Category Archives: Latinidad
Reading a book called “The Hacienda: My Venezuelan Years,” and though I don’t think it’s intended to be a comedic book at all, this part made me laugh, perhaps because it’s vaguely familiar.
“He said he would die if I didn’t marry him. He said it was my destiny. I was sixteen and I didn’t know then that it was an old cliché, as though, somewhere, there is a little latino lexicon of courtship which is learnt by heart in adolescence and then regurgitated to girl after girl.”
- Lisa St. Aubin de Teran
What have you been reading? Which literary quote made you stop to think or laugh lately?
(image source: Putumayo.com)
You hear Latin music and it makes you want to dance – but is it a Salsa, Merengue, Bachata, or something entirely different? The beat tempts you to the dance floor, but what do you do once you’re out there?
Today my friend and professional Latin dance instructor, Jennifer Gonzalez, guest posts and gives us the basics!
Lovin’ that Latin Dance!
by Jennifer Gonzalez
It is hard to believe that just 13-14 years ago I had no idea that merengue, salsa, bachata, or cha cha cha were dances. Ok, maybe in the ballroom world I had heard a bit about cha cha cha or salsa but definitely nothing else. The only type of Latin dance I had ever laid eyes on was whatever came out of Mexico or California. As much as I love the Mexican culture – the dance just didn’t do it for me.
Then one day, I met this man. He was (well, still is) Puerto Rican and he introduced me to ‘his’ music! I fell in love with the music instantly. For one of our dates, we went to go to see the movie, “Dance With Me” staring Chayanne and Vanessa Williams. In the movie, Chayanne takes Williams’ character to a club where they dance ‘real’ salsa (not the ballroom kind.) My eyes probably popped out of my head at that moment as I watched and saw what I thought looked like the most fun you could have out at a club.
I told my then-boyfriend, “I must learn how to dance salsa!” So for my birthday we went to a tiny little club that we had found in the City Paper. After only one lesson I was hooked. I had no problem with the rhythm or the steps and wanted more. What I didn’t know was that these lessons were going to open up a whole new world to me full of music, dance, and culture. Little by little I started to learn other dances, where they came from, and how they fit into the culture of Latin America.
What intrigues me is that many times people have a hard time distinguishing Latin music. A merengue will be playing and someone will ask, “Is that salsa?” No. They sound nothing alike. To me. How can you tell them apart? You learn about them!
Merengue is the easiest of the Latin dances to learn. It involves just two beats and two steps. 1-2, 1-2. The man and women mirror each other’s feet as they dance and start in closed-position. As they step, there is a slight bend to the knee which will move the hips. They key is to not move your shoulders to the side or to bounce – that will give you away as a gringo (or non- Hispanic person) immediately! The bend in the knee while dancing gives the hips the movement that everyone wants but works so hard to achieve. Because of the easy steps, the leader can move through series of turns without too many issues. The dance originated in the Dominican Republic in the 19th century and is considered the ‘national dance’. If you take a trip to the Dominican Republic and stay in a resort, you will most likely find merengue dance lessons each afternoon or evening (sometimes both). You can see the basic movement in the videos below:
One dance gaining in popularity right now is bachata. Everyone and their mother and brother want to learn Bachata – especially here in the Washington DC area. Again, this dance comes to us from the Dominican Republic. Many call bachata the ‘country music’ of Latin music. The lyrics are often full of heartache, pain, and love and as a result, the dance itself can portray all of these things. Traditional bachata dancing requires partners hold each other very close in the closed position. Their legs will straddle so as to not step on each other’s feet (with the woman’s right-leg often between the men’s legs while dancing). The dance involves 4 steps – 4 to the right, 4 to the left with the 4th step being a left-lift or hip pop (see the video). Although many dance very close together, it isn’t necessary. It can be beautiful danced with space between the man and the woman.
Salsa dancing is one of the most complex Latin dances. Not only are the steps harder to learn but there are variations within the dance itself which have caused controversy for years. Salsa music first originated in Cuba (as mambo) before being brought to the United States by Cuban musicians. The origins date back to Cuban Son. When the Cubans brought their salsa to the states it wasn’t yet considered ‘salsa’. Only after the United States shut the doors to Cuba and other artists took the music, added their own flavor (like Fania All Stars) was it given the name ‘salsa’. The style became immensely popular in Puerto Rico due to singers like Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon, Tito Puente, and others and slowly moved throughout the world. Today, you will find that styles of salsa vary from country to country. Cuba, Colombia, Puerto Rico, and more all have their own distinct style of moving.
