It’s important for Jimmy Cuéllar and Kareli Montoya to carry on the tradition of mariachi and folklórico. But the husband and wife duo do so in a way that truly highlights their past and their present.
Their identity as artists and as human beings shape the shows they create for Mariachi Garibaldi de Jaime Cuéllar and Ballet Folklórico de Los Ángeles, respectively. “Nochebuena: Christmas Eve in Mexico,” which is returning to Musco Center for the Arts for the fourth year, is no exception.
“This is truly, truly a Mexican American show,” Montoya said. “We try to bring Christmas to the crowd here in the U.S. and we do that through a fusion of musical styles and traditions.”
Nochebuena: Christmas Eve in Mexico
When: 7:30 p.m., Dec. 21-22
Where: Musco Center for the Arts, 415 N. Glassell St., Orange
Information: muscocenter.org or 714-997-6812
This year’s show takes place on Dec. 21 and 22 at 7:30 p.m., the second show recently being added due to high demand.
“Celebrating Nochebuena with these two phenomenal ensembles has become a favorite annual tradition at Musco Center,” said Jen Marchese-Ernst, director of programs and public engagement. “The lobby just bursts with festive joy, especially after the performance when members of the cast show off their exquisite costumes for photos with the audience.”
“Nochebuena” is named after the tradition of Nochebuena, or Christmas Eve, where Mexican families attend midnight Mass before returning home to a late-night feast and celebration. In Mexico, Christmas is not just a single day but a whole season of Christmas-related festivities. Today, the Christmas traditions in Mexico are a blend of indigenous culture, Spanish heritage and many other influences.
Shaping a Show Everyone Can Enjoy
Kareli Montoya founded Ballet Folklórico de Los Ángeles in 2011 and since then has earned acclaim as the nation’s premier Mexican folk dance company. The company has a growing roster of impressive appearances including dancing at the 90th Annual Academy Awards in celebration of the Pixar movie, “Coco.”
Mariachi Garibaldi de Jaime Cuéllar has experienced similar success since its founding by Jimmy Cuéllar’s father Jaime in 1994. Jimmy Cuéllar has been a featured artist on Grammy-nominated and Grammy-winning albums, including a win for Best Regional Mexican Album in 2009 with “Amor, Dolor, y Lagrimas.”
Seven years ago, with mounting fame and popularity, Montoya and Cuéllar set out to make a holiday show that represented their American experience but also paid homage to the culture and traditions that colored their lives and career in the States.
“The show has a focus on the dancers,” Montaya said. “But the foundation really has a lot to do with music.”
The show consists of traditional Christmas Christmas songs like “Sleigh Ride” and “White Christmas,” but performed as mariachi renditions. These selections are paired with traditional and notable Mexican songs like Pepe Aguilar’s “Son las dos de la mañana” and this year a special tribute to Mexican singer-songwriter Vicente Fernández, who passed away last December.
“Don’t expect “Feliz Navidad,” Montoya joked. “I know that folklórico has a stereotype, but our goal is to try and bring dances that are not so common. People who come for the first time might be expecting only big skirts with ribbons, but we have incorporated other regions of Mexico, and Jimmy (Cuéllar) brings other genres of music.”
The big skirts with ribbons do have their time onstage, but as Montoya notes, the emphasis is on sharing the multifaceted culture of Mexico and introducing some of the lesser-known traditions to audiences in the United States.
In the process, “Nochebuena” is becoming a tradition in its own right with many families incorporating the event as an annual part of their Christmas traditions. One L.A. venue has even mentioned to Cuéllar that it would like to make “Nochebuena” its “Nutcracker.”
“‘The Nutcracker’ is ‘The Nutcracker,’ though. Its composer can’t make new music for the show,” Cuéllar said. “Truly, it is very special to be considered as part of some people’s checklist for celebrating the holiday season. I can’t believe we’ve been doing this for seven years already.”
The Importance of Identity and Family
As surveyed by Pew Research, the U.S. Hispanic population reached 62.5 million in 2021 and people of Mexican origin accounted for nearly 60% (or about 37.2 million people) of that total.
As Montoya and Cuéllar have identified, there is a fast-growing population of Mexican Americans that feels the influence of both cultures in their lives.
Montoya, who after a recent residency in Buena Park, completed her master’s in social work, can’t help but see the effect of “Nochebuena,” however small, on families who attend the show.
“I think the fact that we are able to bring people together is social work,” she said. “We bring people together and for two hours that family is enjoying themselves whether that family gets along right before or right after the show. It brings the whole family together whether first-gen, second-gen, immigrants, etc.”
Watching the varied reactions from audiences has been one of Montoya and Cuéllar’s favorite parts of each performance. This year, for example, the company toured to Texas and North Carolina for the first time and had no idea which portions of the show would get the most reaction. The difference in people’s experience with Mexican culture, which is so different across the country, is another reason why they decided to make “Nochebuena” a Mexican American show rather than strictly Mexican.
“A lot of people who come to watch the show were born and raised in Mexico, and they tell us ‘it (the show) took me back home,’” Montoya said. “Music, dancing, they really do heal. It’s therapy in itself.”
Kaitlin Wright is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.