Behind the Scenes at the DAM

Janelle Ayón of Dancing Across Cultures Talks About US & Mexican Cowboy Culture as Part of CelebrARTE: Fronteras

This Sunday at CelebrARTE we are taking a look at The American West in Bronze, 1850–1925, and exploring the idea of la frontera with Janelle Ayón and Dancing Across Cultures. La frontera can mean many things, including literal borders, but mainly refers to back when “the West was won” Colorado and to when the American West was actually El Norte—the frontera or the Northern frontier lands of Mexico. When the pioneers, frontiersmen, and cowboys started to move through the region, they picked up some cues from the vaqueros (Mexican cowboys) and the other local mexicanos that had settled the region generations before.

Today, I’m asking Janelle about Mexico’s extensive cowboy culture and its influence on the culture of the American West.

Madalena Salazar: Janelle, you are from Denver, and lived in New Mexico and in Mexico City where you participated in the Ballet Fólklorico Nacional de México. Based on your experiences, how would you describe the culture of this region?

Janelle Ayón: The culture of the Southwest is unique to other areas of the United States. The Camino Real from the south ends in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the trains traveling east and west picked up in Santa Fe. This area of the "frontier," was a meeting place of commerce, rest, entertainment, and home to several cultures and walks of life. This area of the United States is a crossing of native traditions from tribes of the United States and Mexico, taken claim by Spain. These two cultures produce the mestizo, or as northern New Mexicans say manito. Because this was a crossroads of business and leisure, settlers from the East left their print in the Southwest and for many generations creative and spiritual people are drawn to the Southwest for its visual beauty and holistic feeling and environment.

MS: You have told me a lot about charrería. What is it, and is it connected in any way to what we might see in the exhibition?

JA: Charreria is the traditional Mexican equestrian pastime and the national sport of Mexico. This elegant display of skills by Mexican charros and escaramuzas (females riding side saddle) consists of 12 suertes, or categories that make up charreada. A charreada is an all day event of competition, music, food, and community. Men wear ornate trajes de charro and women wear china poblana dresses, and also are scored on their attire.

MS: You dance Mexican ballet folklórico, but what’s the connection between this and charro culture?

JA: Many traditional songs and dances of Mexico are about animals. There are several mariachi sones that are about horses, but in a double entender, in Spanish doble sentido are about love and romance. The dances, jarabes, accompany these gregarious songs.

MS: Why is it important for you to keep these cultural practices alive among the communities of Denver?

JA: The mission for Dancing Across Cultures is to eliminate cultural barriers by sharing traditions, and identifying how we are unique from different ethnicities and background, and to celebrate how we are connected by our ancestors moving from one place to another. Colorado is Native American land, was a territory of Mexico, famous for the gold rush, and now a melting pot. We must share this history with our diverse communities, and visitors of our beautiful state.

MS: So what can visitors expect to see and do when they come to participate with you this month at CelebrARTE?

JA: Join us for an afternoon of dancing, music, and history of how the frontier was influenced by Mexico. How the Southwest was a fusion of many cultures that had the same challenges passing through this area, and with the same resources, like the horse. How the charros, cowboys, Native Americans, and women approached life in similar but distinct ways.

MS: Sound so fun. I can’t wait to twirl a lasso like a real charra!

Madalena Salazar is the Latino cultural programs coordinator in the education department at the Denver Art Museum. Madalena has been at the DAM since 2011 and her favorite artwork that has been on view here is Mud Woman Rolls On. This piece reminds her of home, family, and community and serves as inspiration for her practice as a museum educator at the DAM.