The dance company EL SUEÑO pays homage to Latin American ancestry and culture


by Fiona Dang

Founded in 2018, dance company EL SUEÑO centers the experiences of BIPOC communities as powerful narratives worth seeing and celebrating. Founder Alicia Mullikin sought to cultivate an inclusive space in the world of dance that recognizes ancestral lineage and Latin American culture. EL SUEÑO seeks to dispel the myth of the American dream as personal achievement and recognizes it as a collective effort, tied to the past.

The dance company’s website addresses this prospect with the statement: “La primera generación de Americanos son las flores que florecen después de generaciones de cosecha”. (“First generation Americans are the flowers that bloom after generations of harvesting.”)

In 2018, EL SUEÑO partnered with Velocity Dance Center to produce an eponymous performance. Mullikin chose six dancers who shared similar values ​​and had close relationships with their families: Devin Muñoz, Aachix̂Qağaduug Elise Beer, Elizabeth Sugawara, Tessa Bañales, Melanie Katzen and Olivia Anderson. When the pandemic hit, the band decided to translate their live performance into a feature film titled EL SUEÑO. EL SUEÑO became a collaboration between Mullikin as director and choreographer and Muñoz as dancer and filmmaker, with an original score by multi-instrumentalist Daniel Mullikin.

The dancer Tessa Bañales in the movie ‘EL SUEÑO.’ (Photo: Devin Munoz)
Photo depicting Devin Muñoz in a white outfit dancing against a desert backdrop.
Dancer Devin Muñoz in the movie ‘EL SUEÑO.’ (Photo: Aachix̂Qağaduug Elise Beer)

EL SUEÑO weaves together moments of beauty and hardship that reverberate through time and space. The dancers embody powerful female archetypes of mother, grandmother, queen or warrior. Set in the Mojave Desert, their performances bring to life the journeys of these powerful women and the traits that have been passed down to them from generation to generation. They affirm their presence, freely and wholeheartedly expressing the inherent courage, resilience and gentleness of their ancestors, immigrants and people of color.

A first-generation Mexican American raised in and around Los Angeles, Alicia Mullikin discovered her love for dance and choreography in public school. The support of family members and mentors reinforced her belief that she could earn a place in the dance world as a plus-size dancer, brunette woman, and daughter of immigrants. During auditions, Mullikin recalls persistent discouraging remarks asking him to lose weight or erase elements of the Spanish language and Latin American culture from his work.

“I never felt like I could get involved in my work without receiving messages of opposition. I thought that getting a college degree would provide me with my American dream, which was to do what I No matter what education or job I invested in; I wasn’t really going to be accepted,” Mullikin said. “I had an epiphany: If the space I would like to have in the dance world doesn’t exist, so I’m going to create it myself.”

Photo depicting the cast of 'EL SUEÑO' wearing various white outfits and posing against a backdrop of white and gold flowers.
Distribution of the film ‘EL SUEÑO’ at the premiere in March. (Photo: Daria Fisher)

As history has shown, people with marginalized identities are rendered invisible despite their work and intrinsic worth, and their sacrifices often go unrecognized by dominant institutional forces. EL SUEÑO’s work aims to address this glaring oversight and honor the contributions of the BIPOC communities.

“When I thought about what got me into the dance world, I had to look back and realize that [it] was not my fault. My parents, grandparents and ancestors are the ones who strived for the next generation to be better. These are my Native American ancestors who survived the genocide. It was my grandparents and my father who immigrated here. It was my mother who worked three jobs while I was growing up,” Mulikin said. “These people continually put in the effort and continually put aside their dreams so that I could do what I do. I am in a place where I am now the recipient of generations of work invested in me. Generations of love and harvesting have enabled me to be at the exact moment right now.

Photo of Alicia Mullikin in a bright pink outfit posing in front of an art installation EL SUEÑO: THE FLOWERS THAT BLOOM.
Alicia Mullikin and the art installation EL SUEÑO: THE FLOWERS THAT BLOOM, 2021. Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle. Gallery.(Photo: Devin Muñoz)

EL SUEÑO and its community partners encouraged people to embrace their identity, heal intergenerational trauma, and commemorate their lineages. The dance company notably collaborated with the Henry Art Gallery on an exhibition entitled EL SUEÑO: THE FLOWERS THAT CLOSING (November 18, 2021-April 17, 2022). For its finale, the EL SUEÑO healing day presented a series of programs: Yoga and your ancestry with artist Alfonso Cervera; a sound bath, meditation, and intentional journaling with healer Maria Muñoz; and a projection of EL SUEÑO, with a Q&A with Mullikin and Muñoz. Through community-building events, the dance company continues to unapologetically pay homage to ancestral ties and Latin American heritage.

“I want to tell my people, ‘I see you.’ I try to reach a lot of people and make sure it resonates with them [and that they can] see themselves or the people they love in it,” she shared. “I haven’t had the opportunity to see dark-haired women dancing. I want to make sure that when a young Brown sees this work, he knows it’s a Latina doing this work.

Through their work, EL SUEÑO invites everyone to imagine a hard-won collective future and generations to come.

The feature film, EL SUEÑOpremiered at the Northwest Film Forum in March 2022. It is available now for stream on the dance company’s website. Follow their Instagram account for updates on new projects, including a Dance to “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio.

Fiona Dang (she) is a first-generation Chinese-American art historian. Fiona has demonstrated her commitment to building bridges between scholarship and broad art audiences through her experiences working in museums.

📸 Featured image: Alicia Mullikin, founder of EL SUEÑO. (Photo: Devin Munoz)

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