What does salsa look like when danced? Excellent question! As people start to learn they may find themselves confused. The styles to pick from are: on1 (LA style), on2 (New York/Puerto Rican style), casino (Cuban style), or Colombian. They each have their own way of relating to the music but one thing stays the same: the clave. All salsa music is built upon the clave. If you dance up the clave or down the clave does not matter – just stay with the music. Salsa is danced in 6 beats: 1-2-3, 5-6-7 with on1 and on2 styles pausing for the 4 & the 8. However, Cuban and Colombian salsa most often use every beat of the music. Trying to decide which style to learn can be confusing but I suggest to just pick one, learn it well, and then move on to another.
Video 1 demonstration:
New York Style:
Beyond Salsa, Merengue, and Bachata
Beyond the dances mentioned above there are numerous other Latin dances available. The most popular is probably the cha cha cha. Most people are familiar with the cha cha cha from ballroom dancing or tv shows like Dancing With the Stars. Again, cha cha cha was born in Cuba. It progressed from the Danzón and received the name ‘cha cha cha’ from the sound the footwork would make on the floor. And although many people call it just the cha cha – the proper name is cha cha cha. The footwork is most similar to salsa but with a syncopated step on the 4 and 8. For a feel of the cha cha cha, I might recommend people break out their old Santana music and listen to “Oye Como Va.” This song was written by Tito Puente as a straight cha cha cha but Santana took it and created an incredible rock song. The cha cha cha is still there in the song. Although the cha cha cha can be danced to some popular music (as they show on tv) it is best danced to classic cha cha cha music for the proper feel.
Another popular dance is Afro-Cuban rumba. Again, ballroom took what they called rumba and created their own dance. When you say ‘rumba’ in Cuba or in Puerto Rico or other Latin American countries they will most often assume you are talking about the rhythm that originated in Cuba. Because rumba is so diverse and complex, I would suggest reading this article I wrote for Ritmo Bello which explains the types of rumba as well as gives examples.
Learning these dances not only gives people the opportunity to connect with a culture (Puerto Rican, Cuban, Colombian, Dominican, etc.) it provides an outlet for exercise and socializing. Some of my greatest friends have come through dancing salsa. And for me, I know that I still have so much to learn. Watch the videos, pick up some music from Amazon or iTunes, and get in the groove!
Jennifer Gonzalez has been dancing salsa for the past 12 years and salsa rueda/casino for the past 10. She danced and taught with SAOCO DC for 4 years before having to focus her interests elsewhere due to kids, work, and life in general. She has also taught at the San Francisco Salsa Rueda Festival for two years and independently throughout Northern Virginia. Jennifer dances LA Style on1 and salsa casino but prefers salsa casino. She has trained with Aramis Pazos in Washington DC in AfroCuban dance. She works full-time as a web content manager and in search engine optimization/social media marketing. In addition, Jennifer authors Salsa Casino in DC – a blog dedicated to sharing events, classes, and more that are happening in the Washington DC Metro area as well as teaching people about the Cuban history of dance. Additionally, she is a regular contributor to PlanetTimba.com and The Examiner. When she is not dancing, thinking about dancing, or writing about dancing she spends time with her two children and husband.
We went to Pollo Campero for the first time in El Salvador. Since then, my only taste of it has been from buckets of cold chicken smuggled on Taca flights brought by visiting family.
(Fun fact: Carlos’s sister used to work at a Pollo Campero in El Salvador.)
I knew that the fast food Guatemalan chicken restaurants had been popping up in the United States for quite awhile but I just didn’t get around to visiting one until last weekend. The Lakeforest Mall location in Gaithersburg, Maryland has been open for several years.
Lakeforest Mall is where my mother took us for back-to-school shopping – It’s across the street from the townhouses I lived in for the first year of my life. It’s where I skipped class and went to watch Jackie Chan movies, (there used to be a theater where the food court is now.) … Lakeforest Mall is 5 minutes down the street from where I met Carlos and it’s where Carlos and I spent time walking around as novios… In other words, it’s a familiar place – so when I heard rumors that Lakeforest Mall had become “ghetto” – I wanted to check it out.
(“Ghetto” – not my word, by the way, in case anyone out there is offended – I’m quoting.)
Anyway, visiting Pollo Campero was a good enough excuse for me. Off to Lakeforest Mall, pues.
So first we eat. Honestly, I can’t even remember what Pollo Campero tasted like in El Salvador, so I can’t compare them. The chicken was spicy and really good. The horchata was good though slightly watered down. The platanos were okay, (A little too ripe for my personal tastes and I prefer mine cut differently – that’s just me being picky though.)
