When Jessice Maria Recinos first stepped off the plane in El Salvador in June of this year, she was nervous. The visit represented a return to her roots, to the land her grandfather left 50 years ago.
But insecurity haunted her, not only because of her family’s warnings of the violence and poverty that awaited her in Central America’s smallest country, but the trepidation of her journey to understand more about her identity.
“My first trip was more personal, to connect to the actual country,” said Recinos, a 29-year-old multidisciplinary artist who is passionate about advocating for Latinx arts and cultures. “Once the fear was out of me, it felt different. I can feel my ancestors as I step on this land. It was so emotional and I never had that feeling, ever.”
The visit is a part of “Indigo Azul,” her video project aimed at families that will explore the influence of Salvadoran culture on the Bay Area’s art and dance scene.
The online educational videos, funded by the Dancers’ Group and the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, follows a project that she bootstrapped during the pandemic with another artist, Manolo Davila. Some of those, a mix of dance and science education, appeared on “SF Loves Learning,” a one-hour show that aired every weekday in 2020.
For that, Recinos collaborated with the San Francisco Unified School District and San Francisco Ballet. “Through those we were able to not only just create lessons, like recording a dance class, but also make it fun and more cinematic,” she said.
That experience has given her the confidence to pursue a much more personal project, one that began long ago.
Reconnecting with the culture
Recinos started her dancing career at the age of 16. She embraced all kinds of dancing styles — voguing, Afro-latin, hip-hop — and established her own dancing company, Rising Rhythms. But deep down, she was looking for something unique from her ancestors.
Her feelings about El Salvador, however, were mixed. Her family’s life there was so hard that no one wanted to discuss it. For her part, Recinos felt deeply disconnected. Born and raised in San Francisco, she felt more comfortable speaking English than Spanish and doubted the legitimacy of her even claiming Salvadoran culture.
Her grandfather, Jose Luis Parada, offered a way in. Parada, an avid reader and writer of poetry and songs, immigrated to San Francisco in 1969 and soon brought his wife and two daughters.
“He was the only one in the family who liked sharing all the stories, and it really made me feel like I wanted to connect more to who I am,” said Recinos.
Through Parada’s poems, she learned the beauty of El Salvador for the first time. She also learned that grandfather and several other Salvadoran friends created La Sociedad Procultura Salvadorea in the 1980s. The society promoted the country’s literature and music through dances, parades, and cultural performances.
As she got older, she was inspired to do something similar, to start celebrating her culture and letting more people know about it.
An outsider seeking understanding
Recinos knew that the Salvadoran story, other than the history of its civil war or gang violence, was underrepresented in conversations about Latinx culture.
Recinos understood through her grandfather that it represented much more. “What El Salvador represents shouldn’t just be violence … but the celebration, the joy, the pride, the love that is always there,” said Recinos.
No matter that doing the research was out of her comfort zone and that her Spanish was rusty, she started reaching out to distant relatives and others there.
Her journey reaffirmed the importance of embracing her bilingual identity. She still feels like an outsider, but she now looks at this as an advantage to connect different people, and break mutual stereotypes.
In El Salvador, she talked to street vendors, bus drivers, business owners and butchers to learn their life stories.“Once I was honest with them that my Spanish is okay, but I need some help, they were very accommodating and loving,” she said.
Dancing is a way of expressing without words
The project brings together her love of dance — she has been dancing since the third grade — and her love of Salvadoran culture, while passing it on to a younger generation.
“It’s crucial for us to have bilingual education. I want my students to know that we can still celebrate the culture, but also integrate English in a way, because you live here. It’s to help you make connections with people and navigate the world,” said Recinos.
During the pandemic, Recinos worked with San Francisco Ballet to create more than 20 five-minute educational videos for SF Loves Learning. For those, she and her partner did the scripts, shooting, editing and appeared on camera.
The segments often dealt with explaining a science concept through body movements, for example, mimicking molecular motion in a hot air balloon. Through dancing, children can also learn how to wash their hands and sneeze properly in public.
Now, she’s applying those experiences into her more personal project, “Indigo Azul,” a series of 10-minute videos designed for the family audience. In each she will discuss topics of colonial, indigenous, African and street-style dance culture in El Salvador and Bay Area.
Recinos is in the development stage and looking for more collaborators. If you are interested and would like to be part of her project, you can contact her at email@example.com.