May 11, 2021
The Ballet Folklórico de México (BFM) is perhaps one of the most renown dance companies in Mexico. Established in 1952 by Amalia Hernandez, the inception of the Ballet Folklórico de México sprang from and coincided with the rehabilitation of Mexico’s national identity. The BFM and the Mexican government developed a reciprocal relationship throughout the mid-twentieth century to uphold the prosperity of the nation. The Mexican government invested in the Ballet to promote Mexico’s image and forge political and economic ties, while the support of the government elevated the dance company’s artistic prestige. Amalia Hernandez and the Mexican government profited greatly off of the commercialization of “authentic” Mexican traditions. However, as this relationship benefited the development of the nation at the highest levels of society, the development of state-funded art and nationalized policies economically, politically, and socially buried the lowest levels of society represented in these outlandish displays of culture.1
Amalia Hernandez was born on September 19, 1917, in the midst of the Mexican Revolution. The Hernandez family was a part of Mexico’s political elite as her father Lamberto was an army general during the Revolution, which leveraged him to become the mayor of their hometown. Outside of the political sphere, her father was a successful businessman and retained a good deal of wealth for himself and his family.2 Amalia’s father owned several parcels of land throughout the countryside of Mexico, in which he employed the local native or mestizo communities as ranch hands and house servants. These were Amalia’s first encounters with indigenous traditions that would later steer her approach in refining and commercializing “folkloric” dance.3
Inspired by the national movement towards Mexican art, Amalia’s parent funneled their wealth into the artistic development of their daughter. Amalia’s father arranged for a personal dance studio to be built in their own house so that he could hire dance instructors to give specialized lessons to his daughter directly. Amalia began training with Russian ballet artists such as Hypoite Sybine and Parisian artist Madame Nesly Dambre. Amalia spent time studying Asian, Spanish, and regional Mexican dance, along with theatre, tap, and contemporary genres. Amalia received top of the line dance instruction and one-on-one attention without having to leave the comfort of her home, two privileges that many other young artists would have to compete for. Her family continued to support her ballet training abroad in San Antonio, Texas, as well as when she returned to Mexico to complete her dance education at the National School of Dance.4 The road was well paved by her family’s money and political connections.
In 1946, Amalia began working at the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (INBA), a government-funded arts institute established to promote Mexican image through various art media. Hernandez worked in the Mexican Academy of Dance as a choreographer and instructor. Throughout her time as a choreographer, Amalia always kept the folkloric artistic expressions she witnessed as a child on her family’s ranches in the back of her mind. Amalia had an affinity for Mexican traditions and indigenous culture, as romantic interpretations of indigenous culture were prominent throughout her childhood, especially within the political circles her father ran in. However, Miguel Covarrubias, the then-director of the INBA’s Department of Dance, did not approve of Amalia’s artistic inclination towards indigenous dance, believing that the institute should only represent a modern Mexico. In response, Hernandez left INBA to work on forming her own dance group to blend these ideas of tradition and modernization.5 Amalia studied pre-Columbian artwork, artifacts, and anthropology, with which she would later reinterpret indigenous history and culture using European dance techniques.6 Amalia and her family were a part of the remaking of the Mexican national identity; Amalia’s upbringing was a sheltered, privileged one that made her believe in the romantic narrative of “new Mexico.” She’d carry on this ideology in the formation of her dance company.7
While Amalia Hernandez’s dance company really brought folkloric traditions to the forefront of Mexican popular culture, the study of folkloric traditions had been well in the works of Mexico’s Department of Education decades before. Widespread interest in folklórico dance in Mexico spurred up a couple of decades before Amalia’s professional career. Following the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), the Mexican government, under the presidency of Álvaro Obregón, embarked on largescale efforts to instill a new sense of national pride.8 The country had been physically and ideologically wrecked by competing classes and political factions. The Mexican government was desperate to reunite the populous and believed they could mend their broken past by reinventing it. The government turned to the arts and to education as the first channels to propagate this new narrative known as indigenismo.
