Friday, October 31, 2008

Traditions born in Las Cruces' recent decades

LAS CRUCES — Sometimes I still hear people say that nothing’s happening here and nothing ever changes in Las Cruces.
Those people have not been paying attention. I’m not a native, but I’ve now been here long enough to see the birth of some enduring traditions … celebrations and gatherings so rich and meaningful to many of us that they feel like they’ve been part of our community forever.
But in fact, some of our most cherished celebrations, institutions or events have been in Las Cruces about the same amount of time as I have (this is my 15th autumn here) or less.
A lot of my other favorite things were founded about the same time. The Las Cruces International Mariachi Conference, now one of the world’s largest efforts to preserve and nurture all that mariachi embodies, is celebrating its 15th year in 2008 and so are the Border Book Festival and the Doña Ana Arts Council ArtsHop.
Mesilla’s Dias de los Muertos celebrations on Mesilla’s Plaza, continuing today, are a bit younger though, of course, the roots of Day of the Dead commemorations are much, much older, and are among many ancient Borderland traditions that have been revived and celebrated by groups like the Calavera Coalition and other Las Cruces- and Mesilla-based cultural groups that are uniting the community to commemorate everything from the Gadsden Purchase and Mexican holidays to Christmas plays, pageants and customs that date back centuries.
In the past decade and a half, I’ve seen a lot of these new-old resurrections. The Rio Grande Theatre, identified to me when I first arrived as the state’s oldest adobe theater, was crumbling in 1994, when I got my first glimpse of the Downtown Mall. I talked to many who had fond memories of first movie dates and first balcony kisses there. Now it’s been lovingly restored and houses the Doña Ana Arts Council and a growing number of presentations. It’s the gem of an ongoing revitalization that has built on institutions like the Las Cruces Farmers and Crafts Market and added the burgeoning Ramble on the first Friday of each month, which now involves 18 venues, including theaters, galleries, museums and an open mic night.
What was once bemoaned as “the graveyard of high hopes” is well on its way to becoming the city’s corazon that so many have envisioned.
Some of our cultural cornerstones were firmly established when I got here and are still thriving and growing stronger.
The Las Cruces Symphony at NMSU was already a hit under the direction of Marianna Gabbi, an international superstar who was the first U.S. woman to conduct major symphonies in both China and what was then the USSR. Jerry Ann Alt was building on a rich legacy of talent in NMSU’s Choral Department, which now has six choirs and vocal groups. NMSU band and jazz and vocal groups, and the symphony under the direction of Lonnie Klein and local high school musical groups have attracted national and international attention in recent years.
Some cultural institutions made the big time decades ago. The Las Cruces Chamber Ballet, generally recognized as the oldest ballet company in New Mexico, still makes regular presentations and is carrying on despite the death of its beloved founder, Michele Self, who with her husband, Kevin, helped field generations of talented dancers, many of whom have gone on to perform in prestigious venues. And the LCCB presentation of “The Nutcracker” (Dec. 18 to 21 at the NMSU Music Recital Hall) continues to be a cherished holiday tradition.
Black Box is relatively new, but the Las Cruces Community Theatre was well established, along with The American Southwest Theater Company, which premiered works by local playwright Mark Medoff, including creations that led to movies, and two trips to Broadway (for “Gila” and “Children of a Lesser God,” which won a Tony Award and, in movie form, garnered Academy Award nominations for Medoff and an Oscar for Marlee Matlin’s performance).
Our movie roots run deep, too, and have blossomed with the advent of NMSU’s Creative Media Institute and Doña Ana Community College’s Film Tech Training Program. At last count, there were more than 20 movies in pre- or post-production in 2008, building what looks like a promising new tradition here, as we make a name for ourselves as Hollywood on the Rio Grande.
As you enjoy some of our thriving traditions this month, like RenFaire, Dia de los Muertos and the Mariachi Conference, think about the volunteers who have made them happen, and the blessings of being part of the community that keeps our rich cultural heritage alive … and fun.

S. Derrickson Moore can be reached at; (575) 541-5450.

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