Dancer draws inspiration from grandmother’s migrant experience

Elisa De La Rosa
Photo by: Lynn Lane

Growing up in the small Texas border town of Donna, Elisa De La Rosa never thought much about the stories of her family. It wasn’t until she left home to study that the assistant professor of dance developed a desire to learn more about immigrant experiences – including her own family’s – and share their stories through her work.

De La Rosa followed her own path after attending a dance camp in the Rio Grande Valley one summer. Later, she took dance in high school, performing on both the Drill Team and Color Guard.

“I was living the life,” she said with a smile.

She found out about Texas Woman’s and its dance program from a friend. When her mother learned De La Rosa was going to major in dance, though, she flatly rejected the idea.

“I believe she thought I couldn’t have a career in it,” she said.

Elisa De La Rosa
Photo by: Matthew Rood

De La Rosa was determined, however, and earned her Bachelor of Arts in dance and secondary teacher certification from TWU. While pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in dance from Montclair State University, she felt the need to return to her roots for her thesis.

“I started to think about what matters to me,” she said. “I had seen modern dance and ballet, but I was hungry for something where I could say, ‘I see myself.’”

As part of her thesis, De La Rosa sat down with her grandmother in 2017 and asked about her immigration story. Her grandmother, Manuela Delgado Sanchez, was approaching her 90th birthday and was struggling with dementia but was able to share stories of coming to the United States to work.

Elisa De La Rosa accepts TWU Campus Leader with a Heart during the 2022 Redbud Awards.
Elisa De La Rosa accepts TWU Campus Leader with a Heart during the 2022 Redbud Awards.

De La Rosa said her grandparents came to the United States through the Bracero Program, which brought temporary migrant farmworkers from Mexico between 1942 and 1964. Every year, her grandparents and their three oldest children would drive to Washington State to work in the fields with other migrants. The family had to live outdoors under a tree for a time because migrant housing was full, she said.

De La Rosa used her grandmother’s voice and photos in a solo she created for Tortillas y Lágrimas (Tortillas and Tears), her MFA thesis concert she premiered in 2018.

“People in the audience said they heard their own grandmothers (in the dance),” she said.

Her grandmother also inspired the title of the work.

“My grandmother always found a way to bring people together,” she said. “Her way was through food.”

De La Rosa brings people together through dance.

“As a choreographer, I strive to create connections across cultures,” she said. She formed the De La Rosa Dance Company from a desire to see more cultural dance and create a space for dancers of color in Texas. As artistic director of the TWU International Dance Company, De La Rosa brings in dance alumni and other faculty members so her students can learn from other dance artists. She also learns from her students.

“I get a lot of energy from the students here,” De La Rosa said. “Sometimes, a lot of focus is put on the type of performance. At TWU Dance, the focus is on our students, their identities, and how we can build a bridge.”

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Page last updated 4:36 PM, September 12, 2022