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Talent teen holds culture close

Niria Garcia's high heels clicked on the hardwood floor lit by the twinkle of a disco ball. Her strapless white satin gown, overlaid with sheer silver flowers, matched the glitter of her eye makeup. She wore her long, dark brown hair upswept, twisted and pinned to expose her dangling silver earrings, which danced when she moved. Her male counterpart wore a black suit.

As the young couple made their way to the center of the Roller Odyssey's floor, 10 other skate-less pairs followed. On this Saturday, the venue hardly resembled a roller skating rink. Adorned floor to ceiling with lavender and white ribbons, flowers, and balloons, it accommodated more than 300 men, women, and children &

most of whom sat at long white tables eating, drinking, laughing and chattering. Little girls in puffy dresses flitted around the open floors chasing boys and balloons as parents and grandparents snapped photos.

A mountain of gift boxes towered near an exquisite cake, and a collection of giant glamour shots made up a shrine to the guest of honor at this celebration &

which acknowledged the transformation of a girl to a woman &

a Quincienera.

Niria, with two years yet to go until her own 15th birthday, was here to entertain. Along with her peers from the Mexican dance troupe Latin Reflections, Niria gracefully performed a waltz in a circle around the celebrated Latina in a rhinestone-studded lavender ball gown. After opening the dance floor with their own choreographed routines, friends and family danced the night away until 2 a.m.

The vast majority of those in attendance at the party were Hispanic. When she wasn't performing, Niria floated around the rink in her dance partner's suit jacket, exchanging hugs and pleasantries in both English and Spanish to nearly everyone who crossed her path. She was hardly seen without a smile on her face or a giggle on her lips that night.

In part Niria dances with Latin Reflections simply for the fun of it. But it also fills a need to connect to her family and heritage from Mexico. Niria was born in the Rogue Valley and has lived here all her life. She is an American by birth, but also important to her identity is that she's Mexican by blood.

For Niria, dancing in Latin Reflections is a way to stay in touch with a culture she wishes she was closer to.

Niria has visited Mexico six times. While staying with her mother's friends in Guadalajara, the capital city of Jalisco, she said she felt like family. On another trip to Southern Mexico, she stayed at her great-aunt's ranch, a 15-minute drive from town, plus three hours on horseback. Niria stayed once at her grandmother's ranch while down for her uncle's wedding. The house was wired for light only, and had an adobe stove for cooking. It lacked plumbing but still had enough to capture Niria's heart.

"It's so much peaceful," she said. "It's so much of a better life because you don't have to worry about 'Oh I need to pay the bill, oh I need to go buy groceries.' You just kind of live on your own. You need something done you do it."

The memories she's created in Mexico are nothing like her daily experiences in the United States. In Mexico she hunted birds and rode horses bareback in the mountains. She squeezed the intestines of a cow slaughtered for her uncle's wedding &

on a dare from her older brother, of course.

"When you're in Mexico you just get in the habit to have fun!"

Growing up in the U.S. Niria said she feels she is expected to finish high school &

which she just started this fall &

then college, then pursue a career. She is not sure yet what she wants to study, but knows she wants to go to a university far from home but within the country.

"If I didn't want to study, I'd be there [in Mexico]," she said.

However, she believes if she'd been born and raised in Mexico, her priorities would be different.

"If I'd lived there since I was little I wouldn't really care if I studied or not. I'd just learn my housewife skills and find a man and get married and have kids and have a Mexican-style life," Niria said. "It's probably more what I would like. The lifestyle here is complicated and stressful."

She spoke of her 8-year-old cousins in Mexico who could already hunt, farm and prepare complete meals from scratch. In a quick-paced society of fast food, convenience products, and housekeepers, Niria said, "People over here [in the U.S.] have so many other things to do they forget their basic skills."

At the mobile home in Talent she shares with her mother, 15-year-old brother, and 10-year-old sister, she's responsible for cleaning the house, and looks on and lends a hand as her mother cooks.

"I'm trying to learn," she said. But at this point she feels she should know it all, and said she's embarrassed to ask how.

She found a way to improve her Spanish last spring when she worked as an aide for Mr. Del Rio's fifth grade bilingual class at Talent Elementary. She's fluent and speaks Spanish at home, but said English is her preferred language.

talking with the teacher, she learned how to speak in proper Spanish, increased her vocabulary and practiced spelling.

