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'Brazos Y Abrazos' ('Arms and Embraces')

Choreography by Joel Valentin-Martinez inspired by the Bracero Program and beyond

EVANSTON, Ill. --- A dance that honors the millions of Mexicans who participated in the Bracero Program -- and the family members they left behind -- will convey the “bittersweet” story of people caught in the whirlwind of the emergency farm and railroad program initiated by the United States and Mexico during World War II.

The work is one of three original dances choreographed by theater faculty member Joel Valentin-Martinez that will be performed from March 13 to 16 in “Brazos y Abrazos” (“Arms and Embraces”). The production is part of a series of events related to “Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942-1964,” a traveling exhibition organized by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History at Northwestern University.

Initiated in August 1942, the Bracero Program allowed tens of thousands of Mexicans to work as temporary contract laborers in the U.S. to fill labor deficiencies in agriculture and railroad work. By the time the program was cancelled in 1964, an estimated 4.6 million contracts had been awarded. The Bracero Program is considered “bittersweet” because of its history of both exploitation and opportunity.

The exhibition will be on view at Northwestern’s Dittmar Memorial Gallery, from Feb. 20 through March 28. After its stay at the Dittmar, the exhibition will move to the Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington Ave., where it will be on display from April 2 through April 27.


“Brazos y Abrazos” (“Arms and Embraces”) will be staged at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 13 (preview); 8 p.m. Friday, March 14; 8 p.m. Saturday, March 15 and Sunday, March 16, at the Marjorie Ward Marshall Dance Center, Ballroom Theater, 10 Arts Circle Drive, on Northwestern University’s Evanston campus.

In addition to choreography by Valentin-Martinez, who also is artistic director of the Valentin Projects dance company, the March 13 to 16 dance production will feature music by Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas.

Valentin-Martinez -- the youngest of 10 children -- was born in Mexico and grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. In addition to teaching dance at the University, he develops his own choreography projects, including the musical adaptation of Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street” that he did for Steppenwolf Theatre in 2009.

The March 13-16 performances at Northwestern pay tribute to Valentin-Martinez’s late father, who participated in the Bracero Program and spent two years away from his family in Arizona in the 1950s picking cotton and the many others who were separated from their families in Mexico.

Valentin-Martinez’s dance works will include:

“Brazos y Abrazos” (“Arms and Embraces”), a title that references the Bracero Program, this piece pays homage to the workers who experienced hardships and often unjust treatment in the U.S. camps as well as their wives and children in Mexico who endured the years their husbands and fathers were absent from their homes.

“Cositas” (“Little Things”) is a playful solo that will be performed by dancer Erin Barnett. Barrett will wear an elaborate red dress with a long train, designed by Jeff Hancock, that was inspired by Hollywood’s “red carpet.” The dance alludes to the small percentage of Latino and Latina stars and celebrities who get the opportunity to stroll down that route on ceremonial occasions.

• Two excerpts from “Tlatelolco Revisted,” a newly revised and darker piece that Valentin-Martinez originally choreographed for Luna Negra Dance Theater in 2008, looks at the immigrant and Mexican experience in America. It also honors the hundreds of student and civilian protesters and bystanders who were massacred or wounded in Mexico City’s Plaza Tlatelolco in 1968 during a time when it was illegal to protest in public about the lack of jobs, lack of support for infrastructure and government corruption. Following this tragic incident, many Mexicans immigrated to the U.S.

In addition to Barnett, other featured dancers will include Javier Marchan Ramos, Kayla Harley, Jarrett Kelly, Victoria Massey-Lorick, Alexis Stewart, Otis Harris and Patrick Ingram.

The show’s production team includes stage manager Lorenzo Blackett, text by Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences Professor D. Soyini Madison, lighting designer Margaret Nelson and costume designer Jeff Hancock. 

Tickets are $20 for the general public; $15 for Northwestern faculty and staff; and $10 for students with IDs. To purchase tickets visit Brown Paper Tickets.

Another “Bittersweet Harvest” event

• A film series about Latin American immigration to the United States and the Bracero Program in particular, will be screened from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, March 6; 7 to 9 p.m. Friday, March 7; and 4 to 7 p.m. Saturday, March 8, at the Dittmar Memorial Gallery, first floor, Norris University Center, 1999 Campus Drive, Evanston campus. The screening is free and open to the public.

Visit the Latina and Latino Studies Program for more information or follow on Facebook at Latin@ Studies at NU.

The events are co-sponsored by Northwestern’s Latina and Latino Studies Program, Dittmar Gallery, Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, American Studies Program, the Buffet Center for International and Comparative Studies; the Center for Screen Cultures, department of history, department of performance studies, department of radio, television and film, the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program, University President’s Office, Provost’s Office, School of Communication, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, the Evanston Public Library, the MetLife Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institution.

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