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Lorena Jaramillo: Community of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec

Oaxaca, Mexico: July 2018

Lorena completed her capstone project in Santa María Tlahuitoltepec, a Mexican community in the highlands of Oaxaca that are predominantly Mixe indigenous. Following her mentor Megan Stricker‘s footsteps, she embarked on a month journey to teach dance to children in the community. Read Lorena’s blog below to get a full picture of her adventures.

Lorena's Blog :

My Passion for Dance and Making Others Dance

Arriving to Tlahui


Two planes and one four-hour car ride later, I arrived to Santa María Tlahuitoltepec, located in the Sierra Mixe in Oaxaca, Mexico. Immediately I could hear the distant sound of a trumpet, and despite the sun, the chilly air of the mountains blew past me. The view was breathtaking.

Santa María Tlahuitoltepec or "Tlahui" for short, is a town populated majorly by an indigenous population of Mixe ethnicity. Most of the habitants are bilingual, speaking both Mixe and Spanish. Despite Spanish being my first language, most of the people here communicate in Mixe, making me feel like I'm in a country different to the one that I grew in. Tlahui constantly reminds me of the beauty of a diverse country like Mexico, where a wide variety of traditions coexist.

Why dance can make a change


My main point of contact has been Maestra Irma Diaz, a local dance and music teacher. As soon as as I arrived, she has been very welcoming and introduced me to the rest of her family: Her parents, her brother, her husband and her daughter, Tajëëw.

Irma is passionate about dance and teaching it. When I visited Tlahui over a year ago with Juntos Abroad, she told us she was grateful to meet people who "love dance and making others dance" (Yes, that's the title of this blog!).

Irma told me that when she was little she always loved dance (specifically ballet) but never the opportunity to take classes due to financial limitations. Instead, she became a musician, but her passion for dance never faded. She got a scholarship in a nearby state, Veracruz, where she was able to achieve her undergraduate degree in music, while taking dance classes. She joined a local folkloric dance company, and has had the opportunity to tour around the country and Europe performing traditional Mexican dances. When she returned to Tlahui, she knew she had to make sure that future generations had better dance opportunities, and started contacting dance organizations. This is where JUNTOS comes in.

Similar to Irma, I'm aware of the lack of westernized dance training in underfunded communities in my own country. In 2015, I moved to New York to study dance at Marymount Manhattan College, but always envisioned that one day I would come back and share what I had learned abroad (Hint: this is where JUNTOS comes in!). What is great about this trip is it keeps reminding me of all the people around the world who believe dance can make a change. Sometimes, we just have to get out of our comfort zones to meet thinkers alike.

My first class


On Monday, I taught my first class. I am teaching two to three classes every day.
My schedule looks like this:
· 12-2: Private Ballet class
· 4-6: Creative Movement and Jazz for kids (5 to 8 years old)
· 6-8: Modern and Improvisation for teens and adults (It is mostly young moms with their kids)

The first few classes I taught, I followed the JUNTOS class structure, starting with an ice-breaker, followed by a warm up, across the floor exercises and finally a combination.
However, I quickly noticed I couldn’t always follow this structure, and had to switch it up to avoid the class from becoming predictable for the students who were attending everyday.

I realized that it was best two plan two classes per week, one that I would teach Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and a different one for Tuesday and Thursday. This way, I was able to have continuity with out becoming tedious for the students.

Free time in Tlahui


It is not all work for an Ambassador. Part of what makes the trip so fulfilling is the ability to explore and immerse yourself in the local culture.

During my weekends, I normally have time to myself.
On Saturdays, I spend time at the market, set up in the middle of the town's plaza. Everything from the sweetest peaches to the beautifully unique typical blouses from the area are available to buy. I bought some fruit, sweet bread and souvenirs from my friends and family. Walking through the colorful stands made me realize for the first time how welcoming the community has been to me, and how much they make me feel at home.

Apart form the weekend shopping, I also spent time with Irma's family. Her daughter Tajëëw is just learning how to read, so we normally practice her reading, play with puzzles or make up our own games.
The music from the Sunday concert (set up in the plaza) can be heard from all over town, and allows me to relax before my week of teaching.

My students


Early in the mornings I walk through town on my way to get some fruit, eggs and atole (oatmeal drink). There is not a day that I don't run into one of my students, who are either outside in their sports class or playing during recess.

As they hug me and ask me if we have class in the afternoon (we always do) I think of how lucky I am to have students that are eager to learn new things. While at first I was discouraged because I had a small group of students, I was happy when I realized that the number grew with each class. I ended up with close to 60 students overall.

The kids are not the only ones excited for class. Older students have surprised me by bringing in song they want to choreograph and videos they want to learn.

However, I realized that I'm quickly becoming a spoiled teacher, because everyday the kids bring me flowers, fruit and drawing they made in school. Although at times I miss the comforts of home, I am vey grateful to have such loving, enthusiastic students that meet me with smiles on their faces everyday and make teaching even more rewarding.

Getting ready for the final performance


We're almost there! Only a week and a half away! So I would say it is about time to P-A-N-I-C.
The biggest challenge so far while getting ready for the final performance has been getting the students to learn the dances. As trained dancers, we sometimes forget that over the years we have developed quick visual learning abilities, and that new students may find it hard to remember long sequences of movement.

My students don't stop surprising me with their fast improvement. As I said, Tlahui has a long history and culture based around music. Not surprisingly, most of my students have really good musical ears, and are able to learn counts faster than other beginner students. This has helped them learn the dances faster, but I'm debating doing it with them the day of the performance, as there are many parts they still forget.

