Los Angeles style gangs are forming in the Zapotec community of Yalálag and the local villagers are trying to cope by performing stylized dances at religious celebrations. In a journal article last year, Adriana Cruz-Manjarrez analyzes the way the danzas chuscas, the local dance performances held during annual religious festivities, satirize a wide range of social problems caused by immigrants returning from the U.S.
Many village men and women migrate, legally and illegally, to Los Angeles to work. The money they send back to their community, remittances, forms an important source of funds for families and institutions. But the people who return to their homes bring back ideas and social patterns that are more typical of Los Angeles than of traditional, rural, southern Mexico. Young men fashion themselves like Los Angeles gang members, cholos, with shaved heads, loose T-shirts, tattoos, baggy pants, baseball caps, and athletic shoes that copy the styles of the streets of L.A.
The young people in Los Angeles join gangs because they are not supervised by their parents, they feel discriminated against, they believe they have no opportunities, and they like to hang out with others from their community. Their negative attitudes prompt them to not only join gangs but to take drugs and sometimes engage in violent, criminal activities.
When gang members return to their village, some sell drugs, rob villagers in broad daylight, and even kill innocent people. The Yalálag villagers thought, at first, it would be a temporary problem, but the cholos have stayed and formed local gang cultures that emulate the L.A. gangs, with similar external markers such as tattooing and street graffiti.
The cholos are starting to infiltrate the local schools, introducing drugs and violence. Gang members are thought to commit robberies when homes are empty. Appeals by residents to the community authorities have not been heeded, perhaps because the officials are not sure how to respond.
Local residents are responding in their own fashion—by focusing some of the performances during the annual danza chusca on the theme “Los Cholos,” “The Gang Members.” The danzas chuscas are stylized parodies of social events and situations in the village, performed during the festivities by troupes of male dancers who act both male and female parts.
The dancers who pose as males dress in costumes that mimic the cholo style, while the ones posing as females dress in high heels, pantyhose, and miniskirts. Their dances mimic and make fun of the gangland styles, both in L.A. and Yalálag. Hand gestures and body movements parody gang gestures and movements. The thrust of each dance is to comically show how the community rejects the activities of the gangs. It also brings into the open, satirically, the tensions between the local people and the teenage gang members. People are pleased that each dance mocks these issues in a playful fashion, without causing offense. The cholos themselves, of course, witness the dances and are aware of the criticism of the community, though presumably they are not directly threatened.
The author feels that the performances can be viewed on several levels. The dances convey to the cholos how the people perceive them, but they also allow the gang members to see their activities critically, from a distant perspective. In addition, the dances signify to the cholos that they are still members of the Zapotec village, which wants to integrate them once again into the community. As Cruz-Manjarrez writes, “the danzas chuscas performances … constitute a common symbolic language by which Zapotecs communicate with each other (p.12).”
Her analysis goes farther than just the L.A.-style gangs that have formed in the town. Many other aspects of the immigrants’ lives in Los Angeles, and their habits when they return to the annual festival, are also subject to parody by dancing.
People returning from L.A., of course, make more money than family members who have stayed in the village. The social strains caused by people who want to display their relatively greater wealth and their fancy clothes can be eased by the parodies on the dance floor. The village people who have jobs in the U.S. can afford to send large amounts of money, in village terms, to support the festival. Locals appreciate their contributions, and resent the donors for their assumption of a higher social status.
The villagers feel sad, confused, and angry about the attitudes of many returning people. They gossip about them, especially about their pretensions of wealth. They know that the immigrants, no matter what airs they may put on in the village, no matter how they might show off, are still laborers in Los Angeles.
The dancers seek to make fun of the immigrants’ pretensions with their “Los Yalaltecos” dance. They copy the dress styles of the immigrants, exaggerate their mannerisms, imitate and satirize their behaviors. Men dancing as female characters wear female clothing and plastic masks painted with exaggerated, women’s faces. Their wigs are dyed with outlandish, vibrant yellows. Dancers dressed as men wear exaggerated male costumes, such as peasant clothing.
Female characters mock the movements of women—blowing kisses, walking as if on a runway—while male characters make fun of the things men do. Movements of hands and arms, dance steps, and posturing all seek to convey a gentle critique of people who are returning to their home town and trying, with more or less success, to fit in for a brief period of time.
The dances don’t critique only the returnees. They also parody the people who have remained in the village and their feelings of alienation from their richer relatives. Problems of adjustment, conflicts between groups, difficulties of assimilation—social stresses are all subject to review, relief, and perhaps amelioration through the dances at the village festival.
Crus-Manjarrez, Adriana. 2008. “Danzas Chuscas: Performing Migration in a Zapotec Community.” Dance Research Journal 40(2): 3-22