The yuca frita dipped in this spicy Campero sauce was awesome. I will definitely go back for that.
I also liked the decor of the restaurant. This Spanglish sign was the best. “Flavor you can’t CAMPERO” – get it? … Clever.
And a little educational Latino pride never hurt.
Now, as for Lakeforest Mall itself – is it “ghetto”? In my opinion, not at all. It was clean, and though some high-end stores have been replaced, the quality and selection are still good. Maybe it isn’t as beautiful as it once was, (I remember there being fountains but they were turned off), but it’s still a nice mall.
So, what has changed the most? … The demographics of the shoppers. It felt almost like being in Miami again – the shoppers at the mall were an obvious Latino majority. This is drastically different from just 10 years ago, and worlds different from 20 years ago.
I tried to look at this from a gringa point-of-view. My conclusion is that maybe “ghetto” is just a code word that some people use when they really mean “there are more brown people than white people and that scares me.”
So, here’s the deal. The gringos who are now uncomfortable shopping at Lakeforest Mall, you can drive on over to Montgomery Mall instead.
As for me – Yo me quedo aquí…Pass the yuca frita.
If you watch the Spanish language TV networks then you’ve seen the commercials a million times. Toyota has found a way to build brand loyalty by tapping into Latino pride – genius!
Toyota has been going around giving away free bumper stickers that announce the family’s nationality in a fun way. People put the stickers on the vehicle because, number one, it’s gratis, and number two – Latinos are proud of their roots. Toyota wins because the sticker is incredibly cost effective advertising. (And look, I’m even talking about it for free just because I think it’s chévere. They must know what they’re doing over there.)
After seeing the commercials over and over, I finally went to Toyota’s Facebook page to order a free sticker for myself, (and a second one for Carlos.)
Here’s the problem, we no longer own a Toyota. We made the difficult decision to sell it, though it was in excellent condition, just to get out from under the monthly payment and save money for awhile. The next step of our plan was to buy a car with cash – just something for Carlos to use to commute. With $1,000 cash in hand, we began looking, and soon realized it was slim pickings. After a few weeks we ended up buying the first car we found that wasn’t beaten all to hell and still had some life in it… which happens to be a 1993 Nissan. (A thousand dollars doesn’t buy much these days. You can’t be picky.)
Anyway, Carlos wanted to put the sticker on his Nissan. I told him that didn’t seem quite right. I started calling his car a “wannabe Toyota” – so he didn’t do it.
I ended up putting my sticker on my laptop. Carlos sighed and set his sticker aside… “I need to buy a Toyota,” he said, “so I can use my sticker.”
Talk about effective advertising!
Disclosure: This is not a sponsored post.
Last night we made our way to the airport to pick up Suegra. Thanks to taking the wrong toll road, we were running a little late. We finally got turned around in the right direction and the swooping roof of Dulles came into view. Leaving the car in the parking lot, we ran through the freezing cold, into the airport and down the corridor to International Arrivals. As it turned out, Suegra was still in customs, and would be for another hour and a half.
Carlos sighed and resigned himself to wait, but I wasn’t bothered by the delay. I think I could spend all day people watching – and international arrivals is even more magical than any other place to people watch. I like to invent stories about the people in my mind – stories about where they’ve been and where they’re going. Sometimes, if you watch and listen, you can find out what their real story is – at least some of it.
I never got to see who this man was waiting to greet. At first I thought it must be a novia. Qué romantico! He had a bouquet of pink roses and no less than three balloons, one shaped like a heart… but then I remembered, él es un hombre Latino, so those sweet gifts may be for his madre. ¿Quién sabe?
Everyone watched the two big doors to see who would come out next. One little boy ran out the door from customs and yelled “Papi!!!” – A man swept him up in his arms and carried him away with the biggest smile on his face. A hundred hearts melted right there.
Minutes later, a man came out the door from customs. A little boy ran to him and patted the suitcase asking, “¿Qué me trajiste?” This time we all laughed.
A frail but proud old woman was wheeled out of customs in a wheel chair. A group of teenagers exploded in shouts of “Abu!” and ran to greet her. One of the boys hugged her and shouted to his siblings who still hadn’t caught up, “I touched her first!” which made me wonder if they simply had a little competition going between them… A man next to me who probably didn’t speak English said, “Qué amor tienen por su abuela, va?”