Indigenismo was a social, artistic, and political movement that glorified Mexico’s unique indigenous past by promoting pre-Columbian ‘folk’ art in the public sphere.9 The belief was that if citizens could connect with this unique, shared ethnic history, they would rally behind their country and government as this institution recovers from decades of devastation.10 In 1919, Álvaro Obregón established the Secretaria de Educación Pública (SEP) and appointed José Vasconcelos as the department’s first Minister.11 The purpose of Vasconcelos’ appointment was to apply his ideology of the new cultural and racial structure of Mexico.12 The Mexican government began its reinterpretation of the Mexican state through the public education system. José Vasconcelos was a writer and philosopher who was intensely observant and critical of the Mexican Revolution. He witnessed and tired of the political instability that plagued the rest of the country and damaged the international appearance of Mexico. Mexican citizens also began to lose faith in their country as they retreated to the United States in droves to save their lives.13 Vasconcelos believed the country could be saved if they got back to their roots. Vasconcelos was the perfect choice to lead the educational efforts that focused on developing new cultural traditions at the earliest levels of education.14 At the same time, Vasconcelos independently promoted his own perspective on the indigenismo ideology. In 1925, José Vasconcelos published his most notable piece of literature, “La Raza Cósmica,” which promoted a new age of national identity, grounded in aesthetic portrayals of Mexico’s mixed indio and European blood.15 This was known as mestizaje. Mestizaje and “La Raza Cósmica” inaugurated the enduring idea that Mexican people are unlike any other because of their mixed indigenous and European blood, therefore they will endure whatever hardships come their way (such as war).
Folklórico was one of the many artistic embodiments of indigenismo and mestizaje, and a tool for forging what Olga Najera Ramirez calls “a collective symbol of identity.”16 In 1928, the SEP embarked on “cultural missions,” sending SEP agents to remote mestizo and native villages to document their artistic customs with the goal of standardizing these traditions into the Mexican primary curriculum. The SEP instilled a narrated cultural awareness at the earliest stages of childhood development, hoping to foster the next generation of ideal, loyal Mexican citizens who believed in this shared cultural history.17 In his observations of the Mexican school system in 1936—still in the afterglow of the Mexican Revolution—George C. Booth describes the teacher-student dynamics of education. Teachers were the channels of this new form of cultural education that instilled in the next generation to appreciate Mexico for Mexico’s sake. The post-Revolution curriculum highlighted Mexico’s cultural individuality: a nation that embraces their traditions but looks towards the future. “In short, it insists that Mexico is no longer a colonial province to be exploited at will by foreign nations and ideas, but rather that Mexico is a sovereign power with cultural attributes worthy of recognition.”18 As the Minister of Education, José Vasconcelos also focused on incorporating indigenismo in higher education, specifically in art institutions. The SEP became a faithful patron of arts, sponsoring artists such as Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, collectively known as the “Big Three.” The SEP and the Mexican government took an interest in the arts as a way to publicize images of the imagined past to the masses and beautify Mexico’s exterior as the government modernized the infrastructure.19 Throughout the post-Revolution era, the Mexican government often tapped these three artists to create large murals in the city centers that captured the hardships of war, glorified Mexico’s indigenous past, and depicted glamorized images of Mexico’s present. Like primary education, these murals were meant to evoke a sense of community and rally Mexicans behind their government as these institutions tried to piece together Mexico’s fragmented past. Folklórico dance was part of this calculated, elaborate regeneration of the Mexican nation.20
Throughout the late 1930s, the Mexican government brought folkloric dance outside of the classroom and into the public sphere by inviting a few indigenous groups to the capital to perform and showcase their authentic folk dances. These dances were not the traditional, stylized or rigidly choreographed routines, but rather communal processions loosely organized according to tradition. By inviting these groups in to perform, the government was able to show off the unique, diverse culture of various Mexican regions and document these displays of culture to continue to develop routines for school curriculum.21 It was these initial interests and display of indigenous traditions of Mexico that would lead to the development of ballet folklórico as we know it today.
