Trans and tradition in the LGBT + dance troupe of Mexico

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LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Blending tradition and modernity, a folk dance troupe is making waves in Mexico by welcoming all comers, letting their dancers break taboos and perform in whatever genre makes them happy.

Dancers (or dancers) from the LGBT + folk dance group ‘Jalisco es Diverso’ perform during the Day of the Dead parade in Guadalajara, Mexico on October 27, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation / Rojelio Navarro

Esmeralda Nunez couldn’t be happier.

Growing up in the state of Jalisco, the cradle of the Mexican national dance, the “tapatio jarabe”, the folklore tradition was part of his childhood.

“Dancing was my passion,” the 28-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But fulfilling her passion came at a cost for Nunez, a transgender woman who had to dance like a boy in her traditional and predominantly Catholic homeland.

Wearing the flamboyant, loose-fitting dresses that she swirls exuberantly as she dances, Nunez explained that while dancing was her life, conservative culture had kept her dreams in check.

In Mexico, where machismo prevails and gender roles remain strictly enforced, being openly transgender can be difficult, even fatal.

According to the government, transgender women are among the most discriminated groups in the country, facing increased poverty, health problems and lack of access to education.

Advocacy group Transgender Europe reported that 56 transgender women were killed across Mexico between 2016 and 2017. The United Nations said nine transgender women were killed in Veracruz state last July.

STRICTLY

The dance – like so many others in Mexico – is managed according to strict gender criteria. Mexican folk dances are usually performed in male-female pairs, and so, although Nunez always felt like a girl, she had to dance the boy’s part.

“For the love I had for folklore, for Mexican culture, I danced like a boy,” Nunez said. “Because it’s something that fascinates me, something that moves me. “

Nunez joined a dance troupe in high school, and her teacher even taught her the woman’s steps, although she continued to play the part of the man.

She befriended a young man, Edwin Sepulveda, who also found solace in dancing while struggling with his own identity and dealing with his father’s rejection when he revealed his homosexuality.

“When I was dancing I entered a whole different world where people couldn’t hurt me,” said Sepulveda, also 28. “I was dancing and forgetting everything.”

After high school, Nunez and Sepulveda thought about joining professional ballet companies, but found their way blocked.

“We have found that there are a lot of requirements that you have to comply with,” said Nunez. “If you’re gay you can’t show it. You have to have a certain height, a certain height. There are a lot of regulations. “

DANCE OF DEDAIN

As in dance, as in life.

The kind of challenges Sepulveda and Nunez face for their art are common in society for LGBT + people in Mexico.

A 2017 government study found that 30% of LGBT + people had experienced some form of discrimination in the past year.

Same-sex sexual acts were decriminalized in Mexico in 1871, but overt manifestations of homosexuality can still attract contempt.

Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that same-sex marriage bans were unconstitutional, but a year later pollster Parametría found that nearly six in ten Mexicans still oppose same-sex marriage.

Now a new ballet troupe is trying to change that and showing that there is much more to the LGBT + community than the hedonistic life of clubbing and sex rooted in so many stereotypes.

Formed in June of last year, the Ballet Folclórico Lgbttti “Jalisco es Diverso” is a troupe that performs traditional Mexican music and dances to promote diversity and greater inclusion, according to its founder Johnny Cobian.

“Most people in society classify us as partygoers with no commitment,” he said.

Like Nunez and Sepulveda, Cobian was an avid dancer as a teenager, but says he was rejected by professional companies because of his size.

Later, when Cobian became involved in organizing the Guadalajara Pride March, he said he discovered that local ballet companies were reluctant to get involved in an event celebrating the LGBT + community.

“They didn’t answer me, they didn’t want to see me, they didn’t want to do anything,” he said.

So he formed his own business, one that did not discriminate on the basis of height, weight, sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Everyone is welcome,” said Cobian. “Our doors are open.

Among the first to join were Nunez and Sepulveda, who said they immediately felt at home.

“The only rule he imposed on us to enter his ballet group was that you would go and dance under the condition that you felt accepted,” said Nunez, who was finally able to dance as a woman.

“I loved it. It’s a big family,” Sepulveda said.

CULTURAL CLUB

The group’s first performance was at Guadalajara Pride in June this year, and they have since performed at local festivals and parties, including this year’s Day of the Dead parade.

“There has been a lot of acceptance,” Cobian said. “People keep inviting us again.”

Experts say addressing such taboos is an important part of changing perceptions of the LGBT + community.

“Culture is very important in our lives,” said Mexican LGBT + rights activist Enrique Torre Molina.

“Being present in the cultural sphere makes us more visible in front of more people. It reminds them that LGBT people have always contributed to cultural development.

The troop’s costumes often incorporate the colors of the LGBT + rainbow flag, along with more traditional flourishes and sequins.

“We are innovating on Mexican culture without breaking what folklore is,” Nunez said.


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