Colorful spinning dresses, strumming guitars, loud gritas (shouts), and shoes stomping the stage. Add in some holiday songs and spirit and you’ve arrived at “Nochebuena: Christmas Eve in Mexico.” 

This Sunday at 7 p.m., Ballet Folklórico de Los Ángeles and Mariachi Garibaldi de Jaime Cuéllar, two of L.A.’s most acclaimed performance ensembles, will take the stage at Musco Center for the Arts for a Christmas celebration. The performance is an extension of the center’s annual “Heartbeat of Mexico” festival which celebrates Mexican American music, art, and dance with the Orange County community. 

“When I came to Musco Center in 2016, we laid it out as part of our statement of intent to engage with our surrounding communities,” said Richard Bryant, executive director of the Musco Center for the Arts. “We asked ourselves: ‘How can we bring a greater mix of Mexican American programs into what we do?’”

The inaugural “Heartbeat of Mexico” festival in 2016 drew an estimated 10,000 people, and every year it showcases a community of artists ranging from world-renowned stars to talented locals. With a diverse immigrant population, proximity to the border, and 1.08 million Hispanic residents, Orange County has its finger on the pulse of the truly hybrid, Mexican American experience.

“We’re tapping into the spirit of this population and making space to celebrate the culture,” Bryant said. “Having this community emerge in and around the performing arts at Chapman, this is what is driving us. It distinguishes the university, not the other way around.”

“Heartbeat of Mexico” typically takes place in the spring, but Bryant and the Musco team jumped at the chance to present “Nochebuena” again this December.

“The vocals of the mariachi, the spectacle of the folklórico, this show has an exuberance you might never experience in your lifetime,” Bryant said.

Kareli Montoya founded Ballet Folklórico de Los Ángeles in 2011. Credit: Photo courtesy of Ballet Folklórico de Los Ángeles

Culture, Heritage and Identity 

Ballet Folklórico de Los Ángeles founder and director Kareli Montoya didn’t think folklórico would be as big a part of her life for as long as it has been. She started dancing when she was 7 and was soon presented with unrivaled professional opportunities like being the youngest dancer to perform at the legendary La Fonda de Los Camperos restaurant in Los Angeles. 

Despite pursuing bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work, Montoya is still dancing years later. 

“For years, I thought I was going to have to choose between work and folklórico,” Montoya said. “But I’ve realized that I can do both, and have to do both because it is who I am.”

Montoya’s notable start in the industry eventually lead her to work as the “Coco” choreographer for Disney Studios, choreographing over 100 folklórico dancers in a Pixar presentation at the D23 Expo. Shortly after, she was asked to choreograph for the world premiere of the same movie in Hollywood and again for a segment on the Academy Awards show. 

Despite her achievements and attention in the entertainment world, Montoya has always put community first. For her, it’s important to keep the folklórico and mariachi traditions alive and to transmit the unique culture, customs and folklore of someone born and raised in America but connected to one’s Mexican heritage.

“We realize that we’re Mexican American,” said Montoya when describing the context in which she and her husband Jaime Cuéllar created “Nochebuena.”

“We wanted to celebrate both cultures that shaped us and so, the show has songs that are familiar in both,” Montoya said. “What I love about ‘Nochebuena’ is that the crowd is so diverse, very mixed. There’s something for everyone.”

A Christmas Eve Tradition

In the simplest terms, Nochebuena is a Christmas Eve celebration for Latin American cultures. It is a time for family and friends to gather together with food and music and in many countries, including Mexico, the holiday is even more important than Christmas Day itself.

Nochebuena: Christmas Eve in Mexico

When: 7:00 p.m., Sunday, December 12th

Where: Musco Center for the Arts, 415 North Glassell, Orange

Tickets: $33-$78

Information: muscocenter.org or 714-997-6812

“The show displays a lot of things that happen on Christmas Eve in Mexican families,” Montoya said. “There is singing and dancing and this year we’re even bringing a piñata piece. We tried to incorporate fun and celebration and also nostalgic moments.”

Orange County will get another chance to see this snapshot of Mexican American history this weekend, live and in-person after a year of virtual events. The rich tapestry of theatrical folk dance, live mariachi music and lavish costuming reflects a history passed down for many generations.

“This was one of the most popular shows of the year in 2019,” Bryant said. “It’s a show that works both ways — inviting people who are not familiar with these particular cultural traditions to have some fun and celebrate, and at the same time, striking a sentimental chord with those who are.”

Kaitlin Wright is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at kaitline13@gmail.com.


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