However, by standardizing indigenous dance in the education system, the SEP watered down the legitimate traditions of indigenous and mestizo groups in Mexico, groups that were often physically, economically, and politically isolated from mainstream Mexican society. These dances stereotyped these groups of people and further justified their exclusion. Folklórico presented these groups as myths or as ancient traditions of Mexico, assuming they were far from the present “modern” country Mexico was striving to push forth. In reality, the livelihoods of indigenous groups were gradually declining. As Mexico modernized the infrastructure and mechanized agricultural production, these initiatives physically and economically displaced indigenous groups who earned a living as farmworkers and resided mostly in the countryside. The government bought up large parcels of land, introduced machines to mass produce goods, and left these communities homeless, unemployed, and neglected. Some groups fled to the United States in search of job opportunities, others found work in urban centers as servants to the upper class that reveled in this new era of Mexico.22
It is unknown whether Amalia Hernandez was aware of the generalized folkloric lesson in public education, nor whether she was inspired by early folkloric dance lessons. However, through their political connections and economic privilege, the Hernandez family believed in this ‘cosmic race’ ideology as they benefited from the momentum of larger policies.23 After breaking from the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (INBA) in the late 1940s, and after spending some time studying Pre-Colombian artwork, Amalia established the Ballet Moderno de México in 1952 with just eight dancers including herself. Amalia crafted what she believed were genuine representations of Mexico’s indigenous and mestizo culture through classical, European dance techniques to epitomize Mexico’s unique racial history. The Ballet Moderno’s first gig was at the Sala Chopin in Mexico City, a prestigious music academy. This is where Amalia debuted her first and most symbolic choreographies, the “Sones de Michoacán” (Melodies of Michoacán).24 This was a theatrical portrayal of the regional culture of Michoacán set to a string orchestra with ballet technique. The costuming was brightly colored, satin material that more closely resembled the classic, lyrical ballerina skirt. Amalia and her Ballet Moderno got their big break performing on the weekly television show “Función de Gala” (Performance Showcase) that featured a new dance performance every week. Each dance represented a specific state and region in Mexico. The footwork, costuming, and music were tied to historical, geographical, and cultural characteristics of the specific region. However, these elements were amplified by stage costumes and western technique that refined the movement and the appearance on stage.
Amalia’s unique artistic mezcla of romanticized Mexican traditions and en vogue European style revamped early school-house choreographies to become the legitimate, intricate genre to compete with traditional dance genres. Ballet Moderno’s popularity prompted the show’s creator, Azcárraga Vidaurreta, to book the group for 67 more performances, and Amalia was able to increase her dance troupe to 20 dancers.25 The frequency of performances and having a larger group pushed Amalia to create more elaborate dances with more intricate technique that competed with western dance genres such as classical ballet. Amalia’s culturally inspired dances caught the eye of several governmental departments who saw this company as the perfect opportunity to promote Mexico’s unique, indigenous yet modern aesthetic internationally and raise the country’s economic and political clout.26 The government’s interest and endorsement of this new art form skyrocketed the Ballet, and Amalia’s prestige.
In 1958, the Mexican Department of Tourism tapped the then-small dance troupe to represent Mexico in a series of international performances throughout North America. Those same years, Ballet Moderno represented the state in Festival del Pacífico in Cuba. In 1959 the director of Mexico’s International Cultural Promotion Organizations asked Amalia is she could, again, represent Mexico in another major cultural and political event, the Pan-American Games in Chicago, Illinois.27
This was a chance for Mexico to show off the unique, mestizo culture of Mexico through engaging in a friendly competition, and Amalia’s folklórico was the perfect embodiment of that. For this event, Amalia stepped it up a notch, increasing her troupe to fifty dancers. Amalia saw the Ballet’s national and international acclaim grow, and she kept her eye on the strengthening partnership between her company and the state. Amalia changed the group’s name to the Ballet Folklórico de México to signify the direct relationship with the state and signify their status as the cultural representative of Mexico. The success at the Pan-American showcase prompted the President himself, then Adolfo López Mateos (1958-1964), to reach out to Amalia Hernandez and extend his full support in growing the dance group’s visibility. President Mateos arranged weekly performances at the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (INBA), which turned into a permanent, fully sponsored program in October 1959.28 Just as she did in Función de Gala, Amalia’s group captivated American audiences with their mixture of old and new world that made Mexico so “culturally rich.” The Ballet Folklórico de Mexico was among the first cultural representatives the Mexican government could count on to showcase Mexico’s exotic, marketable, and stylish nation.29 In less than ten years, the Ballet Folklórico de Mexico became an official organ of the state, and Amalia Hernandez became an icon of modern Mexican art.
While the success of the Ballet Folklórico de México was just taking off, Mexico was in the middle of its “Golden Era.” From roughly 1940 to 1960, Mexico experienced their own sort of cultural renaissance: an influential era in popular culture supported by and giving way to a growing tourism industry and a steady economy. The term “Golden Era,” however, is more commonly associated with the height of the Mexican film industry. This twenty-year period was largely an effect of active government programs and policies to nationalize not only the economy but the artistic presentation of Mexico within and abroad.
