Just west of downtown Los Angeles, in a derelict American Craftsman house, a group of Zapotec immigrants from Yalalag, a small town in southern Mexico, rush around the dining room. Here in Los Angeles, they’re getting ready for another performance, requiring attire chosen from a wardrobe of popular and global appeal. Outside in the backyard there is a celebration and a growing audience of more indigenous Mexican immigrants.
Most in attendance are Yalaltecos, and other immigrants from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Like in their Mexican hometown, Yalaltecos gather to celebrate patron saint days. For this particular saint day, they are celebrating a major Catholic figure, Santiago Apostle, the eponymous patron saint of the gathered community, and the religious icon that brings together the Yalalag community in Los Angeles in a similar way that it unites Yalaltecos in their hometown in Mexico.
For Santiago Apostle’s day, the audience has waited a year, and will wait a bit more, as the backyard fills with people under LA’s relentless summer sun. The saint sits on its handcrafted altar, and the audience waits patiently while watching folkloric performances produced as replicas of the acts from the Mexican community of origin. This is the annual feast, a celebration that reconnects the community as a people despite being immigrants of foreign soil. This year’s celebration, however, finds the attending DJ announcing a forthcoming surprise: “There will be a special dance in this year’s celebration… in a few minutes!”
Hurriedly, the men dig into backpacks and plastic bags. Amid the haste, pieces of outfits are scattered around the floor and the dining room instantly becomes a messy wardrobe. As the men look for new garments, the traditional wooden masks are set to rest and new ones come out to play. On the dining table a range of faces emerge as masks look up emptily at the ceiling, expecting coming conjurers.
Sharing the same table, the masks exhibit different origins. Some were homemade in Los Angeles, while others were mass-produced, likely in China. The first are imported replicas of traditional models and show largely exaggerated facial expressions: brightly colored inflated cheeks, protruding lips, and swollen eyeballs. The second are more conventional, modeled on popular American comic book characters—plastic façades recognized the world around for their heroic and superhuman qualities: unmeasured anger, strength, and infinite power as it is for Hulk, Captain America, and Thor.
For the wooden masks, at an average cost of $40 each, a communal endeavor of cultural reproduction was required. Dancers, their wives, parents, and children shared funds and know-how, either to import paraphernalia or produce the masks at home for a dance now being reenacted on foreign U.S. soil, and by a new generation. For this particular performance, the traditional wooden masks were brought to Los Angeles by relatives who migrate back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. These masks, like other mass-produced ones, came to the performance at the annual celebration of Saint Santiago Apostle in Los Angeles via global circulation. At the event, the masks, like the religious figure, are images of limitless reproducibility, of invaluable unifying potential, and thus stand in as cohesive devices for all in attendance.
Unity grounded on Catholicism, however, rarely demands a specific day when the point is to feel at home, far from home. It could be any day, any saint in Los Angeles. Or so it is for Luis Delgado, the Zapotec immigrant from Yalalag, Oaxaca, who arranged the performance at the Saint Santiago Apostle celebration on this particular day.
When Delgado came to Los Angeles over a decade earlier, he found a group of men enacting the traditional ‘danzas’ of his hometown. In time, he joined the group that became: Grupo de Danza Familia Zapoteca.
Familia Zapoteca, now going through a second generation of dancers, is a combination of migrants and U.S. citizens who despite the status difference don’t mind dancing to the same tune. And because the dance group unites different generations, Delgado decided a couple of years ago to assemble a performance that would appeal to the current dancers and attract a younger crowd of U.S.-born Yalaltecos. He thus began outfitting one of the group’s choreographies in American popular characters.
To put idea into action, he instructed the dancers to turn into characters they always wanted to be: Captain America, Batman, Superman, Deadpool, Thor, Ninja Turtles, Hulk, Wolverine… and of course, Chapulín Colorado, the only visible sign of real pop Mexican heroism.
Once Familia Zapoteca turns into this set of makeshift characters, they become “Los Superhéroes,” an assortment of comic book expressions that line up behind a brass band. They sync immediately to the band’s quick tempo and take the stage of communal gatherings, often held on backyards’ flat concrete patios.
