Casa de la Cultura Tlanese stays on beat

Dancers Sharon Mendiola Albor, left, Jackie Pererez and Jessica Perez with Casa de Cultura Tlanese get ready to dance “La Bruja” at the 2022 World Beat Festival (Laura Tesler/Special to Salem Reporter)

Casa de la Cultura Tlanese is a family affair.

The nonprofit cultural center that aims to preserve Mexican heritage in Salem got its start in 2004 when Paola Sumoza got an idea. 

“When I was little, with my brother, I was always very passionate about my culture and my roots so I didn’t want to let it die,” Sumoza, who identifies as Mexican-American, said. 

So, as a teenager in Salem, Sumoza gathered some of her friends and began putting on shows full of traditional Mexican dances. 

Eventually, as members of the group began to go away to college, they would reach back and invite younger members to perform at events on campus. If members moved schools, they would still keep in touch.

“Once, someone met a teacher who had just come here from Mexico,” Sumoza said. “They told him to get in contact with me because he had just gotten here and dancing was just something I learned at school but he had just been in Mexico. We got him on board and he’s been with us since then.”

That teacher was Mauricio Ramierez and now, he’s Sumoza’s husband.

“It really is a family organization,” Sumoza said. “My mom, dad, brother, we are all in it.”

To be in it means practicing traditional Mexican dances and performing around the city and state. In late June, the group performed at Salem’s World Beat Festival and later this month, 40 new students will be dancing a recital for the first time at Western Oregon University. 

There are about 60 students in all and anyone can join. 

“I think we’re well received in the community,” Sumoza said. “We’ve been doing this since 2004 and we are so busy during Cinco de Mayo or diversity weeks. People invite us to perform and they love it.”

The group’s social media pages are full of videos illustrating the traditional dances like danza and dresses with dancers, Somoza said, ranging from four to 60 years old. 

But Casa de la Cultura is about more than just dance. Sumoza took inspiration for the name of her group from Mexico where each town has a cultural center, or casa de la cultura. 

“They don’t have those here in Salem so we decided to do it,” Sumoza said. 

And that means preserving and sharing culture. 

Anyone is free to volunteer for or join the group, Sumoza said and prior to Covid restricting large groups and gatherings, Casa de la Cultura Tlanese was out in the community. In November, the group hosted a community altar for Dia de los Muertos. The holiday, often mistaken for “Mexican Halloween,” is observed over the course of two days and remembers family and friends who have passed away. 

“It’s just nice to go out into the community,” Sumoza said. “And the people who have been with us are turning into professionals in the community too.”

One member, who had been with the group since 2004, is currently in Mexico auditioning for a school that majors in traditional dance. Sumoza’s own brother has a degree in dancing as well. 

In August, the group will be spending 10 days in Mexico presenting a mini-tour of a play it performed in Salem two years ago.

“It’ll be the first time some of these students have been out of the state let alone out of the country,” Sumoza said. “It’s nice to have these opportunities and to do our traditional dances and more for the community.” 

For more information, visit Casa de la Cultura Tlanese’s Facebook page and to sign up for classes, visit the group’s Instagram to fill out the Google Doc linked there.

Contact reporter Caitlyn May at [email protected].

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