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December 2001

Raquel Barros Aldunate:
Folklore's "Grand Damme"

After half a century focused on the rescue and promotion of Chile's traditional folklore, Raquel Barros Aldunate can not stand the common complaint about the country's ingratitude. The scarce recognition, the lack of valorization and even the scorn towards what's local —so commonly seen in our country— are for this notorious woman facts that can't darken the satisfaction of doing an artistic work oriented to the elevation of the human being.

By Rosario Mena

At her 82 years of age, Raquel Barros Aldunate works daily, from dusk to dawn, taking care of all that's cultural on the Recoleta Municipality. She is the director of the Folkloric Group that carries her name, the oldest of its kind still working in Chile, created more than fifty years ago. In her case, age is just a data on her license, and the proof of the long time she has been accumulating an invaluable experience and wiseness rooted on our popular culture. Till now, nothing stops her from working full—time and driving her car from her house to the office, and then to the rehearsals, meetings and shows. Her vibrant face shows the passion that moves her. She won't doubt about dancing cueca if the moment calls for it, with the grace and spirit only she can give to it.

The oldest daughter of a traditional family with fourteen children, with a father who was a judge and a good piano player and a mother who was born an artist, she was raised among songs that she now shares with her siblings. Her immersion on folklore, she defines it as "providential".

"Things turn out, first because in a time when no respected lady would dance the cueca, my mother would. Later, we would spend complete seasons on a farm in Melipilla and there a friend of my brother taught me how to dance".

The arrival to Chile of Spain's Chorus and Dances was a big incentive, followed by a scholarship in 1950 to study in Madrid and Barcelona with the most important professors of traditional Spanish music.

"There I realized everything that could be done with folklore and what I could do to introduce it in other spaces, where it was completely forgotten". This concern took rapidly shape with the creation on the year 1952 of her own group. By then, Margot Loyola and Australia Acuña were rescuing and staging folkloric dances and music, but groups wouldn't have much continuity, with the exception of Cuncumén, that was formed on 1954 and is still ongoing.

Her arrival to the Musical Investigations Institute from the Universidad de Chile, where she learned and worked as a teacher with some of the most important folklore researchers, like Eugenio Pereira Salas, Carlos Lavín and Manuel Dannemann, nurtured and consolidated a vocation that Raquel embraced wholly. "I got married with folklore", says this woman, who never got married herself. But her children grow and have become a heritage legacy for the country. It's her works and lessons that cross time, with all the people she has taught, some of them finding a real sense for their lives.

"I like working in Recoleta because there are a lot of people here that need to expand their cultural field. If you work with them systematically, you can provoke deep changes and elevate their life quality. Here, there are some ladies that have been to literature workshops and have printed books thanks to FOSIS (State Funding). That means that they value themselves more and that their families also see them under another light. A woman that used to sew at her house, now is an artist with exhibits abroad. People, also, learn how to appreciate culture, that responds to a human development policy. You see how their lives change". It is this satisfaction that has taken her through different low—income areas to make this work of cultural promotion. The Municipalities of Lo Prado, Talagante, Pudahuel and now Recoleta have had the fortune to meet this hard—working host, creative and practical.

The prejudice against folklore among the wealthy is something painful for Raquel. "Even in my house, when one wanted to describe something as vulgar, they would say 'is folkloric—like'. Maybe it was a subtle way to make me quit my dream. I would say that now there is respect for what I do, there has been a change. On the other hand, there are folkloric behaviors rooted on all social classes, like drinking herbs or eating 'sopaipillas' when it rains".

Whatever the case, hers has been a clear option for the poorest, where she finds a better motivation and a greater chance of opening horizons to those that have less tools to develop humanly and professionally. "On the group, there once were a lot of girls from schools run by British nuns. Not now. The social level is now lower, because in the higher classes there's no interest for folklore. Partly, it is because of this eagerness for being updated with the outside, determined by our isolation. What's most Chilean doesn't attract the higher classes, they want to be part of what's international".