For these self-made heroes, audiences wait, as they did at Santiago Apostle’s celebration, and as they frequently do at Oaxacan celebrations in Los Angeles. Invariably, though, whether as superheroes or in any other form, Familia Zapoteca comes as a surprise. Each act, selected from a repertoire of over twenty possible performances, is an opportunity to extemporaneously engage people in the audience; to invite them to relate through the culturally shared elements the characters represent. At least, that was the purpose Luis Delgado had in mind when he organized the performance in 2014.
Now, as performed, Los Superhéroes is no joke. Its performative function is one where Familia Zapoteca breathes new life into a dance tradition that enables them to make sense of being in diaspora.
However, Los Superhéroes was not really Luis Delgado’s idea originally. It came to him from Oaxaca as part of the transnational exchanges that connect Los Angeles-based Oaxacans to their villages in Mexico. For Delgado, this particularly inspiring exchange happened in the form of a homemade DVD that a relative sent him from Yalalag, his own hometown in Oaxaca.
The DVD featured a visual rendition of what could very well be the first satirical enactment of American superheroes in a traditional celebration from Yalalag. The visual rendition thus presented an instance where the dance tradition, through the performance of the superheroes, confronted Yalaltecos from their own town with the specter of their own migrants living in the United States. Upon watching and replaying the DVD in Los Angeles, Delgado set out to replicate what was conveyed through the recording as a process of mimesis, a cultural reenactment that displayed the social and symbolic remittances that migration enables so that a community in diaspora remains interconnected.
In Yalalag, where the DVD was recorded, when the ‘superheroes’ first appeared, the act was within the parameters of the traditional dances commonly known as ‘danzas chuscas,’ or funny dances. Through such dances, performed mostly by men, the Yalalag community parodies other communities, taking elements of their identity. One well-known example, and perhaps one of the first acts that started the ‘danzas chuscas,’ was when a dance group in Yalalag enacted the ‘danza de los mixes.’ The Mixe region, like Yalalag, is in northern Oaxaca, and the Mixe have been customarily derided for being too traditional, according to nationally recognized Zapotec writer and cultural promoter, Javier Castellanos.
Since the 1980s the danzas chuscas have been directed at immigrants returning home from abroad. For Yalaltecos in Oaxaca, the U.S.-based immigrants embody traces of assimilated American values, which the performances reenact as a form of cultural resistance and social critique with the intention of cultivating self-reflection.
Through parody and tradition, that first time the live performance of the ‘superheroes’ came to Yalalag, it arrived as an unsolicited trade and was welcomed as a reminder of distant members navigating other cultures. There in Oaxaca, Yalaltecos got to see, in a single act, the visual and symbolic dimension of transnational migration. In all its brevity, the performance was a single act of American fictional heroism that assaulted Yalalag from within, disappeared into the lens of a video camera and turned out into a DVD that was then exported to Los Angeles.
For Delgado in Los Angeles, replaying the performance from the imported DVD was more than symbolic and satirical. It was an overdue epiphany. As he blankly stared at the streaming video, he understood that cultural distance had been somewhat bridged. What he once perceived as culturally foreign was now, in fact, his own. For him, Yalaltecos in his hometown had embraced the image of the superheroes as a proper sign, much in the same way he had long ago accepted that same image as part of who he is as an immigrant in the U.S. So, when he decided to recreate the performance, he chose not to do it as a form of social critique, but for more meaningful reasons.
In Delgado’s version, the performance became a way of paying tribute to the audacity of the Yalalag performers, who figured out that beneath American mainstream characters, traditional practices are reproduced. But above all, his Los Angeles version was a way of projecting to the local audience a new sense of self by recognizing that one can be part of the U.S., and especially California, without ceasing to be Zapotec and specifically, Yalalteco.
After a few trial runs, and some minor negative responses from community members, Los Superhéroes became a crowd favorite. The reason is simple: “The dance allows young kids to identify with each character and see how their favorite character connects to their culture and traditions. And that is the dream of any kid,” Delgado said.
