Before she began her next song, Rachel Rodriguez called “Sofia Tortilla” to the stage.
With urgency, Sofia got up from her seat at Celebrate Nashville Cultural Festival and moved in position behind a microphone. Draped in a traditional Mexican floral dress and wearing pink and white flowers in her hair, she waited patiently as her mother, smiling with anticipation, helped lower the mic to her height.
She didn’t say it, but you could tell Rodriguez, who made a bilingual children’s album in the spirit of passing down her heritage to her daughter, Sofia, and her son, Luca, had been waiting for this moment for a while.
“Teaching our children how to respect and get along with others that are different than you,” she says, is one of her goals as a singer and teacher of children’s creative movement and music classes around Nashville. “Because the world would be a completely boring place if everybody was exactly the same and thought the same.”
Gathered in the shade of the Teens United Stage at Centennial Park, the Celebrate Nashville crowd was encouraged to sing along with Sofia and her mother. Cradling an autoharp to her shoulder, Rodriguez began strumming the infectious opening chords of a Ritchie Valens classic.
“Para bailar La Bamba,” all voices combined as one.On that sunny Saturday in October, the stage provided by the Celebrate Nashville, an event started in 1995, encouraged members of the community to share their heritage and appreciate others. But it held an extra importance to the Ovid, Mich., singer and her fellow performers representing Mexico — especially during a year in which President Donald Trump enacted a “zero tolerance” immigration policy.
Mexican performers didn’t acknowledge the difficult issues during their sets at the daylong celebration. Instead, they drowned them out with the authentic beauty of their country’s culture — a side rarely seen if you’re not a member of the community of Hispanics who call Nashville home.
“For me, it’s really breaking stereotypes,” says Luis Oscoto, a member of traditional dance group Ballet Folklorico Sol Del Mexico. “With the political atmosphere right now, it’s a lot of stereotypes that go around: ‘The Hispanic culture is like this,’ or ‘Hispanics are like that,’ (or) ‘Mexicans do this and what not’ (or) ‘All Mexico is just one general idea.’
“No, it’s really rich, really powerful, and there’s so much color and life to it,” he continues. “There’s more to Mexico than just what people see on the surface … as dancers that’s what we want to take to other cultures or other people who have never seen Mexican folklore (dancing). We want them to experience the full spectrum as much as possible.”
Those flashes of color and life were on display throughout Celebrate Nashville. They were the locked eyes of Oscoto and dance partner Grecia Rodriguez as they circled one another with rapid, pronounced taps to the swelling accordion and brass instruments of Ballet Folklorico’s backing mariachi band. They were the moments when Rachel Rodriguez’s powerful voice stretched out notes in renditions of “De Colores” and “Los Laureles,” a favorite of her late grandfather. She followed the performance of the popular Linda Ronstadt song with a touching story of singing it to him one final time before his death.
It was through music that Rachel Rodriguez, a third-generation Mexican, found a lasting connection to her home country. Growing up in a small Michigan farming community, her connections to other Hispanics — or any other non-White cultural groups for that matter — were limited. Her father and uncle played in a Tejano band together, and rehearsals usually turned into lively family gatherings with food and cocktails. Soon, Rodriguez’s vocals — from traditional mariachi songs, to Selena, Dolly Parton and The Judds — would power the band. Her eclectic range still defines her style today. But upon first moving to Nashville, making the rounds at country music open mic nights and writers’ circles, it didn’t take long to notice she was always outnumbered as a woman of color. “I can’t deny what I look like and my last name,” Rodriguez says. “So not singing any Latin music is silly. I need to start incorporating that into my shows and my brand and who I am because it is who I am, and obviously I got it a lot. That’s what people see when they look at me. … people listen with their eyes, unfortunately.”
What Rachel Rodriguez experienced as she found her footing in Nashville is not uncommon for other second- and third-generation Hispanics. Grecia Rodriguez of Ballet Folklorico, who grew up immersed in Hispanic culture in her native Chicago, points to the difficulty of having your cultural identity between two different countries — neither of which really feel like home.
“I guess it is hard because, when you’re here, you’re not really from here,” she says. “I guess they see you as: ‘You’re not from here.’ But, when you go back to Mexico, you’re not from there either. They don’t see that part of you that likes to promote your culture. It’s like you’re in between.”
Through events like Celebrate Nashville, where Tennesseans see the cultures of their homelands appreciated by the people with whom they share their new home, the “in-between” disappears.
“It’s (a) breakthrough,” Oscoto says. “And it shows how, as a community built up of different backgrounds, we can still come together and share, cooperate and grow and show other states and other cities that this is possible, this does work and that things don’t have to be so black and white — things don’t have to be so left and right. If people can come together (and) work together, there can be peace; there can be harmony.”
As Celebrate Nashville neared its end, a large crowd gathered at a stage near the Parthenon. Despite being one of the largest crowds of the festival, onlookers watched in silence as members of the massive dance troupe Dance Azteca captivated with ancient Mexican ritual dances set to a simple but powerful drumline.
Aside from the occasional “yeeeeeeyaaa” by one of the dancers when the drums picked up tempo, the only noise came from shakers attached to performers’ ankles. Combined with percussive thuds, the unified shakes and rattles created a collective heartbeat. Each dancer had his or her unique extravagant headdress, one with a leopard’s head, another with that of a bull. Others covered with feathers and bright colors accentuated by gold trim — all projecting a strong image.
“Having been in the undocumented movement with DreamAct … I’ve seen that even when times get hard, as Latinos, we don’t give up,” Oscoto says. “When we see the times get hard, we actually become proactive in trying to make situations better. In trying to prove that we’re not people here that are trying to take or destroy or undermine. We’re here to help create, to grow, to give back, to share.