In the late 80s and early 90s it was common to see fly young brothas rocking coordinated outfits and performing elaborate dance steps together. But by the time 1996 and 1997 rolled around the lively, colorful atmosphere that marked the hip-hop of my childhood was largely a distant memory. We girls were still dancing and grooving but we no longer had partners. The ability to break it down on the dance floor was no longer considered cool for males in our community.
Pretending you were “hard” and ice grilling everyone in your path was more important than just relaxing and having a good time at a party. Gangstas don’t dance. So at parties and school dances the boys would just stand still while we girls were supposed to bust it wide open on them. You might get lucky and come across a guy who would do an uninspired two-step. But that year the family of Raquel, one of my closest friends, introduced to me to a world of music and dance that more than filled that void.
My friendship with Raquel-which has now endured for twenty-four years-is a friendship that almost didn’t happen. Scarred by previous bad experiences with Latinos when I lived in San Diego I assumed that all Latinos hated African-Americans. But Raquel proved me wrong.
Raquel and her parents, Wendy and Raul, were the epitome of what you call “good peeps”. They treated all of us like family, and the love they showed me helped me overcome the memory of slurs like mayates and cucarachas. Raquel’s mother, Wendy, was an especially luminous presence in my life and that of Raquel’s other friends. Wendy complimented us and treated our development as a milestone worthy of celebration.
An environment where body acceptance was the norm and multiculturalism was cherished wasn’t all that Raquel and her family put me on to. They also brought the rhythms of Latin America into my life: salsa, merengue and bachata.
The home of Wendy and Raul, Raquel’s parents, was on the short list of homes my Grandma let me visit without interrogation. She spoke to Wendy over the phone and trusted her to watch out for me, so when I asked to attend an event with them or spend the night my Grandma agreed (unless I had a church event to attend). And whenever Raquel’s family gathered you could count on two things: the flow of wine and the sound of Latin American music echoing through the rooms of the house. Occasionally they would play Mexican ranchera, but it was clear that it was their hearts belonged to the melodies of the Spanish Caribbean.
Once the music started everyone was supposed to dance. Raquel’s father and other male relatives were a far cry from what was now the norm in my community. They didn’t just hold their own on the dance floor; they showed out. Being able to move didn’t make anyone question your masculinity; on the contrary, men were expected to know how to salsa and salsa well.
My appreciation for dancing put me in a quandary. Though I loved the sounds of the likes of Tito Puente and Celia Cruz, instinctively moving along in my seat, I wouldn’t actually get up to dance with Raquel’s family. I wasn’t familiar with the steps, and I believed my two left feet would embarrass me. But I soon found that holding up a wall or posting up at a table around Latinos simply was not an option. When Wendy noticed me sitting on the sofa she came and planted herself at my side.
“Daniella”, she said, adding an ‘a’ to my name as was her habit, “what are you doing sitting while music is on? What’s wrong with you girl?”
“Wendy I don’t know how to move to this, and it looks so complicated-“Wendy cut me off.
“Well it’s time you learn girl”, and before I could object she grabbed my hand, pulling me off the sofa and leading me to the makeshift dance floor of their living room. ‘No Morira’, the first track from DLG’s debut album was playing:
Wendy stood in front of me.
“Now you watch my feet and do what I do, okay Daniella?” As DLG’s lead singer, Huey Dunbar, belted out a sweet declaration of eternal love I watched Wendy closely, mimicking her steps. Wendy provided both encouragement and correction as needed.
“Okay Daniella, good job with the basic movements of feet, but you need to move them faster now…”
“The feet are good, now you need to move your hips-no not like that chicka, you’re trying too hard. It must be smooth, natural, comfortable…”
“Relax your shoulders and your waist, you cannot be tense…”
By the time the album ended I had it down. When we finished Raquel’s family clapped and congratulated me. Wendy and Raquel would continue to push me to build on the basics I learned that night, later teaching me how to skillfully execute turns and spins.
