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A Mexican Christmas in Los Angeles

December 9, 2019

The turkey’s been picked to the bone, Black Friday has passed, and Angelenos are in full swing celebrating the Christmas season. Actually, decorations and lights have already been up for weeks, as the city geared up for a trove of Nutcrackers, holiday parties, and bingeing of all sorts. But in the Hispanic community, the festivities are a little different. Indeed, Christmas in Mexico runs from Dec. 12 to Jan. 6, with one last related bash on Feb. 2.

The season begins with celebrations related to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico, followed by traditions including Las Posadas — from the word for “inns,” meaning a series of processions — and Los Pastores, the so-called “shepherds’ plays.” And of course, there is always plenty of music and dance.

Included among the myriad Hispanic offerings this month were concerts by the Grandeza Mexicana Folk Ballet Company marking its 10th anniversary, and a Merry-Achi Christmas with Sol de México de José Hernández, Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles and Danzarts Sabor Mexico Dance Company.

But there’s still time to see Danza Floricanto/USA, which presents its 15th-annual “Navidad en Whittier” (Dec. 14 at Whittier College’s Shannon Center) and “Nochebuena,” with two performances at the Soraya (Dec. 14 at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.). The latter event features Ballet Folklórico de Los Ángeles and Mariachi Garibaldi de Jaime Cuéllar, with special guest artist, singer Eugenia León. (The concert, minus León, also takes place at Chapman College’s Musco Center for the Arts Dec. 11.)

Gema Sandoval, who founded Danza Floricanto/USA in Southern California in 1975, is proud to have her troupe present its 90-minute holiday program of dance, music, and song inspired by the traditions of the Mexican community. She explained that a Mexican Christmas differs from an American one by “a remembrance of the people who are from Mexico and the issue of passing on specific traditions — like the piñata and the posada — and the singing of certain types of songs to the baby Jesus, 15 days before Christmas and culminating on Christmas day.”

The troupe will showcase 12 company members, as well as children from the Floricanto Institute, while its longtime musical collaborators, Mariachi Mexicapan, led by Ray Medina, will again accompany the dancers who explore the customs of, among other regions, Zacatecas, Colima, and Jalisco. Expect plenty of energetic foot and heelwork and colorful costumes, all leading up to the evening ending with a bang — literally — when the children in the audience are invited to join Floricanto in the traditional breaking of the piñata.

Said Sandoval: “The piñatas, for whatever reason, are getting made sturdier and sturdier so we don’t always break it and can use it again the next year. It cracks and the candy falls out, but it doesn’t break totally,” adding that “the difference between piñatas in the old days were that they were made out of pottery — clay — so we would have little accidents. But now they’re made out of cardboard and they don’t always break the same way. They crack and we repair it.”

As for musicians, Sandoval said there will be eight in the mariachi band, including four violins and a flute. “The flute is an unusual instrument [for us], but we have a wonderful Japanese mariachi player who has a great voice. They call him ‘Mr. Norte.’”

Beginning with the time-honored procession celebrating “la madre de todos los Mexicanos”  (the mother of all Mexicans) — the Virgin of Guadalupe who is also the patron saint of Mexico — this scene features the dance of the Concheros, or Aztecs. “On the 12th of December,” explained Sandoval, “from the times of the conquest, there is a legend that says the Virgin of Guadelupe appeared to an Indian, telling him that the church should be built in a certain place, whereas the priest of the period did not believe this Indian, but he kept insisting until there was a church. All of that is the celebration during Christmas time.”

Sandoval pointed out that the company adheres to very traditional dances — “the way they’ve been done for years and years. We try not to have any stylization in the dancing, but the minute you put something on stage you begin to stylize it and there’s nothing you can do about that.

“Mexican folk dance,” she noted “is primarily done in groups. It’s always a group-dynamic issue, because it represents a people rather than an individual. The most that I do [in my choreography] is separate the men and the women to create a different dynamic.”

For Kareli Montoya, who founded Ballet Folklórico de Los Ángeles in 2011, a troupe that has performed in L.A. venues such as the Greek Theater, Christmas time is busy both for her and husband Jaime “El Pollo” Cuéllar, the director of Mariachi Garibaldi de Jaime Cuéllar, a well-known group founded in 1994 by his father and which he has directed since 2014.

“The season begins for us on the 12th — especially if you’re a mariachi musician and folk dancer,” said Montoya, “when all the family gatherings and celebrations are for the Virgin Mary and for baby Jesus.”