Throughout the 1940s, then President Manuel Ávila Camacho (1940-1946) launched a more comprehensive propaganda agenda to foster national unity and revamp Mexico’s internal and external reputation. The outbreak of World War II and the technological advances in mass communication also presented an opportunity to take the country’s international image in the political, economic, and entertainment realms further.30 Specifically, Camacho wanted to open the country up to the United States as both an ally and as an economic and cultural competitor. Mexico declared war on Germany in May 1942 after German forces destroyed Mexican oil tankers, prompting the government to initiate compulsory service that following August, which brought about a widespread backlash.31 President Camacho desperately needed domestic support for the industrialization of the military and the continuing modernization of Mexico’s infrastructure and agricultural production. Through various forms of media such as print magazines, radio, television, and film, the Mexican government published pro-war and pro-Mexico rhetoric. Mexico’s developing film industry was by far the most influential in rallying citizens behind a revitalized Mexican identity, an initiative that lasted well beyond the war years. In 1947, the government created the Banco Cinematográfico to fund and ensure that Mexican films fell in line with the government’s social-political agenda.32 A good example of this is the 1943 film ¡Mexicanos al gritos de Guerra!, a reenactment of the May 5 victory in Puebla in 1862 (Cinco de Mayo). This film glamorized the “sensation” of war that not only championed the World War II effort, but brought back memories of the Mexican Revolution and reminded Mexican citizens of the might of their country.33 In the same vein, however, this film, like so many others within the Golden Era, pushed forth stereotypical depictions of Mexico’s rural, largely indigenous communities.34 The india/o trope in Mexican film and illustrative media presented natives as passive, peaceful, and mysteriously talented and beautiful beings separate from Mexico’s real society. Indias/os represented escapism, and their staged presence was digestible to a high-class audience.35 This is reminiscent of early public depictions of indigenous traditions in standardized folkloric dances in school curriculum and mirrored the phenomenon of the Ballet Folklórico de México. However, it wasn’t always the story of the naïve native. Mexican films also served as a kind of brochure to advertise the wealth and opulence also available in Mexico. Scripted portrayals of Mexico’s ancient and modern culture presented the country as a complex ecosystem, an experience rather than a functioning society. To an outsider, Mexico had it all.
By the 1950s, the Mexican government was heavily invested in mass media as a means of not only promoting a national culture, but as a way to stimulate the economy. Tourists flocked to Mexico in search of this exotic escape, expecting and receiving orchestrated presentations of Mexican culture. Presidents Manuel Alemán (1946-1952), Adolfo Ruiz Cortines (1952-1958), and Adolfo López Mateos (1958-1964) carried on the cultural mission of promoting Mexico as a unique, cosmopolitan society, marketing the country and its people in the entertainment and service industries.36
Amalia’s Ballet Folklórico followed along with this ideal by presenting staged, pristine tableaus of indigenous history.37 Tourist and other elite groups acted as bystanders to polished, inaccurate history lessons of Mexico’s mestizaje. The communities these films, posters, and performances were depicting were the low-wage workers serving the upper-class audiences. Underneath the glow of Mexico’s fabricated culture and glitzy tourism were the actual communities whose traditions had been commercialized for the government’s profit. While their inauthentic representations of their culture where being praised by rich, white groups, indigenous groups still lived in poverty, cut off from basic resources such as water and electricity. The Mexican government continued to forcibly remove these groups from their lands for the construction of hotels, resorts, or private land.38
Throughout the 1960s and for the rest of the century, the Ballet Folklórico de México (BFM) served as the main entertainment for some of the most elite state events at home and abroad. For example, in 1961, the Mexican government sent Amalia and her dance troupe to represent Mexico in the Festival of Nations in Paris, France—the group’s European debut.39 Throughout the 1960s, Amalia’s BFM continued to dazzle foreign audiences, often political and social elites, in the INBA’s Palacio de Bellas Artes or abroad in international cultural events. Throughout the 1970s, however, the government used the BFM as a more direct political tool to impress potential economic partners and build the international esteem of Mexico.40 Throughout the decade, Mexico experienced major economic setbacks caused by an export-oriented economy that made the country incredibly dependent on outside countries for manufactured resources and depleted the land of raw materials. By 1970, the Mexican government began to recognize the flaws in this one-sided system that promoted modernity by industrializing business, trade, and resources, but left the land and average citizens dry.41 Without their own resources to make profit of and build internal assets, Mexico began borrowing money from other countries and found themselves in massive debt by 1981.42 Nevertheless, the government had the pristine, disciplined image of the Ballet Folklórico de Mexico that could make a good impression on their international allies and ensure the Mexican people that the beautiful and rich culture of Mexico is something that would not waiver even if other institutions did.
