Jeff Manes | Sun-Times Media file
AT A GLANCE
What: Xel-Ha Escuela de Danza
Where: 711 W. Chicago Ave., East Chicago
More information: Call 805-4626 or visit the website www.xelhaescueladedanza.org.
Updated: December 19, 2012 10:45AM
“They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable.”
— John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck was describing white people from Oklahoma when he wrote those words in his classic novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.”
When Debra Martinez-Bolanos’ father came to America from Chihuahua, Mexico, he had $1 in his pocket. Did the man enter this country illegally? I didn’t ask, nor do I care.
She did tell me her father was educated, served in the U.S. Army, then became an East Chicago police officer and retired as a lieutenant.
Martinez-Bolanos, 54, has lived in East Chicago all her life and graduated from Bishop Noll Institute in Hammond. She is married to Salvador Bolanos; they have three children, ages 15 to 26.
Martinez-Bolanos directs a not-for-profit group, Xel-Ha Escuela de Danza, a dance school for young people on Chicago Avenue in East Chicago, near the legendary Mexican restaurant, Casablanca. She also is the president and founder of a Mexican cultural group called Sociedad Cultural Y Civica La Reforma.
Where in East Chicago were you raised?
“On Parrish Avenue, across from Washington Park,” she said.
East Chicago today?
“The city has changed since I was a girl; that is one of the reasons I’ve stayed. I feel like if you want to make a change, you have to do it. A lot of my friends have moved away.”
That’s a noble attitude.
“I live here, I have my business here, and I’m a very active community organizer as far as things like the business crime watch on this side of town.”
Life after Bishop Noll?
“I went to Mexico City and studied with the Ballet Folklorico School of Dance. After finishing my summer courses, I was selected by the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico’s scouts and joined them as a professional. We performed at the Palace of Fine Arts. I lived in Mexico City for nearly two years.
“When I came back, that’s when I took over the dance school here that my mother started. This will be our 42nd anniversary.”
Where did you come up with the name Xel-Ha Escuela de Danza?
“Xel-Ha is in the Yucatan Peninsula; it’s an archaeological park where you can go scuba diving and snorkeling. There are many cultural activities in that area, such as swimming with the dolphins.Xel-Ha is an ancient area that goes back to the Mayans. The Mayan kings and queens used it as a spa.”
Tell me about these young people at your dance school.
“We put in at least eight hours of rehearsal per week, year-round, with the exception of Christmas. The kids are very dedicated, and they like what they do.
“Most of my students come to me at about age 6 and stay with me until they enter college.”
By now, you’re probably teaching the children of former students.
“Yes, I’ll have people stop me — not just here in East Chicago — I could be shopping at the mall or in Crown Point. They’ll say: ‘Ms. Bolanos, aren’t you so and so? I’d just like to tell you that because of your training and the discipline that I learned, I was able to get through a lot of things and now I’m a doctor ... .’
“That makes me feel good, and it makes my mom feel good. If you can touch one life and make a change, that’s a lot. There are people who sit around and do nothing; all they do is complain. They never touch lives.”
The Sociedad Cultural Y Civica La Reforma?
“One of the SCCLR’s missions is education; we host an annual golf outing to raise money for scholarships. We also do a Mexican breakfast fundraiser in March; it brings the community together and lets people know how we operate.
“We recently had our Night of Latin Culture ... at Bishop Noll. It’s an art gallery featuring Latinos from Chicago and Northwest Indiana who display their work — Equadorians, Bolivians, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Columbians — all displaying their art, folklore and history. It’s free to the public. That’s the kinds of things the SCCLR does.”
Women and Hispanics were major factors in the re-election of President Barack Obama.
“I didn’t care about the comments made by some of the Republicans, especially the guy who was running here in Indiana.”
“What he said about women and rape. Why do they feel free to say these things? I don’t like the idea of politicians making rules, regulations and laws concerning a woman’s body. I don’t like that.
“Another thing that turned me off was the anti-immigration path they were on. I don’t like that. I mean, we all came from somewhere. If we want to talk about someone who belongs here, lets talk about the American Indian. Look what they did to them.”
In essence, the good old boys club needs to change its way of thinking.
“I feel the Republican party will change real soon. Mitt (Romney) had everything ready — the fireworks. I don’t even think he had a concession speech prepared. He really thought he was going to win this one.”
A critical miscalculation.
“Hispanics need to stop being a divided group. If we would’ve been more united in the past, we probably would’ve had an Hispanic president before Barack Obama was elected the first time.”
The sleeping giant.
“That’s right. My mom always told me that when I was growing up: ‘We’re the sleeping giant. When are we going to get up from that long, long nap?’ ”
East Chicago in the future?
“My fight is in East Chicago. This is why I’m still here. This is why I do what I do.
“I feel like I’ve been in a fight to help the people of this city to understand this is a good city. But we have to work at it — not only the Hispanics, but everybody — for East Chicago to be a better place.
“Why can’t it be like Whiting? Look at downtown Whiting, how nice it is. We can do that. Make it work on Main Street; put the pressure on them. Some of Hispanic politicians who get in the council forget; they forget.”
Debra Martinez-Bolanos’ parents and Mr. and Mrs. Emilio De La Garza were compadres while she was growing up.
After our interview, I stopped by my old union hall at the intersection of Broadway and Euclid Avenue. A large photograph of De La Garza hangs on the wall of Local 1010. It is the son of the aforementioned De La Garzas. A Congressional Medal of Honor was given to them.
Their son wasn’t able to accept our nation’s highest honor. You see, Lance Cpl. Emilio De La Garza, Jr. jumped on a live hand grenade, saving the lives of two Marine comrades while serving near Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam.
Meanwhile, Debra Martinez-Bolanos continues to fight the good fight on the streets of East Chicago. The sleeping giant has awakened, and we’re a better country for it.
How much more American can you get than Emilio De La Garza and Debra Martinez-Bolanos?