Their program, “Nochebuena,” opens with “Posada Mexicana,” an upbeat medley that leads into one of Mexico’s recognized songs, “Como Mexico no Hay Dos” (There is only one Mexico). As for the folklórico troupe, Montoya said, “We have about 30 dancers in our professional company and we’ll have 12 couples — 24 dancers — on that program and Garibaldi has 12 members. We like to think of the musicians and dancers combined as a large group of artists.”

After the Posada tunes, Montoya explained that they’ll be performing “what we call the Christmas polkas, mariachi renditions of the Christmas songs “Jingle Bells” and Sleigh Ride,” that Jimmy arranged. We are dancing those in traditional outfits from the state of Chihuahua and a lot of the dances you see in that region are similar to square dancing.”

Montoya noted that there will also be dances from the state of Veracruz, as well as a medley of the most popular songs from that region. “And,” she added, “the colorful costumes were made by my grandmother and my mother. They are very, very fancy and there is variety — as if someone was to walk into a party and every dancer has its own kind of character.”

Speaking of characters, Montoya said that the performers are doing a “Disney-inspired suite for the children in the first half. It opens up with “A Tale as Old as Time” and then goes into some of the songs from the movie Coco [including] “Remember Me.” “Those songs are in English,” noted Montoya, “and the suite closes with ‘It’s A Small World.’”

In addition, there are two dances from the state of Colima. “We wanted to do some numbers that are very traditional of that region, with some music and dance that the audience is going to recognize, besides the Disney [material]. The outfits for Colima are very particular and are made to look like a flower that grows on a tree, a primavera.”

The second half of the program features Mexican songstress Eugenia León, winner of the Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement award. In addition, the singer, whose career has spanned more than 35 years and is nicknamed “La Diva de México,” has released some 30 recordings, as well as having performed several times at the Kennedy Center. Here, in California, León has sung at Davies Symphony Hall with the San Francisco Symphony and at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the latter venue with Tania Libertad and Ely Guerra.

León will be accompanied by Mariachi Garibaldi and will sing only in Spanish. “I think it will be a very Mexican night,” she wrote in an email, “and you can hear something from the ranchero songbook and many well-known songs that the public will surely recognize and we can sing together, [including] songwriters like José Alfredo Jiménez, songs of Juan Gabriel, and two songs from my new record.”

Added León: “Our music is timeless [and] I think the audience will be very happy because the repertory is beautiful, of course, talking about the love and heartbreak that involves us all.”

Cuéllar, who will be playing violin and performed with Mariachi los Camperos, the Grammy award-winning troupe led by Natividad “Nati” Cano, who died in 2014 at age 81, worked with León in the past.

“Camperos accompanied her in Santa Rosa in 2006,” recalled Cuéllar, “and then in 2009, there was a PBS special. I didn’t keep in touch with her, because when we did that I was just a member of the group, but the times I worked with her, she was great with us. She loved the arrangements and had no complaints. She didn’t give the musicians any talk-back.

“So, this is my first time working with her as a leader. She won’t be singing anything Christmassy, but more like Día de los Muertos (Day of the dead) [material]. She’s going to join us at the end when we close the show with “White Christmas” and the costumes are beautiful, white, Jalisco-style dresses.

And while the dancers have numerous costume changes, the musicians, including five violins, trumpets, and guitarróns — large six-string, fretless bass guitars — stick to traditional garb, or mariachi charro, based on horsemen and often associated with Mexican history and festival celebrations.

“It’s a three-piece suit with a sombrero,” said Cuéllar, whose group has three albums in release, with its 25th anniversary album coming out in March, “and if we did change, it would be during intermission. I told Kareli that if we exit the stage and you keep dancing by yourself, then we’ll change.”

When asked about his nickname, “El Pollo,” which means “the chicken,” Cuéllar, 37, laughed. “My stage name is Jaime but when I was in Nati Cano, I was the youngest and I was really thin and looked like a baby chick because of my appearance, and it just stuck.

As to León’s being called “La Diva de México,” the singer replied: “The truth is, I don’t know about the concept of a ‘diva.’ People describe performers in many ways, but I can tell you that I am very honored to be in the mind and admiration of the public.”

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning international arts journalist who covers dance, music, theater and the visual arts. Publications she has contributed to include the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and KCET Artbound. Her feminist novella in verse, Isn’t It Rich? is being adapted for the stage, and her children’s/coffee table book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet, will soon be published by Red Sky Presents. In addition, Looseleaf co-founded the online magazine ArtNowLA.