(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Martha Alejandra Vera Rodriguez at a rehearsal for the annual celebration of Latin American culture "Luz de las Naciones" in Lehi on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022.
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Lehi • On Saturdays, the basketball hoops at a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse in Lehi are pulled back, transforming the space into a dance studio.
Volunteers gather to prepare for “Luz de las Naciones” (Spanish for “Light of the Nations”), an annual showcase of Latin American culture hosted by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Martha Alejandra Vera Rodriguez, one of the dancers, lifts her knees extra high and adds extra-loud shouts to her performance. She wants to ensure her mom and sisters can spot her among the dancers when they tune in from Ecuador for the actual performance.
Vera Rodriguez moved to Utah a year ago to study English, but she grew up watching recordings of the show in Guayaquil. Her mom has an Ecuadorian folk dance company and the performances at “Luz de las Naciones” serve as examples of “perfection.”
“My mom has always inculcated love for dance and music. Usually in Latin America, art is underestimated, especially in my beloved Ecuador,” Vera Rodriguez said in Spanish. “Whenever we watched ‘Luz de las Naciones,’ it was something really impressive for us, to see the choir, the orchestra and the dance. It was magnificent.”
(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dancers rehearse for the annual celebration of Latin American culture, Luz de las Naciones, in Lehi on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022. At front is Sandy Vieira.
After two years of virtual shows because of pandemic restrictions, the cast of hundreds will assemble Nov. 5 in downtown Salt Lake City’s Conference Center before a packed house under the 2022 theme “Juntos es Mejor” (“Better Together” in Spanish).
That theme not only reflects the excitement of gathering again but also celebrates the blend of cultures from the various dance and music groups.
“For all those who are immigrants, these types of activities take them back to their countries. Many come, and it is very difficult when they have been uprooted. And this is a good opportunity to feel like brothers and sisters again, to remember the beautiful and sweet things of their countries of origin,” Federico Maximiliano Kähnlein, an area Seventy in the church, said in Spanish. “It is an invitation to the entire community [regardless of] religion or creed.”
In just 15 minutes, the 15,000 free tickets (seating was limited due to ongoing Temple Square construction) made available to the public for the Nov. 5 live show were scooped up. The performance will be released for on-demand viewing starting Nov. 19.
“The church has been growing, and the Latin American community in general in the state of Utah has grown a lot, and we feel that this trend will continue,” Kähnlein said. “So this is an event that somehow supports that and hopes that people feel welcome.”
(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Martha Alejandra Vera Rodriguez at a rehearsal for the annual celebration of Latin American culture, Luz de las Naciones, in Lehi on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022.
For Vera Rodriguez, the Saturday rehearsals fill her with emotion. Before moving to Utah, she hoped to one day be on the Conference Center stage. She practiced for five months for the audition, aspiring to reach the skills she viewed on her computer in the past.
“My family is not here in the U.S. They are in Ecuador, but the fact that I’ll be there is very exciting,” she said, “especially because I’m doing a dance from Ecuador, where I’m from.”
The ensemble prepared a dance for the song “Por eso te quiero, Cuenca” (“That’s why I love you, Cuenca,” a city in Ecuador). Dancers pass around Ecuadorian brimmed straw hats and red, yellow, orange, blue and purple scarves. Rehearsals are two hours of nonstop jumping and smiling.
Two weeks before the performance, some hats still tumble to the ground, but other moves are nailed down. The energy levels are high and the choreographed shouts complement the music. “Por eso, por eso” (“that’s why, that’s why”), the dancers yell throughout the piece, an Ecuadorian signature.
(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Isaac Rascon at a rehearsal for the annual celebration of Latin American culture, Luz de las Naciones, in Lehi on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022.
Vera Rodriguez is the only Ecuadorian performing in this piece. But choreographer Efrain Villalobos helps the dancers from other countries relate to the song by bringing the lyrics home. “Por eso te quiero, Cuenca” lists reasons to love the city of Cuenca — the rivers, the community, the food, all translatable to their own homelands.
“For people who are from South America, they love the mountains, they love their food. Those from Mexico love the folklore, and they love the loud noise in their family. And then those born in the United States, like me, we love big, diverse communities,” Villalobos said. “It’s a very colloquial number, as well. It’s more easily relatable. There’s not like this crazy symbolism in the dance, but they kind of make it their own dance.”
(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Choreographer Efrain Villalobos at a rehearsal for the annual celebration of Latin American culture, Luz de las Naciones, in Lehi on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022.
For Villalobos, who is of Peruvian and Mexican heritage, being part of the cast is a multigenerational tradition. He has watched his family participating in the show from its inception two decades ago and saw its growth to the present. Now, he’s part of Living Legends, a Brigham Young University performing troupe, and is a choreographer for the show’s increasingly diverse participants.
“For many years, it was just Mexico,” Villalobos said. “Now there are people from all over. So now I feel like there’s been a need to include more — like the Caribbean dances or dances from South America…. And so the show repertoire has changed a lot.”
(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Melany Bosch at a rehearsal for the annual celebration of Latin American culture, Luz de las Naciones, in Lehi on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022.
This year’s show marks the first time that countries like Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic will be featured as a big group. It also will be the first time that the orchestra plays a merengue at the Conference Center, according to Israel Gonzalez-Nieri, longtime music director for “Luz de las Naciones.” And will feature music from “West Side Story” and “Encanto.”
“We are all coming back from a pandemic together,” Gonzalez-Nieri said in Spanish. “The message [also] is that no matter where we come from, what culture, what language, we are all together and united in the same purpose and same legacy.”
“Luz de las Naciones” grew from a much smaller Christmas program in 2002, with some 150 performers, to an expanded cultural celebration viewed as the church’s premier Latino event, said Gonzalez-Nieri. On average, 1,000 to 1,500 performers sing, dance or play an instrument. This year, still mindful of COVID-19, the cast has been capped at 600 to 700.
(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dancers rehearse for the annual celebration of Latin American culture, Luz de las Naciones, in Lehi on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022.
Vera Rodriguez is glad to be a part of that number. It makes her think of the time she visited a boardwalk in Guayaquil with her mom and sisters. She had unsuccessfully tried to travel to the U.S. many times, but the goal was still on her mind.
“My mom says, ‘If you have a goal, shout it from the rooftops because the wind is going to listen to you,’ so she made us each shout our goals,” she said. “And I shouted, ‘I’m going to the United States.’”
She recalls that moment as the beginning of her journey to the Beehive State. Now, she’ll be shouting from the stage she grew up watching from a distance.
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