The Mexican Mafia
“No!!! Alana, you can’t do that! You don’t understand what you are getting yourself into! You do realize that you are white, right? What you just joined is not only a dance class; that is the Mexican Mafia!”
It is true, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I signed up to be in Folklorico my sophomore year of high school. If I would have known that the darkening of a single bubble next to a word that I couldn’t even pronounce entailed a full semester of traditional Mexican dancing, typically known for girls with massive skirts that are whipped around to create beautiful flowing circles of fabric, I am most positive that I would never have had the audacity to even entertain such a notion. Honestly, I didn’t know anyone who could properly pronounce the name of the class I was signing up for… folklaricu, flameica, flalulu. Unconsciously I was setting myself up to enter into a thin bubble, which had never before been tampered with. Like the air-head blonde portrayed in countless chick-flicks, I was entranced with the possibility of taking a dance class with my classmates, but was completely oblivious to the cultural ramifications to my decision. The fault line that I was about to straddle was soon to create earthquakes in my life that would provide me with a new terrain to explore for the rest of my life.
I entered classroom 1305 of Central High School East Campus at exactly 1:55 pm on a warm Monday afternoon to attend my first folkloric dance class ever. The teacher, Sr. Jimenez, seemed to like things orderly; he assigned seats according to last names. In this all too familiar seating arrangement, I took my place in the back corner with the Zapatas, Sanchezes, and the last of the Quintenillas. As I sat in what felt like a blanket of seclusion, I looked around and quickly came to the conclusion that I was no longer at home. The colors of the faces I saw were not that of the friends I had been raised with during my sheltered childhood. As I analyzed the array of dark and light browns it started to feel like my skin was missing something, and it occurred to me that the missing characteristic was color.
From across the room a new scent entered my nostrils that was unfamiliar and slightly repulsive. It was the nauseating smell of chili sauce on plain chips that, from that day forward, will never be stamped out of my memory.
Listening to the surrounding voices brought me the sense that I was roaming the streets of Guadalajara on a warm afternoon with people bustling about and talking with old friends from the past. The community that bordered me caught up with previous dance partners and reminisced about their eventful summer breaks. These conversations were a kind of tradition in school rooms after months of separation, but there was something that set these particular conversations apart from others I had participated in. I suddenly recognized that the grumble of noises that I was engulfed by were not in my native tongue; they were in Spanish.
While sitting in the midst of this foreign atmosphere, thoughts intruded on my mind at intense rates. Feelings of excitement, fear, intimidation, timidity, amazement, and awkwardness filled my heart as I sat in silence. My senses were on the verge of overload as my mind tried to process the new stimuli. I could hear my friend’s voice in my already heavy laden ear as I realized why he had called Folklorico the Mexican mafia.
My mind wandered as I stared at the sparkling face of the cholo sitting across from me, wondering if he would ever utter a word to me. Even if he did, would I understand it? My eyes then landed on a short teenager in the middle of the room with red, curly hair, an olive complexion and a goofy smile. I began to wonder if he would ever even know my name.
As the class volume continued to rise the teacher began to speak. While I am sure that half of the pupils were annoyed at this interruption, I was relieved. The alleviating part of my new dance teachers introduction and speech was the normally taken for granted fact that it was in English. Sr. Jimenez proceeded to explain what states we would be doing dances from and what “zapatas” we needed to have by the following week. Though it was comforting to hear the only language I understood, it was now the concepts that were in a foreign language. “Mexican states” and “zapatas,” what were these things?? These new surroundings and languages led my mind to complete distraction while leaving a flavor of anticipation for what was to come lingering in my body.
Over the next few days of class I mustered up the courage to utter a few sentences to the fellow across from me. I came to know this man as Javier Sanchez and over the next couple of years I came to relate to him not only as a dancer, but also as a friend. Luis, the intriguing guy with the red hair from across the room, not only came to know my name but became one of my best companions.
The amazing dancing skills that I learned in Folklorico are nothing to be sneered at either. I was awarded the privilege of dancing with the Garcia sisters who were outstanding dancers, seeing as they had been practically born with zapatas de Folklorico (dance shoes) on their feet. I learned how to move my feet faster than I ever could have imagined possible. Soon the differences that were so pronounced the first day of class began to fade away into the Mexican music and monotonous tapping of feet.
I took a journey into a new world every time my feet hit the cold tile of room 1305. This world was uniquely different from the one I had grown up in, but it was still one in which I belonged. Though people watching from the outside may have thought that I stuck out like a giraffe in a family of mice, I came to know better. According to my companeros (classmates), when it came to twirling skirts and stomping feet with rhythm on a hard wood floor, I was just as Mexican as the next cholo.
The education that took place over the next four semesters not only popped a cultural boil that had been festering at Central High School for years, it altered my future and realigned the backbone of my thinking forever. At the end of my high school career I was able to scan the packed Folklorico dance floor and instead of hearing language that was not my own, I heard the laughter, clamoring and, to Sr. Jimenez’s dismay, excited screams of valued friends. Instead of staring at faces that contained more pigment than mine, I saw faces that had all of the same features as mine: a nose, mouth, eyes, and ears. The scent of chili sauce on chips still burnt my nostrils as I breathed in, but instead of the stench being from afar, it was coming from the open bag that was resting in my hand. I no longer wondered if the guy across from me was ever going to talk to me; I already knew his life story. I came to understand that though we were shaded differently on the outside, had distinct backgrounds, and had certain preferences on how things should be done, we all had an intense passion that enabled us to work together and impact the world around us. These people were no longer the Mexican mafia, because the Mexican mafia was a name made up by judgmental people for a group that was not understood, instead they were just ordinary people; people who were ultimately on the same team as everyone else.