But these facts have not been a barrier for the brilliant career of her Folkloric Group, whose half a century of existence hopes to have a book financed by the FONDART (State Funding for the Arts). "We have been present in a lot of important and key moments. We danced before Queen Elizabeth, Queen Fabiola, Vivianne Leigh, the American Theater Dancer, we have danced on the Moneda (presidential house). But obviously we can not take the official Ballet's place, which is the BAFONA, from the Ministry of Education".

Dances and songs, are put on stage by the children of her group with such a simplicity and pureness that make them seem like just arrived from the North. She thinks, though, that the fidelity to the original pattern is not what is central of a good folkloric show. "Folklore's projection is all about taking it from its natural environment and showing it to other audiences, using artistic ways. This has to be supported in a tripod whose three legs are a) investigation about the behaviors of the community that lives this kind of culture, b) technique, not only instrumental, but also for dancing and theater, and c) creativity, to find the best way to translate something that is no longer original".

Her work with ceramics from Talagante is a strong proof of how one can translate to a complete different language a folkloric expression. On this sophisticated staging, what the folklorist does is interpret these shapes through dance choreographies.

"This means you have to study the ceramic, its origin, motives, clothing, and then look for the creative ways to carry the staging". The same can be said about other plays, such as "La Zamacueca" and "La reina del mercado" that are based on the eponymous paintings by Caro and Rugendas. The romance "Blanca flor and Filomena" was taken to the stage for a puppets language.

But her legacy does not stop on the work of her group and the huge social help that Raquel has given to the cultural area. Her vision of folklore outgrows the rigid and reduced concept commonly used.

"Folklore is a way of looking at the world. On its culture, education is not something formal, where you have to accomplish a certain amount of classes, as in the University. On the folkloric culture, you take what is useful for you, focusing on the same goal as any other kind of learning: solve problems, be them about beliefs, food, housing. Folklore is when the community gives itself as a solution, recognizing itself on that solution".

Cuecas, cumbias and other herbs
—What do you think about cumbia being more danced than cueca at the "fondas" now?
—I have a deep conscience that we are mestizos, something that is not always accepted. We all have a series of folkloric behaviors that we have learned and that are kept as long as people decide, because folklore happens because of people and, the same as them, is constantly changing, as our culture generally changes. The cumbia, we dance it following a cueca pattern, turning on half—circles. The cumbia we dance has nothing to do with the Colombian cumbia. It became more Chilean, is part of our folklore, like it or not. It shouldn't bother us.

Cueca is neither all Chilean, there are different theories about its origin. Cueca established in Chile by continuous influences, but the interesting thing is that it is called "Chilean" from here to Mexico, with different versions in each country. In Peru, it became the "marinera", after Pacific's War, cause no Peruvian was going to dance something called "Chilena" after that conflict. The cueca is a horribly sexist dance, but a sexism handled by women. The same as our culture. But cumbia could also be a national dance, since it is danced everywhere. Dances that are too local can hardly be national.

—What do you think is the most genuine thing about the celebrations of September 18th?
—The genuine thing about the 18th and of any Chilean celebration is food and drink. For the people, any important holiday has to end with a barbecue, cause meat is very valued and it is not cheap. Of course you have to drink chicha (ideally, in "cacho") and you have to dance. Then, people remember cueca. It is very common for people to start learning cueca in October, cause they could not dance the previous month. I think what has been lost is, mainly, what's related to the traditional games. Only in some places you can practice the "greased stick", "tile throwing", etc. Families used to buy special clothing during this holiday, thinking about spring and summer. So you saw people like starched, girls with pink full dresses and very shiny patent leather shoes, with their white socks. That is over. The rodeos are still very vital, to dance a cueca with a huaso from a rodeo is a true challenge, very beautiful.

—Where does the elegant huasa—suit come from, with its skirt and tight black jacket?
—In the old days, people used special clothing for horseback riding and women used this tight skirts to ride on the side. There was a folklorist, María Eugenia Silva de Ramón, that said, "my family has never been one of tenants, but of land-owners, so I can not use the costume of a 'china". The truth is that women from big houses never used typical clothing. They would either wear clothes from Santiago, or would make themselves simple dresses for the farm.


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