For the program, Irma and I decided to make a mixed show with my dance students and her choir students. I'm choreographing four dances, and we will also present a guided improvisation session for anyone that wants to join (we have been working on improvisation for the past two weeks). The little ones were originally only going to do one dance: a jazz combo to "Moves like Jagger". However, I realized that most parents were excited to make tutus for their children, so I decided to add a modified excerpt from Swan Lake (This dance is more for the parents than the kids). As for the big kids, we are doing a combination to "Despacito" (they love the song and requested it specifically). My two oldest students will be performing a trio with me to "Antologia" by Shakira. I made sure that costumes were easy to coordinate and were mostly composed by items they already owned.

Managing school and ambassador work


What makes the ambassador program so great is the flexibility that allows you to make it what you want it to be. In my case, I was able to use my month-long stay in Tlahui to fulfill an internship requirement for my major at Marymount Manhattan College.

One of my interests within dance in dance studies (which happens to be my concentration!). Some of the research I have made so far has focused on indigenous dances of Mexico and their "assent" into the national identity. My stay at Tlahui has allowed me access to more resources and knowledge in the topic. First of all, I have the local public library in which I spend most of my free time. The Library has great resources on local dance history that isn't available online. I was also able to interview locals to get their opinion on dance education (especially since folklore dance plays a big role in the community). Lastly, I have maestra Irma, who sometime seems like an infinite pool of knowledge and who was able to clarify a lot of questions I had in my research (Her thesis on Mixe identity though music and dance is available in the library).

All of these resources allowed me to get the most out of my experience, by meshing my passion for teaching, research and dance in one. The school was also able to provide with a grant to help cover some of my expenses, making the trip easier to fund.

Meet my new students!


As I approach my last week, Irma has arranged for me to teach another class in the mornings at the Center for Multiple Attention (CAM). CAM is a local public school that offers specialized education for kids with different abilities.

The group of students is small and has wide age range, as they placed all students from elementary through high school together for my class. There are students with down syndrome, blindness, mental disabilities, and both high and low functioning autism. Before going into the class, I talked with the director of the school and warned her that although I was thrilled to lead a workshop and would make my best efforts to make it inclusive, I don't have any training or experience with teaching kids with different abilities.

The class was 45 minutes long. There were students who were eager to participate, but also some who decided not to join the class. I planned the class to be fun and simple, trying to adapt movement to those who wanted to sit down at first (I didn't have any students with physical impairments to move, but most of them were very shy at first). However, as some of them gained more confidence, I had to think quickly and add more complicated things to the class. The experience made me reflect on the way we use touch and kinesthetic learning in dance, which was very useful for non-sighted students, but not always welcome with students in the spectrum.

The Final Perfromance


The day finally arrived! And... the performance turned out great.
We presented our month long work in the town's plaza, at 6:00 pm. The students were told to show up at 4:30pm, in order to have a one hour warm up session and time to get everyone into their costumes. Both the parents and the kids were excited, but I noticed the some were nervous to dance in public.



My journey in Tlahui has come to an end. As I pack my bags and buy some "Pan de Cazuela" ( bread with Oaxacan chocolate melted inside) for the road, I can't help but notice how much I've learned in this past month.

Leaving is a bittersweet feeling, and ambassador trips have definitely made me face a lot of emotions that are sometimes difficult to explore. To be honest, there were times when I felt uncomfortable; when I wished I had a better internet connection, or a certain type of food available to me. There were times were I felt guilty, like when one of my younger students asked me if I was "rich", and I was forced to realize that even though I'm not in fact "rich", I never had to worry about my basic needs (and attainable wants) being fulfilled. Some days I truly felt like a part of the community, while others I felt frustrated with myself when I couldn't remember more that three words in Mixe. I also felt jealous of some of my students who were going through the process of discovering a new love of dance, just as I had done years before. I felt really excited when they finally understood what an "en dehors pirouette" was, and really frustrated when I couldn't find a way to communicate concepts effectively. I felt really excited when Maestra Irma would tell about her future plans for dance education in Tlahui, and really sad when I realized my journey had come to an end.

In the end, one of the most important things I learned is that it is okay to feel uncomfortable or anxious in settings that are out of our comfort zone. Being "uncomfortable" allowed me to see the world differently, and allowed me to have a culture shock in my own country. Being an ambassador is about being uncomfortable: living in a different environment for 4+ weeks, learning to teach, learning to think of new combinations on your feet, and learning to listen to what other have to say.

I would like to thank JUNTOS Collective and Joanna Poz-Molesky for the platform and opportunity to make the trip possible. Thank you to the donors that donated personal funds and time to support the expenses of the trip (Names listed in "thank you" picture). Thank you to Catherine Van Ness, Director of the Ambassador Program who guided me through the process and should definitely bill me for those long therapy sessions before and while I was in the trip. To Sussan Hrozek for coordinating and contacting the people necessary to make this trip possible. Thank you to Megan Stricker for being my mentor and sharing her experience with me. To my fellow ambassadors for inspiring me and giving me advice. And to the rest of the JUNTOS team for their support.

Most importantly thank you to my students and the people of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec who received me with open arms. To those who *tried* to teach me some words in Mixe, who shared me their homes and their food. And last but not least, thank you to Maestra Irma Diaz for sharing her passion and knowledge of dance and education with me.