Representing the dreams of young children might be just a projection of the dancers’ own desires, but that is not all what Familia Zapoteca enacts. Since the success of Los Superhéroes in 2014, the group continues to enact the performance and has added other singular acts to the repertoire. For instance, “Los cocineros” pays tribute and satirizes the numerous members of their community who work in the food industry. As it specifically relates to men, Los cocineros points to shifting gender roles, and comments on the fact that immigrant men must enter the kitchen setting for economic survival.
Another performance, “Los turistas,” references the modern Hawaiian-shirt tourist that hordes ethnic paradises in the third world. It also, quite possibly, alludes to the returning immigrant who enters the community of origin as a temporal visitor.
In “Los payasos,” the group embodies the popular figure of the clown, as to take to the extreme the satirical nature of their dance tradition. And, in “La danza de Santa Claus,” the yearly act with which the group celebrates and ends a long year of performances, an empty-handed Santa Claus comes in a shopping cart, to make communion with an immigrant Zapotec community celebrating yet another Catholic festivity, this time Christmas.
In all, the performances are new only superficially and each is new only momentarily. In due time, just as other performances have become integral acts of Yalaltecos’ dance selection, “Los Superhéroes” will secure a place in that list of possible acts, or at least the current dancers seem to expect this to happen.
Asai Alejo, who performs as Deadpool, likes to think that the superheroes will remain in the Yalalag dance tradition as a reminder of what his generation contributed.
“Children love the dance… and I hope that the dance will remain as part of the other acts we perform because it is something we have accomplished. And I hope it can continue for many years to come,” Alejo said.
Alejo speaks with self-assurance and without a hint of satirical intent. He is hopeful and confident because he knows that behind the paper-plate shield of Captain America, deep beneath the backpacks bulging out Santa Claus’s belly, and the countless folded garments that shape up the characters, there lays the fundamental grain of a tradition that allows the dancers to sustain a dance that incorporates what is foreign into their own. For that reason, the dancers rehearse each step arduously.
At weekly practices, dancers line up face to face in two parallel rows. As the music begins, each dancer steps forward then strides side-to-side, and the rows move in opposite directions. At each step, they pace gleefully and rotate around each other. As if forming couples, they raise arms high and faces look jauntily into the horizon beyond the backyard of the American Craftsman house, where Familia Zapoteca earnestly practices for upcoming performances.
- All photos taken by Leopoldo Peña.
 Zapotecs are one of the largest indigenous people in southern Mexico. The Zapotecs, like other Mexican Indigenous groups, began migrating to the United States in the 1980s.
 Yalalteco/a is the Spanish term for natives of Yalalag.
 Translated, “Zapotec Family Dance Group.”
 Another feature of the transnational aspect of the performance is the importation of music scores. For these, the dancers share the expenses for having a musician in their hometown produce a score sheet that a Los Angeles-based band plays for the performances. For details on how transnationally plays out in indigenous Mexican migrant communities see Jonathan Fox and Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, Indigenous Mexican Migrants in the United States, Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, UCSD/Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, 2004, and Lynn Stephen, Transborder Lives: Indigenous Oaxacans in Mexico, California, and Oregon (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).
 Funny is a literal translation of “chusca/o”; however, within the semantics of the performance, “chusca/o” contains a stronger element of parody, satire and intent to caricature.
 Personal interview, 3 August 2016, Los Angeles.
 For a discussion of how “danzas chuscas” engages questions of gender and class differences, see Adriana Cruz-Manjarrez, “‘Danzas Chuscas’ Performing Migration in a Zapotec Community,” Dance Research Journal 40 (2008): 2-33.
 Performances, even funerals, in Los Angeles are also recorded and these recordings are sent to Oaxaca as well.
 Personal interview, 24 June 2016, Los Angeles.
 Personal interview, 24 June 2016, Los Angeles.
Leopoldo Peña is a Mexican-immigrant, photographer, and Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at UC Irvine. His dissertation focuses on photography in early twentieth century Mexico, and maintains interest in Zapotec literary production.
Copyright: © 2017 Leopoldo Peña. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/