Recently I received an email from an audience member asking me to consider the importance of having "only Spanish dancers" as part of Ballet Hispanico, the dance company I direct. The writer was concerned that having an "Asian, White or African" dancer defeats the purpose of Ballet Hispanico's mission, and goes on to say that having all Spanish dancers for the company is important for "Hispanic people like us." This is not the first time I have been confronted with someone's need for a version of authenticity that reflects their own, and our general society's misconceptions about race.
As the artistic director of Ballet Hispanico, the nation's first and oldest dance company dedicated to exploring and celebrating Latino artists in dance, I felt I needed to respond.
I was born in Cuba and I come from African, Chinese and Spanish ancestors. Latin America and Spain (the motherland) were formed through centuries of cultural fusion, intersections and, unfortunately, the colonization of many races. This is a DNA salsa that I celebrate daily.
Given the myriad cultures that have come together throughout Latin America, how should "Spanish" dancers (people) look? The answer: they should look like the many shades, shapes, faces and sizes of Hispanics/Latinos (our twin identities) that are reflected in the Ballet Hispanico Company dancers.
Well that was easy! And once that idea is accepted, our nation, with a rapidly-growing Latino population, will understand the nuances of what it means to be Hispanic, right? Sadly, the answer is 'no'. Even if that were an accepted value, we would continue to battle other stereotypes and constructs that have been ingrained in society since before Columbus first set foot in the Caribbean.
For me, being Latino is a complex and personal experience that cannot be neatly branded. It is not a color, a mood, a look, an interjection or a language, even though those are all a part of my complex identity. Rather, it is a narrative that changes from person to person, and that is informed by the claims that each person (and their family) have to the rich histories brought to our country by Hispanics.
Ballet Hispanico was founded to explore and celebrate the Hispanic traditions through the lens of artists and artistic works. Our authenticity resides in our very existence and identities as artists. Our work opens spaces that demonstrate possibilities and expose pathways to cultural dialogue. We teach, we perform and we share. Through this work, we give voice to everyone who is interested in celebrating the joy of diversity and inclusion. We refuse to spread the idea that color, race or look is the way into the heart of our culture.