for CMP. And, between studying these songs and all styles of mariachi, I also went on life-changing trips with my group. The first trip I went on was to Washington D.C. in January 2019. We were invited to play for the inauguration of Congressman Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. I remember everything so clearly, and I will never forget the opportunity I got to not only play for a congressman, but also tour the capitol. It was amazing, but honestly, nothing compared to the second trip I went on. In the summer of 2019, we went to the Mariachi Convention of Albuquerque, New Mexico. There, I got to learn from famous musicians who were or still are part of award-winning mariachi bands. I got to observe these professionals play and sing in a way that was superior to any YouTube video. I also got to see famous mariachi singer Aida Cuevas in a live concert, as folkloric dancers danced alongside her. Another amazing part of the Albuquerque trip was the bonding and friendships I made. The group members of the advanced group and I weren’t really close, as we only really saw each other for classes and performances. But this experience caused me to step out of my comfort zone, and now a lot of those group members are good friends. All in all, that trip changed me the most because of the lectures given to us. We attended many of them over the course of the trip which taught me not only about the history of mariachi but Mexico as a whole. 

Mariachi is not the only thing that has led me to be passionate about my culture. When I was in fourth grade, my mother enrolled me in a dance program. My school had recently formed a Mexican folkloric dance group called “Ballet Folklorico Estrella del Mar”, and although I had never heard about “folklorico”, I joined without a beat. I had already had a positive experience with mariachi, maybe this would be interesting, too? Exploring my culture would come to change me yet again. The dance group focused on the classic dances of Mexico from each state within the country, as well as basic dancing techniques. And honestly? I never ever remembered hating any of it. No matter how tiring it got, or how competitive the dances were at times, I enjoyed the experience entirely. I got to bond with people from my own school in ways that I wouldn’t have before, because we all shared that common love for dancing. Thanks to this program I got to watch one of the best folkloric groups in the world, the Ballet Folklorico de Amalia Hernández, perform live when they came to Chicago. I also got to perform all over Chicago, put on authentic dance costumes, and do makeup that was outrageous but beautiful. But what I loved most was how after every performance, my mother would tell me about her days dancing ballet folklorico in Mexico. She would always give me tips on how to improve, and remind me of techniques they taught her at my age.

Now, I learned many other things about my culture from school history and YouTube videos. But the reason I am writing about my experiences in mariachi and dance is to show you, my readers, how exploring your roots and nationalities can lead you to learn more about yourself and your family. My own experiences above aren’t even the half of how much my life has changed since I decided to look a bit deeper into my Mexican nationality. Had it not been for my mother and father pushing me to explore my culture through first signing me up for mariachi and then folkloric, I wouldn’t have learned about traditions that are actually still upheld in Mexico, and that people like me and my mariachi and dance groups are working to carry on here in America. 

Honestly, this subject was not easy to write about or describe on paper. It’s difficult to persuade someone to try and look more into their roots and culture if they view it with a closed mind. I would understand, as it took a couple of mariachi classes for me to actually open my eyes to the bigger picture. But, I promise you, by learning more about your heritage and where your family comes from, you won’t be disappointed. You don’t necessarily have to go on and join certain groups the way I did. But you can always ask your parents and relatives about your family’s story and the history of where you are from, something I wish I would have done earlier. It’s always better late than never. In doing this, you are carrying on traditions in your own way through stories. And if your parents do sing you up to join a type of group related to your culture, be open-minded and try it. Even cooking a dish native to your nationality is a way to learn more about it. In the end you could end up with life experiences you may never forget; take my word for it.

Lauren Alfaro – St. Ignatius – DMSF

“A NATION’S CULTURE RESIDES IN THE HEARTS AND IN THE SOUL OF ITS PEOPLE.”

-Mahatma Gandhi

Photo: BALLET FOLKLÓRICO DE MÉXICO

Link to a Linda Ronstadt performance: https://youtu.be/g95cHSQ8qUI