Melding tradition with modernity, a folk dance troupe is making waves in Mexico by welcoming all comers, letting its dancers smash taboos and perform in whatever gender makes them happy.
Esmeralda Nunez could not be happier.
Growing up in Jalisco state, the birthplace of Mexico’s national dance, the ‘jarabe tapatio’, folk tradition was part of her 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 as a boy in her traditional and mostly Catholic homeland.
Wearing the flamboyant and full dresses that she swirls exuberantly as she dances, Nunez explained that while dance 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, if not deadly.
According to the government, transgender women are among the most discriminated groups in the country, facing increased poverty, health problems, and a lack of access to education.
The 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.
Dance – like so much else in Mexico – is run on strict gender lines. Mexican folk dances are usually performed in male-female pairs, and so although Nunez had always felt like a girl, she had to dance the boy’s part.
“For the love that I had for folklore, for Mexican culture, I danced as a boy,” said Nunez. “Because it’s something that I’m passionate about, something that moves me.”
Nunez joined a dance troupe in high school, and her teacher even taught her the woman’s steps, although she kept performing the man’s role.
She befriended a young man, Edwin Sepulveda, who also found solace in dance while battling with his own identity and facing rejection from his father when he came out as gay.
“When I danced, it was entering in a totally different world where people couldn’t hurt me,” said Sepulveda, also 28. “I danced, and I would forget about everything.”
After high school, Nunez and Sepulveda thought about joining professional ballet companies, but found their way blocked.
“We discovered that you have to comply with a lot of requirements,” said Nunez. “If you’re gay, you can’t show it. You have to be a certain size, a certain height. There are a lot of regulations.”
DANCE OF DISDAIN
As in dance, so in life.
The sort of challenges faced by Sepulveda and Nunez for their art are common across society for LGBT+ people in Mexico.
A 2017 government study found 30 percent of LGBT+ people had faced some form of discrimination in the last year.
Same-sex sexual acts were decriminalized in Mexico in 1871, but open displays of homosexuality can still draw disdain.
The Mexican Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that same-sex marriage bans were unconstitutional, but a year later, the pollster Parametría found that nearly six in 10 Mexicans still opposed gay marriage.
Now a new ballet troupe is trying to change this and show there is much more to the LGBT+ community than the hedonistic life of clubbing and sex ingrained in so many stereotypes.
Formed in June last year, Ballet Folclórico Lgbttti “Jalisco es Diverso” is a troupe that performs traditional Mexican music and dance as a way of promoting diversity and greater inclusion, according to its founder Johnny Cobian.
“Most people in society categorize us as party people without commitments,” he said.
Like Nunez and Sepulveda, Cobian was a passionate dancer as a teenager, but says he was rejected by professional companies because of his height.
Later, when Cobian became involved in organizing the Guadalajara Pride march, he said he found local ballet companies were reluctant to get involved in an event celebrating the LGBT+ community.
“They didn’t answer me, they wouldn’t see me, they didn’t want to do anything,” he said.
So he formed his own company, one that did not discriminate on height, weight, sexual orientation or gender identity.
“Everyone is welcome,” Cobian said. “Our doors are open.”
Among the first to join were Nunez and Sepulveda, who said they felt immediately at home.
“The only rule he placed on us to enter his ballet group was that you’re going to dance in the condition that you feel accepted,” said Nunez, who was finally able to dance as a woman.
“I loved it. It’s one big family,” said Sepulveda.
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’s been a lot of acceptance,” said Cobian. “People keep inviting us back.”
Experts say that broaching such taboos is an important part of changing perceptions of the LGBT+ community.
“Culture occupies a very important part 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’s reminding them that LGBT people have always contributed to cultural development.”
The troupe’s costumes often incorporate the colors of the LGBT+ rainbow flag, as well as more traditional frills and sequins.
“We’re innovating on Mexican culture without breaking what folklore is,” said Nunez.
Reporting by Oscar Lopez @oscarlopezgib; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths and Hugo Greenhalgh. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org