Valerie Villegas ’25 didn’t dance before she came to Brown. With the exception of informal dances with her family as a child, it was never something that she did consistently — until she arrived on campus and participated in the Third World Transition Program, Brown’s pre-orientation program geared toward students of color.
During the TWTP dance social events, “I really put myself out there and danced for fun,” Villegas said. “One of the company directors for Mezcla was involved in TWTP, and she stopped me and (said), ‘You need to audition.’”
Although she did not have any formal dance training, Villegas decided to give it a try. Looking back now, she’s glad she did.
“My biggest Latinx community on campus is from Mezcla, and it’s funny because we are not a strictly Latinx-identifying group,” Villegas said. “We are a mix of a bunch of cultures and backgrounds, but our main goal is to celebrate and make our culture more accessible to other people … I feel extremely supported,” she added.
Mezcla, a Spanish term which translates to “mix” in English, currently serves as Brown and Rhode Island School of Design’s only Latin-fusion dance troupe. The club’s origins date back to the 1990s, when it was founded by Elizabeth Garcia ’94.
Garcia, who is currently an ethnic studies professor at the University of Colorado Denver, recalled feeling isolated as a Latinx student during her time at Brown.
“30 years ago, Brown was a very different place than it is now. There weren’t a lot of students of color, (specifically) Latinx students,” she said. “Dancing was my way of relieving stress, of being able to deal with the everyday (life) of being a (student) of color at Brown.”
Given the University’s lack of a cultural performance organization at the time, Garcia made the decision to create Mezcla, a small dance group that began with just her and her friends.
“I felt like we needed a place where we could very loudly say and express that we were proud of who we were and our culture, and I think that’s what Mezcla was able to do,” Garcia said. “I think that’s why it has survived for so many years.”
For Shantal Hernandez ’23, one of Mezcla’s co-directors, Mezcla helped her embrace a culture that she previously tried to hide.
“I moved to the U.S. from Mexico, and (lived) in a predominantly white city in the middle of Iowa. I stood out a lot,” she explained. “I tried to get rid of my background and assimilate as much as possible, and I became really ashamed of my culture … because it wasn’t something that was welcomed or something that I ever saw.”
During her first year at Brown, Hernandez described experiencing an epiphany, realizing that her culture was not only beautiful, but also something that she should share with the world.
“The pride shown toward the Latinx community made me want to embrace my culture, my heritage and my history,” she said. “Mezcla was an incredible space to develop my own identity … it made a huge difference to have that group of people there because I feel like today, I have a much better sense of who I am.”
For Nia Callender ’23, Mezcla’s other co-director, that feeling of pride in the dance group was evident as soon as she walked in to audition.
“It was kind of surreal,” she said. “The minute I stepped into the room, it was so positive. You could just tell there was so much love and so much passion for dancing.”
In addition to helping members explore their sense of self, Callender added that Mezcla also provides an opportunity for the broader community to engage with a culture they may not otherwise be familiar with.
“We have the privilege (of) sharing (our work) with the Brown community and hosting public workshops. We’re forcing, in the best way possible, Latinx culture (throughout) Brown,” Callender said. “Nobody can ignore us (or) deny that we’re here, we’re dancing, we’re celebrating, and we’re having an amazing time doing it.”
“I think that (performances) make Brown a better place for all cultural groups who perform,” she added.
While the group was created for Latinx students, Hernandez described the current diversity of the group as “beautiful,” citing the inclusion of individuals from Latin American countries, the Latinx diaspora and those that are not Latinx but love the Latinx community.
Callender and Hernandez added that this diversity is not only evident within the group, but among their audiences as well.
“There are two beautiful things that happen at the same time. You have people in our audience who are finally seeing something on campus that they haven’t been able to see before: their culture represented,” Callender said. “We (also) have people who (say) ‘I’ve never seen that before. You should be performing everywhere.’ Both of those pieces of feedback are great to receive.”
“Our first year, after the show, I had people that were Latinx come up to me and say that so many Latinx students cried during the show because they felt so emotionally connected and uplifted by it,” Hernandez said. “Then, a white friend of mine, who has no connection to the Latinx community, said that it was the ‘purest form of art’ that he’d ever seen.”
“To recognize these non-Western styles of dance as art is really important,” Hernandez added.
For Garcia, the attention that Mezcla receives continues to surprise her. In Mezcla’s initial years, the attention that the group got was substantially different.
“We didn’t get any attention at all … the students of color were invisible to the mainstream campus … we existed separately,” Garcia said. “It still blows my mind when every few years, I get contacted by someone from Mezcla … I never set out to create an organization that was (going to) outlast me.”
When describing the group’s growing popularity and influence, Callender looked toward the influential figures of the past.
“We’re now in a position where we are being recognized as a very powerful dance group on campus,” Callender said. “Our show gets sold out … because so many people want to come … that is (reflective) of all of the (generations) before us who have put in so much work to put the name out there.”
As far as the future of Mezcla goes, Hernandez and Callender are both confident that the group will continue to thrive after they are gone.
“I see a lot of hope,” Callender began. “We have a group of really enthusiastic, very passionate people, and I have no doubt in my mind that we’re going to keep growing.”
While Garcia expressed her belief that there will always be people who don’t want to see students of color thrive, she also had hope for the future of the group.
“The climate and the community at Brown has changed since I was there,” she said. “As long as students are willing to participate and uphold spaces like Mezcla, then there is reason to be hopeful.”
Aniyah Nelson is a senior staff writer covering diversity on campus. She is a sophomore from Cleveland, Ohio concentrating in political science and sociology.