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In Tucson, Latinx Dancers Honor Migrant Stories From the Borderlands

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For Yvonne Montoya, the U.S.-Mexico borderlands are an infinite source of inspiration. “The expanse of landscapes, the colors, the sky,” says Montoya, the founder of Safos Dance Theatre in Tucson, Arizona. “This is indigenous land. It was also Spain and Mexico and a part of Latin America for longer than it has been part of the United States.”

Montoya, a native New Mexican, is the descendant of Mexicans “who the border crossed in 1848,” she says, referring to the Mexican-American war and the ceding of Mexican territory to the U.S. government. “My roots in the Southwest run really deep,” she says. “I am a non-immigrant Chicana Latina. And like in New Mexico, there are Tucsonsenses that have been here since before Tucson was part of the United States.”

As a dancer and choreographer, Montoya was shaped by her hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and her adopted home of Tucson, where she has lived for the last several years. Tucson—Arizona’s second largest city—sits just an hour’s drive north of the U.S.-Mexico border and has strong cultural ties with Mexico, where Montoya often participates in cross-border dance collaborations.

A female dancer in vibrant blue top looks straight into the camera while lifting her arms up.
Yvonne Montoya, founder of Safos Dance Theatre in Tucson, Arizona (Brandon Yadegari)

In her work, Montoya mixes contemporary dance with oral histories from the Southwest borderlands, often placing her choreography in site-specific and non-traditional spaces—such as alongside the U.S.-Mexico border wall or in the Sonoran Desert. “The entire reason Safos was founded was to nurture a local community of dance artists who are Latinx, Mexican American, Chicanx, Mexican immigrants, and other immigrants, so that we could support ourselves in finding that multiplicity of voices, experiences and how our bodies move.”


In “Stories from Home,” a deeply personal series performed by a cast of all Latinx dancers, Montoya draws from her family’s experiences and stories handed down through generations. The dance “Braceros” was inspired by her late father, Juan “Johnny” Montoya Sena, who as a child worked alongside Mexican migrant farmworkers in the fields picking cantaloupe and watermelon near Yuma, Arizona.

Yvonne and her father embrace
Yvonne Montoya (left) with her father (right) Juan “Johnny” Montoya Sena, who worked alongside migrants in the Braceros Program (Yvonne Montoya )

The Bracero Program, a labor agreement struck in 1942 between the United States and Mexico to provide Mexican workers to pick U.S. crops during World War II, continued until 1964. The program provided Mexican laborers or “braceros” with short-term labor contracts and U.S. visas. The labor they provided was vital to the U.S. economy, but the work was often poorly paid, and they worked under harsh conditions.

As a boy, Montoya’s father, a U.S. citizen from Santa Fe, New Mexico, worked as a bracero, along with his father and brothers, to support their family. Montoya had always wanted to choreograph a dance based on her father’s experience. “In dance we talk about how the dancer’s body is an instrument, but working-class bodies are also instruments,” she says. “I wanted to find that parallel. Working-class bodies are mechanized in ways that are almost dehumanizing, and I try to capture that in the choreography—making the bodies look like pistons and cogs in a machine exerting this labor and this force.”

Three dancers dressed in work shirts and jeans express exhaustion from physical labor
Members of Safos Dance Theatre perform an excerpt from “Braceros” (From Left to Right, Yvonne Montoya, Steve Rosales, Ruby Morales) Photo Credit: Brandon Yadegari (Brandon Yadegari)

Dancer Ruby Morales knew little about the hardships of the braceros until she started learning Montoya’s choreography. As a first-generation American with Mexican immigrant parents, Morales said it sparked a conversation with her family about working as immigrants in a new country. “My father is a mechanic, my grandmother cleaned houses,” she says. “They didn’t have a direct connection to the Bracero program, but they understood what it meant to work with their hands, to use their bodies and put forth that labor.”

Before meeting Montoya, Morales says she often felt like an outsider when it came to the larger contemporary dance community, which was predominantly white. “I realized that there was a really big gap in representation,” she says. “And very few who could relate to me in the way that I was growing up as a Latina, as a Mexicana, and as a first-generation [American] with two immigrant parents.”

Working with Montoya and being a part of the Safos Dance Theater has made her feel seen for the first time. “When I dance and someone witnesses me, I don’t feel like they’re just watching,” says Morales. “I feel like they’re affirming my life in that very moment.”

Watch as the Safos Dance Theater company brings their unique history and experiences to life at Gate’s Pass in Tucson Mountain Park, Barrio Viejo and other iconic locations in Tucson. – Text by Melissa del Bosque

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