Light Mode

On Why Almost Nothing is as Important as Old People Dancing in the Park

This piece is adapted from a post originally published on the author’s Substack, “How to Have Fun in the Apocalypse.”

At least one Sunday a month, my husband and I go to the central plaza of the Santa Maria la Ribera neighborhood of Mexico City where a group of senior citizens dressed in their slick and flashy best dance to cumbia sonidera, tropical son, danzón, and salsa tracks spun by a DJ named Sonidero Sincelejo. We go to watch and dance and generally to soak up the joy.  

The old people who dance in the park are happy and they are gorgeous and they are incredible dancers. Each one of them is old enough to have been beaten bloody by grief at some point or many, and still, they’re dancing. It gives me hope that when I’m old, I’ll be dancing, too. It gives me hope that doing things I love will still make me smile huge and feel alive. People stop and sit and watch for periods and they smile and clap and whistle in admiration. And they’re OK. While the old people dance, everyone in that corner of the plaza, every person with all of their pain and sorrow is just fine, at least for that moment. The whole scene is a testament to the human capacity for sharing joy in the face of life. And I can’t think of anything people need reminding of more than that. Especially now.

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This weekly gathering has been happening for 13 years in the same place. It’s a sacred scene: popular culture taking place in public space. And it’s under threat, along with all of the similar gatherings in plazas all over the city.

One may assume the threat is that the dancers are primarily very old. In many places around the world, traditions die out as younger generations prefer global culture––TikTok dances to tarantella or tango. But no. Actually, cumbia and sonido culture is experiencing a resurgence in popularity.

Sonideros aren’t just DJ’s. They bring lights, signage, and have a particular culture of talking over the tracks, shouting out their people, their community. They create sonidos, which are a whole event. In Mexico City, starting in the 1960s, sonideros would travel all over South America and the Caribbean bringing records to Mexico. They were responsible for much of the spread and mixture of many genres of Latin American music. In the 1970s, they started throwing huge sonidos. They would close off streets or set up under overpasses for entire days and hundreds of people would come to dance. 

By the 1990s, Mexico City police started shutting them down, often violently, in full riot gear. But the culture survived, and sonidos are back in style. Young people are carrying on the tradition. The federal government even planned a series of events to promote sonido culture over the last few years, and this year, officially recognized it as immaterial cultural patrimony. Young sonideros proliferate, carrying on the tradition. These days they’re even playing bougie events like Art Week. 

So why, at a time of renewed interest in this culture, is a group of old people who dance in a plaza on Sundays under threat? The answer is long, complicated, and reflective of the many dynamics at play in modern Mexican culture.

That time the borough president sent in goons to stop old people from dancing in a park… 

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Last February, the right-wing borough president, Sandra Cuevas, who’s now running for mayor, ordered Sonidero Sincelejo and the dancers out of the park for good and cut off electricity to the park to prevent Sincelejo from playing music. The following Sunday, February 19th, there was a protest. I was there and it was quite peaceful. It was … old people dancing. Cuevas responded by sending in violent goons––paramilitary, narco-adjacent thugs called porros that have been used by the Mexican government to put down strikes, protests, and force evictions for decades. They showed up, punched people, pushed people, threatened people, and stole Sonidero Sincelejo’s equipment and entire record collection. (The same thugs followed protestors out of subsequent protests to intimidate them.) 

Sonidero Sincelejo’s name is Joel. When Joel left the military, he began to collect rare records, making pilgrimages to Colombia, Venezuela, and Monterrey. Over 15 years, he built an irreplaceable archive of about 250 vinyls. It cost Joel about $350,000 pesos or about $20,000 dollars to assemble but the cultural asset it represents is invaluable. 

On March 17th, a judge ordered Sandra Cuevas to return the equipment and records and guaranteed the Sonidero and dancers their right to the use of public space. Cuevas returned only one piece of equipment, which had been destroyed, and zero records. On March 24th, another judge reversed the decision. 

Lawyers are now working pro bono to appeal the case. This process could take many more months and may not be successful. While there is a possibility a judge eventually orders the records returned, it’s likely Cuevas will not return them anyway or return them incomplete or damaged. There is a second legal process playing out about the violence inflicted in shutting down the Feb 19 protest. In response, Cuevas embarked on a smear campaign, falsely claiming there were drugs and alcohol being consumed during the dancing. Still, Joel and his wife continued returning to the park, first DJing with bluetooth speakers, then with repurchased equipment and the dancers kept returning to dance. Cuevas has continued making threats and sending goons to loom around the plaza. But she hasn’t been able to shut it down––yet.

Why on earth would anyone want to get rid of the old people dancing in the park? 

Cuevas’ stated reason for wanting the dancing out of the park was that neighbors had complained about the noise. But when journalist and TV host, Carmen Aristegui, challenged her to produce the complaints, she could produce only two, and they were from before her administration was in office. Turns out Sandra Cuevas lives in the fancy condo building on the corner of the  plaza. Perhaps she was the neighbor that didn’t like the noise. Maybe it was too loud for her. But it’s more likely that it was too … Mexican.  

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People really hate Sandra Cuevas, but she did not invent her ideology. In Mexico, it’s called malinchismo, after Cortés’ right-hand woman––his enslaved, trilingual, indigenous translator–– La Malinche. She went down in history as a traitor for facilitating the conquest, so they named the widespread Mexican tendency to hate Mexican things after her. It’s the internalized white supremacy left in the wake of colonialism. Cuevas represents Mexico’s right wing, which mostly represents its ascendant upper middle class. This class tends to idolize all things North American––there’s a department store here called Suburbia––and view all things natively Mexican as lesser. For aspirational Mexican people, becoming part of global culture dictated by the commercial culture of the United States is a status symbol; it’s progress. 

Two years ago Cuevas ordered all street food stand owners in her borough to paint over their beautiful hand-painted signs called rotulos and replace them with her administration’s logo. The colorful signs, painted in playful, ornate styles that have been passed down through generations are distinctly Mexican. Cuevas called their erasure “an important measure toward order and discipline.” I think Sandra Cuevas wants the music and dancing out of the park for the same reason she ordered the erasure of the rotulos: she sees it all as profane, g