As a Mexican-American woman unsuccessfully searching for a sense of home on both sides of the border, Vanessa Sanchez decided to create her own hybrid realm. The San Francisco dancer and choreographer is the founder and guiding spirit behind La Mezcla, the singular Mission District dance troupe that combines the jazz-steeped rhythms of tap with the percussive footwork of Veracruz’s son jarocho, kindred traditions linked by their African diasporic roots.
La Mezcla has been making its presence felt in the neighborhood in recent years, but the company got a sudden jolt of national attention Tuesday when it was featured on the latest episode of KQED Arts’ award-winning video series If Cities Could Dance. The piece captures the all-women troupe performing excerpts from their project Pachuquísmo amidst iconic Mission murals and landmarks. With outfits, makeup and hairstyles reminiscent of style-innovating pachucas, the company celebrates the overlooked legacy of the Chicanas who became media fodder during the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles.
With Pachuquísmo performances cancelled or postponed due to the pandemic, Sanchez is particularly grateful for the opportunity to share La Mezcla’s work. “It’s really amazing to see it on this large national platform, to get these narratives out there,” she says. “Everything I do within La Mezcla is rooted in the community and what the community wants and needs. For most of the time I’ve been performing I never saw narratives on the dance stage that I felt connected to me.”
La Mezcla emerged out of Sanchez’s search for a form of expression that jibed with her identity. She had already immersed herself in an array of Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Brazilian traditions when she decided to delve more deeply into her Mexican heritage. Starting in 2010, she spent several years studying dance in Veracruz, Mexico, focusing on the intricate, percussive footwork, or zapateado, that dancers perform on a wooden platform as part of son jarocho, a folkloric tradition deeply influenced by West Africans brought to the Gulf of Mexico port as slaves for sugar cane plantations.
Studying with a group of friends, “I’d teach them tap phrases and they’d teach me some zapateado,” Sanchez says. “In the U.S. people look at me as a Mexican, and as soon as I go to Mexico I’m the gringa. I felt in between two worlds, not white enough for the U.S. but too American for traditional Mexican culture. When I moved back to San Francisco I wanted to continue this musical and rhythmic dialogue, this percussive narrative that’s really a mix of my cultural identity.”
One challenge that Sanchez has faced is that La Mezcla doesn’t fit easily into the dance world’s dominant categories. Simply put, the company’s evolving style isn’t traditional enough for folkloric festivals and is too traditional for modern dance events. “I decided I’m going to make my own space to create these fusion-meets-contemporary pieces, challenging what is seen as contemporary dance,” she says.
La Mezcla might be a dance world outlier, but it fit perfectly into the purview of If Cities Could Dance. KQED launched the series in the spring of 2018, focusing on little-known dance scenes. A grant from Oakland-based Kenneth Rainin Foundation allowed the program to take on national scope.
With episodes on Portland, Oregon, aerialist Jack StockLynn and his Sir Cupcake’s Queer Circus, Baltimore, Maryland’s, explosively kinetic style-club dance, and San Francisco vogue dancers Shea Mizrahi and DJ Spiider, the show quickly gained recognition, earning a coveted People’s Choice Webby Award. The piece on La Mezcla is part of the series’ third season and it premiered the same day that If Cities Could Dance won a second Webby, beating out well-heeled Travel & Lifestyle competitors.
The category might sound like it recognizes lightweight fare, but just about every If Cities Could Dance episode situates the human body in contested territory. “The subtext of the series is looking at artists holding it down in neighborhoods being gentrified, where culture is at risk of disappearing,” says series co-creator Kelly Whalen, senior digital video producer for KQED Arts. “The women of La Mezcla are really culture keepers. Vanessa is bringing these two different dance styles together that share these African diaspora elements, reflecting her Mexican-American identity. It’s beautiful and ingenious.”
Next week If Cities Could Dance posts a brief follow up piece by La Mezcla teaching some basic tap steps to the Tito Puente dance anthem that Mission-raised Carlos Santana turned into a Latin rock classic, “Oye Como Va.” It’s a canny choice of music, reflecting the neighborhood’s role as a hotbed of cutting-edge Latino culture for more than half a century. Sanchez and her La Mezcla collaborators embody the fact that, while endangered by a decade of skyrocketing rents, the Mission continues to nurture Chicanx artists.
“The community is still there,” Sanchez says. “It’s shrinking. People have been pushed out but it’s still amazing and rich and really powerful.”