While the decades between the end of the Mexican Revolution and the end of the Golden Era were remarkably prosperous for Mexico’s economy and upper classes, these decades are also marked by the gradual decline of indigenous rights, growing poverty, depletion of natural resources, and government corruption. The state’s endorsement of high arts in the public and international sphere was a way to mask the underlying political issues of Mexico, issues that robbed common people of their land, power, and identity. The state actively exoticized indigenous culture as the roots of a great, modern nation made up of “cosmic” blood, but never respected the actual traditions or human rights of these groups. Mexico’s Golden Era, and the endorsement of the Ballet Folklórico de México, is a great example of what is now known as cultural appropriation. Amalia Hernandez wasn’t a purposeful perpetrator of cultural appropriation. In interviews and excerpts of Amalia Hernandez reflecting on the evolution of her dance company, the artist seemed to genuinely believe her work was uniting the nation. Hernandez seemed to believe in this shared historical narrative, which she was kind of born into, as a way to inspire audiences from all over the country to strive on amid political and economic fluctuations.
A once exclusive artform that silenced indigenous communities now uplifts descendants of those communities. Today, ballet folklórico has become one of the many Mexican traditions carried across the border as groups have relocated to the U.S. to reestablish their lives and work towards a new future. Despite the commercialization of this art form in Mexico, in the United States, specifically in Texas, ballet folklórico has become a cultural refuge for Mexican American communities, and a way to celebrate their distinct heritage. The tradition of ballet folklórico is something considered to be intangible heritage, living expressions of a groups’ past that is still relevant, valued, and in a sense it serves as an essential pillar of a groups’ identity. In San Antonio, ballet folklórico has become a staple in city-wide traditions and celebrations, such as Fiesta, the Texas Folklife Festival, Day of the Dead celebrations, Christmas events, political rallies, and any weekend at Mercado (Market Square). Folklórico has become an essential ingredient in the city’s diverse make up.
Throughout the late-twentieth century, folklórico groups in the United States have formed their own official folklórico association known as the Asociación Nacional del Grupos Folklóricos (ANGF). Founded in 1973, the ANGF upholds an alternative perspective on ballet folklórico than the one pushed forth by Amalia Hernandez and the Mexican Government. Today, folklórico groups have moved away from theatric displays of indigenous and mestizo cultures so as to preserve and celebrate the raw traditions of Mexico. In the contemporary folklórico world, folklórico dances are understood to be the windows to an undocumented, largely neglected history and culture. The ANGF and affiliated folklórico groups have developed a standard for performing and teaching ballet folklórico. No one can just (although many still do) learn a few routines and begin teaching; folklórico artists must engage in historical research and acquire years of experience in order to respectfully pay homage to the various regions of Mexico they are representing. The folklórico community considers their instructors to be educators therefore, they must study and stay true to cultural standards of this contemporary, loosely structured, folklórico institution.
Ballet Folklórico de México
Victoria Villaseñor is Public History Graduate Student at St. Mary’s University. Throughout her graduate career, Victoria has focused on preserving Latino heritage of San Antonio through digital media. Victoria currently works as a research assistant for the National Association of Latino Community Asset Builders (NALCAB ) under the guidance of Dr. Gerald Poyo, documenting the evolution of Latino Community Development Corporations across the United States. Victoria will graduate in Fall 2021 and hopes to continue her work as a cultural Latina historian.Author Portfolio Page
This article was beautifully written! I, myself, used to dance folkloric and reading this brought back so many memories. Even though I was in it for several years, I never once thought about looking up history on it. I never realized how people from outside of Mexico would flood Mexico just to see these live dances. I also did not know that there is an association! I find it interesting how one cannot simply learn Folklore, they must learn the history as well.