"It would be embarrassing to be Mexican and not know good Spanish," she said.

She's also learned more about her family's culture by dancing with Latin Reflections. The dance steps are long-established, the costumes are traditional and the beats are authentic. The performances are as personal as they are public.

"It is wonderful to get to be a link in the chain that connects people to their own heritage and opens the minds of others to appreciate this tradition," said Victoria Snow Mountain, English Language Learning teacher at South Medford High School and head instructor of Latin Reflections. Latin Reflections is the middle- and high-school division of Ballet Folklorico.

"Ballet Folklorico is a cultural expression of Mexican Tradition," Snow Mountain said. "We have become a symbol of the Mexican community in this area. Through our dancing, people of Mexican descent feel a tie with their homeland, and non-Mexicans are exposed to rhythm, color, and pure joy of this art form."

For Niria, dancing in the group began three years ago as a way to fulfill a community service requirement for school, but turned into a much-loved part of her life.

"We get to hang out and make friends, and the dances are so fun," she said. "I wish more people would do it and [the traditions] wouldn't get lost up here." she said.

"We enjoy dancing," said Niria's best friend Christina, who has never been to Mexico. "It's part of our culture and we want to be involved."

Niria, Christina, and 15 other young dancers shared their culture with the Rogue Valley this summer at Ashland's 4th of July celebration. In the parade they twirled their multicolored skirts and sashayed along the hot asphalt.

After reaching Lithia Park they performed a variety of dances from various regions of Mexico on the cool grass.

Niria sported a bold teal-blue dress and a beaming smile as she performed La Negra &

a dance from the state of Jalisco that celebrates the beauty of women.

Though graceful with her dancing shoes on, Niria isn't always so dainty.

It had only been two weeks since Niria had danced her delicate waltz at the Roller Odyssey when she returned to the building. This time she was here to cheer on her friend and fellow dancer, Alex, in a wildly different activity. The 15-year-old body entered a chain-link-fenced octagon to try his skill fighting against a 20-year-old.

Many of the fighters and trainers at the Team Samurai Cage Fights were Niria's friends, so she had bypassed the $25 ticket counter and entered for free.

She and her friends hung back in the shadows as Alex practiced throwing punches at an imaginary opponent, but took front row seats as the action began, and went in for a sweaty hug when he emerged victorious with the title belt.

Niria likes to watch the fights, and has even thrown a couple punches of her own. A few months ago, rumors at school had produced ill feelings between two cliques, and Niria found herself under attack. She said she defended herself.

"It's scary, but the adrenaline rush takes over and you don't even feel it," she said. "It feels good when I get in a fight."

There's something empowering, something good, she said, about standing up for yourself"&

166;or your immigrant family members and friends.

Sometimes you have to do the right thing, even when it might look wrong to someone else &

like when her parents came to the United States looking for a better life. Niria's mother crossed the border when she was 20 years old, silent and scared in the back of a van. She lived with an aunt and uncle in California for years, working in the fields. Under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, she was one of 2.7 million illegal aliens who were granted amnesty and allowed to stay. Five years ago she passed the U.S. Naturalization Test and became a citizen.

Niria's mother now works two jobs in the Rogue Valley. Her father lives in Medford and travels between California and Oregon working seasonally in reforestation projects.

At a rally in Alba Park &

a Monday in which many immigrants refused to buy or sell goods to bring to light their impact on the valley's economy &

Niria displayed a sign that read "If you enjoy fresh fruits thank an immigrant."

"I understand that people are scared and they want national security, because of drugs being passed and stuff," she said, "but they don't have to take it out on innocent people who are working."

"Without us, who would work in the orchards? Who would take the low jobs like with chemicals," she asked. "Mexicans are hard workers."

Niria is one of those hard workers. For three years she has helped her aunt clean houses. She also worked for a family-friend in the orchards turning on the heaters before a frost. It's a side of her that some of her classmates may not see. They know the girl who dances with Latin Reflections, and runs track and competes in soccer and basketball, and plays the flute, the drums, the tuba, and piano. They know the girl who graduated from Talent Middle School in June and started ninth grade at Phoenix High this fall.

And next year, they won't know her as a girl at all. Next year, she will again dance at a quincienera. But rather than be the entertainment, she will be the star as she celebrates her own transition from a child to a woman.