La Mezcla: The Choreography of Collaboration

dancers in front of vintage car, clapping their hands “Pachuquismo” performed by Vanessa Sanchez & La Mezcla. Photo: Beth LaBerge for KQED Arts.

An interview with dance collective La Mezcla founder Vanessa Sanchez considers rhythmic expression as a source of community engagement.

The polyrhythmic, San Francisco-based dance and music ensemble La Mezcla is a potent example of how artists are working at the intersection of arts and civic engagement today. Rooted in Chicana/Latina/Indigenous traditions, the collective was founded in 2015 by Vanessa Sanchez. In 2021, Sanchez, along with John Jota Leaños, co-directed Ghostly Labor: A Dance Film. This work explores the history of labor in the United States and Mexico borderlands through multiple forms of dance: tap, Mexican zapateado, son jarocho, and Afro–Caribbean movement. The film explores the ongoing “years of systemic exploitation of labor” while also championing the unique power and jubilance achieved through individual and collective resistance. The film is a compelling example of how movement and dance can uplift our shared stories and experiences, especially those whose labor and histories are often invisibilized by society.  

We spoke with Sanchez about dance as a (literal) political movement, influences of Chicana history, the truth about community-centered collaboration, and more.

You have said that “making music with your feet” always “felt right” to your body. When did you realize that the relationship between music, dance, and the embodiment of one’s identity was something you wanted to share with others? 
Rhythmic expression has always been a source of empowerment. Looking throughout history, the origins and legacies of forms such as tap dance and Afro-Puerto Rican bomba are rooted in resistance and have survived hundreds of years of colonization and enslavement. As I trained in the form and legacy of these and other traditions over the years and began looking at my own cultural lineage and community, I was inspired by the power of percussion in telling stories and challenging systemic oppression. When I began my path as a choreographer and artistic director, I knew I had to create work that carried on these legacies and made people feel something.

Tell us about your creative process—how do you and your company engage with local communities to develop and showcase a new piece? 
While community is always at the center of La Mezcla’s work, each project requires a different path and process of development to maintain respect for collaborators and the narrative. Ghostly Labor looks at the legacy of labor in the US-Mexico borderlands and the joy of collective resistance. The film has been researched and developed in collaboration with farm workers along the Northern California coast, and Ayudando Latinos A Soñar (ALAS), an amazing farmworker organization based in Half Moon Bay, California.  

Our research began with a process of outreach, volunteering, and learning, long before any formal interviews or conversations began taking place. We gained invaluable lessons during that time about generational knowledge and dignity, as well as getting to know people’s needs, hopes, talents, and strengths. We were soon invited to share some of our knowledge, taking our tap boards and tarimas to the farm fields to hold short performances and give short lessons on the history of our dance forms.  

These lessons, experiences, and the interviews that followed together have informed the development of choreography, rhythms, and musical arrangements, as well as the aesthetics and narrative of the project. We worked with our Maestra Laura Rebolloso in the son jarocho tradition of Veracruz, Mexico, to create original lyrics and verses for traditional songs to be performed by members of La Mezcla.  

dancers in tap shoes wearing colorful blouses performing outdoors in front of a bus and giant potted plants. In the distance is blue sky and a sign that reads "Castro."La Mezcla performing in San Francisco's Castro District. Photo: Kyle Adler for Epiphany Dance Theater.

What stories, especially of Chicana histories, have you found most surprising or enlightening for your audiences?  
Our audience members want to see themselves, their experiences, their histories on the stage. While not surprising, it is a rare occurrence to witness authentic depictions of Black and Brown realities on mainstream stages and screens. Because of this, projects rooted in history and nuanced cultural references, like our production “Pachuquísmo,” are welcomed with excitement and immense pride. 

We also work to educate our audiences and community members on the origins of Chicana and Latinx cultural references we take so much pride in. “Pachuquísmo,” our production about Pachucas and the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, features the iconic Zoot Suit and is told through tap dance, live jazz music, and traditional son jarocho, all of which are rooted in Black traditions in the Americas. We engage our audiences in these conversations through our performances, talk-backs, and workshops as a way to teach our histories while challenging discrimination and prejudices that still exist within the community.

What have you learned from your collaborators about the world, and about yourself? 
Our collaborators have taught me so much about integrity and the importance of genuine, focused intention when creating work and moving through the world. I have been amazed by the talent and skill we have in our communities and inspired by the power of collective resistance and joy. I have learned the importance of sharing our stories and experiences, especially when society tries to bury them.  

What do you want people to understand about community-centered collaboration? Are there misconceptions you wish to dispel? 
An important guideline for our community collaborations is to let partners take the lead. It is important to always enter the space respectfully, as a student rather than a leader. Stand back; take the time to learn and observe until you are invited to do more. And if you are not invited to do more, be OK with it. Equally as important is time; meaningful relationships and collaborations cannot be rushed. The time put into developing a trusting connection is just as important as the work that follows and should be handled with respect. Lastly, pay every collaborator that you work with and continue to give back to the community.