Once I learned how to salsa it was on! If I knew that an event would feature salsa, bachata and/or merengue I wanted to be there. If Raquel invited our crew to tag along with her to a quinceanera I eagerly accepted and went to my closet to pull out a dress. Whether it was a quince or a Salvadoran house party thrown by friends of Raquel’s parents we got it in. From the time our crew stepped in a venue the boys were all over the morenas and blancas alike, leading us to the dance floor.
On New Year’s Eve in 1997 I rode shotgun with my other BFF, Tisha. We were on our way to Raquel’s to dance and celebrate with her family. As we crossed the West Seattle Bridge I was excited, still somewhat shocked that my Grandma let me forego the boring watch night services at church. When we stepped in we were greeted with warm hugs and kisses on the cheek from the women in Raquel’s family. Within ten minutes of arrival Tisha and I had plates heaping with rice and black beans, fried plantanos and stewed chicken.
In addition to amazing food, there was plenty of alcohol in the kitchen. Of course we were forbidden to touch it…but teenagers have ideas of their own. As the three of us ate and gossiped in the kitchen Raquel took out three shot glasses and grabbed the bottle of rum. It was close to 10pm.
“Girl what are you doing with that” I asked, looking at her skeptically.
“What does it look like I’m doing? We’re going to have a shot!”
“But…we can’t! And what if your parents see?” Raquel waved her hand dismissively.
“They won’t see, they are doing their own thing. Besides it’s not like we are going to get drunk! It’s just one shot! We are good girls all the time, and it’s New Year’s Eve! One shot won’t hurt…”
One shot quickly turned to three. Tisha and Raquel were fine, only getting tipsy. I wasn’t so lucky, and soon the room was spinning. I retreated to the basement to get away from all the noise and light. The party went on without me-or so I thought. Ten minutes to midnight one of Raquel’s Aunts, Tia Dina, found me. Tia Dina was tall, with a headful of thick and tightly curled hair that hung to her waist. When Tisha and I first met her years earlier we exchanged a knowing glance. We jokingly told Raquel that her maternal line must have some remote African ancestry, because hair like Tia Dina’s didn’t come from the Indigenous or Spaniard side.
“Daniella what are you doing down here all by yourself mija? You are going to miss the New Year, come upstairs now!”
“Tia Dina I can’t, I don’t feel good-“
At that point Tia Dina must have smelled the rum. She smirked and tut-tutted her disapproval.
“Ah, so you girls helped yourselves to the rum, eh? We will deal with that later! But for now you come with me”, she said, pulling me up from the sofa.
“Vamonos”, she fired back, dragging me to my feet. I should have known better than to protest. There may be language and cultural differences between an African-American aunty and a Latina tia but there is one thing you don’t do to either: talk back.
We went upstairs .When the clock struck midnight Tia Dina stayed by my side as I walked through the house, hugging and saying Feliz Ano Nuevo to everyone. When we finished she went to the kitchen to bring me a slice of French bread and the first of six glasses of water I would consume over the next two hours.
“DRINK”, she commanded me, “it will help you feel better. Now listen mija. We should have watched you all more closely. But I am not going to scream at you. The truth is that back in El Salvador we all started drinking younger than you. Even here in the US most kids will not wait till they turn 21 to drink, I know this. But you cannot drink to get drunk, and you must know your limits! It is dangerous for a girl. Right now you are with family, and you are safe. But what if you were elsewhere and I wasn’t the one who found you? You understand what I am saying to you” she asked, eyes wide with fear.
“Yes Tia Dina, I understand.”
“GOOD”, she said, pulling me close and embracing me. “Now I will continue to bring you water until you are good.”
Eighteen years have passed since that night. Tia Dina’s hair now has a few silver streaks but is full and beautiful as ever, and when she visits she teases me about the rum. I’m still not fluent in Spanish, but when I hear Latin American music I don’t need to be. My mind doesn’t understand every word, but my body always feels the beat.