A woman stood on my other side and she seemed more nervous than anyone else. I found out why when two little kids, a boy and a girl, came through the customs doors escorted by a flight attendant. The woman ran to her children and hugged them, then held them away from her as if to see if they were really real. She handed the boy the balloon she held in her hands. “¿Qué dice?” she said. The boy pulled the string downwards so he could read the balloon… “Welcome” he said in accented English. The mother nodded, “Bien.” As she zipped them into coats I heard her explain that in a few years, their father would join them and they’d be together as a family again.
Finally Suegra came through the doors. It was everyone else’s turn to watch us, to try to figure out our story, maybe listen in and see if they could capture a word or two to understand where we’d been and where we’re going.
I like vending machines, especially the ones near the door at grocery stores. You know the ones I’m talking about, they’re usually painted an eye-catching red and contain candy, cheap toys or stickers in plastic balls. I think most parents hate those things. I’ve seen children pulled away from the vending machines crying and the parents saying, “No! We’re not wasting money on junk! Let’s go!”
I personally think 25 cents is a small price to pay for a little fun, and I’m just as likely as the kids to run to Carlos, pidiendo una “cora”. (I just aggravated a dear friend by pronouncing/spelling “quarter” like that. Hee hee. Sorry, Ángel.)
Wherever we go, I always check the vending machines to see if there’s anything new or exciting. I especially love when the growing Latino population is reflected in which candies or toys they chose to offer.
That being said, I present to you my new favorite find… “Gold” Patron Saints necklaces.
I’ve come to find that Salvadorans can be very superstitious. Over the years Suegra has warned me away from bad luck in various ways. For example, she’s told me repeatedly not to sweep the kitchen in the evenings because it will cause the household to lose money, (I continue to sweep each night after dinner, maybe that’s why we’re so poor?) She also consults with a palm reader, (who no doubt has told her many terrible things about a certain gringa.)
I’ve also told you before that despite being a strict Catholic who believes in “la voluntad de Dios”, Suegra wears her underwear inside-out (for luck), and carefully tends a “lucky plant”. She doesn’t see it as contradictory at all. When I asked her about how she can be both religious and superstitious, she just waves me off like I’m an annoying bug.
Well, while I’ve come to expect a certain amount of superstition from Suegra, usually my husband isn’t as susceptible to magical thinking – that’s why I was surprised by something I found by accident the other day.
I was cleaning the house during the day and we have this lamp near the front door that gets quite dusty.
Looks ordinary right? Well, when I went to dust around under the shade, something fell on the floor.
I wasn’t sure at first what it was. I decided it was a magnet and figured one of the kids stuck it there when they were playing around. I stuck it on the fridge, went back to dusting, and thought nothing more of it.
Later that afternoon, Carlos came home, kissed me as he came in the door, and went to put his lunch box in the kitchen.
“Hey, you moved my magnet,” he said, taking it off the fridge and returning it to the lamp.
“What in the world?” was pretty much all I could manage.
Carlos explained that it was a lucky magnet and he wanted to keep it there. I thought maybe he was pulling my leg because I had never heard of this in all the years we’ve been married. He insists that his mother always kept magnets around for good luck, and he’s seen other Salvadorans do it too.
Now, from an anthropological point of view, I’m wondering where this superstition came from. Maybe when indigenous people first encountered magnets they found it magical the way that they “attract” things, so maybe they believed it could attract even non-physical things, such as luck?
I’ve searched the internet to find out more and I’ve come up empty-handed, so that’s only my own personal theory. What do you think? Do you believe magnets are lucky or know someone who does? Are you superstitious? Which superstitions do you believe?
Some people wouldn’t think that you can find Latin American art and culture at a museum for American Indians, but you can because Latin American culture is a mix of indigenous and Spanish culture. So, until Washington D.C. builds the much needed National Museum of The American Latino, this is a good place to look for a little Latinidad.
While the American Indian museum will have special events specifically for Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), they have many things on display year round.
“Day of the Dead rituals date back thousands of years. Early Mesoamerican peoples saw death as a continuation of life. They believed deceased members of their family could return to them during a month long celebration in late summer.
Spanish colonizers tried and failed to put an end to the ritual. Instead, to integrate it into Christian tradition, they moved its observance to the first two days of November: All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.”
-Printed on a plaque at The National Museum of the American Indian
These women were sewing and I didn’t want to disturb them by snapping photos too closely or interrupt them by asking questions, so I’m not sure of their ethnicity, but their colorful embroidery reminded me very much of Latin America.
Also on display…
Since some of you are new amigos, it occurred to me that you may have missed some of the fun we had before you arrived here. Instead of digging through the archives yourselves, I’ve chosen the blog posts I think you’ll like most. Chécalos!