Ancestral echoes Annual Palenke Arts Festival honors traditions past and present

By Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Many cultures across the world have revered ancestors as a spiritual practice, as a way to seek inspiration and develop strength in times of strife. After all, our ancestors somehow managed to survive long enough to bring us into this earth and teach us what we know about feeding ourselves, about loving our brethren and making life joyful, in spite of its daily disappointments. We are here because they taught us how to deal with all of that.

No doubt, our post-pandemic world is very much in need of ancestral wisdom, and in unique ways, the ancestors seem to be responding. 

They were very much present this past Sunday, during the 7th annual Palenke Arts Festival at Laguna Grande Park in Seaside. They arrived as soon as the event began at 11 am, with a ceremony by Calpulli Tonaleque, a Mexica dance troupe hailing from San José that always dedicates the first dance to the ancient ones. 

Maestro Acahui, the group’s drummer, invoked the original peoples of this land, the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen nation, for permission to perform a ceremony. No representatives were around to say yay or nay, but the land acknowledgment that has become customary at many gatherings throughout the United States is a good reminder that this country’s colonizer past remains pretty much present.

Maestro Acahui described for the audience how Calpulli Tonaleque’s first dance is not altered and has been passed on for hundreds of years to the next generation of dancers. Ancestral wisdom was also present in the form of copal burning, headdresses and the traditional drum called huehuetl, used by the ancient Mexica during ceremonies and gatherings not unlike the one that took place at Laguna Grande.

But the whole point of finding wisdom in the past is to make the present more bearable, and that’s exactly what happens during Palenke festivals. Executive director Juan Sánchez is adept at combining student performances — those cute folklórico dancers melt your heart — with vibrant professional sounds that push you into the dance floor. At first, there may be only one or two brave children floating wildly across the wooden floor, but eventually there’s dozens of people joining in.

Hula dancing was a religious practice in the old days, and that’s how it began for Nā Haumāna, a Polynesian dance group based in Marina performing at Palenke for the first time. Founded in 2018 and directed now by Louella Sumler, the group adheres to “Ohana,” the ancient Hawaiian concept of family that includes everyone in your community, not just blood relatives. It’s an inclusive way of looking at the world that, not surprisingly, has been passed on for generations in the Pacific Islands.

Before heading to the stage, behind the table where the Palenke moms were serving coffee, donuts, pasta and aguas frescas, members of the Nā Haumāna family gathered in a circle, heads bowed and holding hands, no doubt seeking inspiration and strength from each other and the power of performing together.

That’s likely the story behind every group in front of the 300 souls gathered at Laguna Grande Park: whether professional or amateur, young or on the mature side, each performer got on stage with a smile on their face and a joie de vivre that spilled into the audience. With a little help from Herbie Hancock, Lorenzo Barcelata, Jorge Ben, and Lin-Manuel Miranda among others, musicians and singers managed to create a bit of community and leave daily troubles behind, since art is good at both tasks.

If there was any doubt that some powerful medicine was being spread throughout the festival, when SambaDá came onto the stage, lead singer Dandha Da Hora put the doubt to rest. Towards the end of the group’s set, Da Hora asked accomplished pianist Tammy Hall to join the band. Hall just seemed to be enjoying an afternoon out with family, and did not seem she had any intention to perform, but Da Hora was full of praise for the pianist. 

“You guys are so lucky, we are all so lucky” to have the acclaimed Hall among the audience, Da Hora kept telling the audience. Also in the crowd was Hall’s performance partner, mezzo-soprano Leberta Lorál, who, after some cajoling, grabbed the microphone to sing “Come Sunday” by Duke Ellington. The ancestors’ path coming full circle.

Speaking of circles, Sunday was the third time I was asked to emcee for Palenke’s annual festival. The energy and love being spread by board members, volunteers, cooks, hairdressers, make-up artists and Sánchez himself is something to behold. If you’re going to be included in a circle, this should be strongly considered.


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About Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Claudia Meléndez Salinas is an author, journalist, open water swimmer, and cat lover. | Claudia Meléndez Salinas es autora, periodista, nadadora de aguas abiertas, y aficionada a los gatos.