Mexican folk takes South Gate youth back to their roots


The sound of brass trumpets and string instruments blasts out of the stereo. Parents lift up their phones up to record the memories of their kids. Mary Lastra smiles back at her students. The dress rehearsal seems to be coming together for the final presentation.

As the final note rang out in the auditorium, the teacher finishes counting the steps and asks the kids whether they want to rehearse the dance with or without music. As the kids yell “with music,” Lastra turns around with a smile on her face and replays the song on the stereo.

For almost 30 years, Lastra, 48, has been teaching Mexican folk dance, known as folklórico, at South Gate Park. Every summer, Lastra has nine weeks to prepare a group of bewildered children to learn a traditional dance for their parents and the community — a feat in itself. But for Lastra, the class is about more than steps.

“It’s always nice to keep [your culture] going [and] not to forget,” Lastra said. “Hopefully when they have their children that will continue and we don’t lose it.”

The Latin American style incorporates percussive stomping and is often accompanied by mariachi music with many variations across the region.

In the predominantly Latino neighborhood of South Gate, Lastra tries to speak to her students in Spanish because she feels like it is a language that isn’t spoken among the youth anymore. So she finds the classes important for Latino kids to know about their culture.

“Some of the children are forgetting [about their culture], and so this is good to really incorporate that and not to be embarrassed [of] where they come from,” said Lastra.

Lastra marks her successes through her students, like Ciani Nuñez Murillo, who continue the tradition.

Five-year-old, South Gate City Council Member, Denise Diaz (right in red dress) with her two sisters, along with dance teacher Mary Lastra (black and white dress), in 1992, outside the South Gate Auditorium. (Photo courtesy of Denise Diaz)

Murillo, 26, who is one of Lastra’s closest students, was raised in South Gate and was given lessons by Lastra since the age of 4. In 2013, Murillo graduated from UCLA with a bachelors in World Arts and Cultures, and Visual and Performing Arts Education.

“Having cultural classes in a safe place, also makes it safe to express it and I think that’s very much-needed, especially in a harsh political climate,” Murillo said.

After taking Lastra’s class, Murillo took what she learned and led the folklórico dance class while at UCLA. For her, Lastra’s class was important part of her childhood and understanding of her heritage.

“It’s such an impressionable age for them to express themselves and show their family that they’re proud of where [they] came [from],” said Murillo.

After the final run through, the kids form a line behind Lastra. One by one, Lastra says goodbye and makes sure the kids leave with their parents. As she prepares to lock up the practice room, Lastra begins to think about the final presentation and how it will impact the children, and the community. That day is being awaited by the kids, the parents, the community, and most definitely by Lastra.

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