Semillas de la Tierra: 25 years of Folklorico

Article by Marcia Darnell

Local Arts – February 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

IT’S A PARTY! The hall is packed with 25 years’ worth of students, teachers, supporters and admirers of Semillas de la Tierra, the San Luis Valley’s longest-lasting dance troupe.

“I’m so proud,” says co-founder Patsy Martinez. “If you’ve ever felt your whole body just shine with pride, that’s how I feel.”

Semillas is a folklorico group, re-creating the traditional dances of Mexico. Dancers study with the group through Adams State College, learning three new dances a semester, from three states of Mexico. The troupe makes or buys traditional costumes for the dances, so the performances are as authentic as possible.

The main gig began in 1970 when Herman and Patsy Martinez were in college in Pueblo. The couple got interested in folklorico dancing when Herman studied in Mexico City, and they founded the Guadalupe Dancers that year.

In 1972, they moved to Alamosa, where Herman was named administrator of migrant education at Adams State College. He started teaching a course in Mexican folk dancing right away, and his students first performed as Semillas del Valle with the Guadalupe Dancers. They took to the road the next spring as Semillas de la Tierra, Seeds of the Earth.

“We give the kids a sense of family, pride in their culture, self-esteem from being in front of a crowd and doing well,” says Patsy, “And it’s their education.”

Many of the Martinezes’ former students have gone on to start dance troupes of their own. The couple’s children, Rosa Maria and Andrés, have been part of Semillas as well. Andrés is a current member.

The Martinezes consider all their dancers family, however, and that’s why this gathering has the feeling of a family reunion. There’s a photo retrospective on two tables, and a collection of old dance programs on another. Photos depict performances, rehearsals and landmarks of road company performances, including the Seattle Space Needle and the Golden Gate Bridge. Happy people dressed in suits, jeans or dance costumes laugh, hug and remember.

“It is like a family reunion,” says Patsy, “Remembering rough times and good times.”

The rough times lasted for years, with little money for costumes, transportation or even printing for programs. Many students wanted to learn the dances, but not to perform in public, and sponsors weren’t willing to pay Semillas what its performances were worth. But dancers sewed their own costumes, helped drive the bus on trips, and scrimped in many other ways.

Finances are easier now, thanks largely to the troupe’s longevity. Semillas is an official part of Adams State College, meaning it gets state funding and the use of state vehicles for road trips. Semillas has in the past received grants from the NEA and the Colorado Endowment for the Arts. It also has a 25-year collection of costumes to draw on for performances.

The group’s main resource, though, is its dancers. The current group consists of twelve women and six men, who are about to perform. It’s the first performance for Maria Matias, but she’s not nervous.

“Once we have the steps down, we feel secure,” she says. She joined the group last fall, after seeing a performance.

Chris Benavides has been Semillas’ director for the past four years. He’s also a performer.

“With only a few men in the group, they won’t let me quit,” he says.

His passion is the National Association of Folkloric Groups, of which Semillas de la Tierra is a member. Benavides is on the association’s board of directors and has attended its last nine annual conferences.

“The 25th anniversary of the association is in 1998, and the conference will be in Mexico,” he says. “We’re trying to raise money for a three- or four-day trip for the group.”

Today, though, his attention is focused on the evening performance. Already the dancers are donning their coats and giving out goodbye hugs as they head for Richardson Hall on the ASC campus. The people responsible for props, makeup, and staging head out, too; they’re as much a part of the performance as the dancers.

A group picture is taken, to serve as a souvenir of this special day, and the members and founders of Semillas de la Tierra look toward the next performance and the next year.

Patsy Martinez cuddles her grandchild on her lap and muses on the future of what she has built.

“Maybe through our kids it’ll continue.”

As the dancers know, once they have the steps down, the rest is easy.

Marcia Darnell lives and writes in Alamosa, where she does the Icy Sidewalk Shuffle every winter.