Drive south on Highway 99 and you’ll go straight through the middle of Seattle’s South Park neighborhood.
This is a neighborhood that’s long had a large Hispanic and Latino population. In recent years, that population has declined slightly as gentrification moves south.
But South Park remains a center for Latino and Hispanic culture — the food, the music and, on Saturday mornings, the dancing.
For nearly 20 years, the South Park Community Center has been home to Joyas Mestizas, a Mexican Folkloric dance group for kids.
Kids come from all over the region to learn the quick, rhythmic steps and graceful arm movements that sync with the music, the kind that makes you want to move your body.
Rafael Diaz is 11 years old. He’s been dancing since he was five. Saturday mornings see him standing tall, his hands clasped behind his back, his feet moving in time with his classmates.
"Last week, I was doing a talent show at my school and so I did this dance and it was a really fast song so I had to move my feet really fast and everyone was like, 'Woah, how can you do that?' And I'm like, ‘I practice, I do folkloric dance, and you guys should try it too,’" Diaz said.
Diaz’s mom, Nohemi Gardea, said Mexican folkloric dancing is important to her kids because it brings them closer to their culture.
“I want my kids to know where their family comes from. I want them to know the culture, the food, the music, the language. So we come here every Saturday,” she said.
Sam Gonzalez is also in South Park each Saturday. He has two daughters who come to the dance classes.
"It brings them back to their roots, it shows them where they come from,” Gonzalez said.
He said it’s a joy to watch his children dance. And he said the dancing itself is a sight to behold.
"You feel it in the inside of your body with the rhythm, the noise of the shoes. When their feet hit the ground it's almost like a clap."
For Luna Garcia, the dancing is the embodiment of beauty.
“Folklorico is beautiful and the Mexican culture is beautiful, and we want the kids to carry that with them and know that where they come from is beautiful,” she said.
Garcia has been dancing for about 27 years. She started with the Joyas Mestizas group when she was a kid and now volunteers her time as a teacher. She said the group gave her a community when she was young.
"I was always the only Mexican girl or student in my class, and then when I came here on Saturdays it was just nice to see my community, and spend time with them, and know that if I ever got made fun of, or if someone ever said something about Mexicans, I knew better,” she said.
Deleana Guerrero is the co-instructor of the group. She and Garcia started around the same time and became friends at the classes.
Guerrero said her father is Mexican and her mother is Caucasian. When her parents split, she stayed with her mom.
“My Caucasian grandmother brought me to practice. She was like, ‘I think this is important for you to know and experience.’ And I was hooked. And I was surrounded by a community that I honestly didn’t know existed,” Guerrero said.
The dance class is where she learned Spanish – the good and the bad words. It’s where she met her best friend, Garcia, and it’s been a focal point in her life since then.
“It’s a passion that I can’t live without anymore,” she said.
Sara Contreras has been involved with the class for a couple of decades, since her kids attended. She’s one of the Joyas Mestizas organizers.
She said as more and more people move to King County, more and more families seek out their group and come to South Park on Saturdays. And there they find not only the Joyas Mestizas but a whole world of Hispanic culture.
“It’s the place where we hold dance classes, but it’s also the place where you get your supplies,” Contreras said. “This is the area where, ‘Oh, where did you get that? Oh, South Park.’”