Photo depicting Alicia Mullikin dancing in a white blouse against a background of a desert environment.

Dance Company EL SUEÑO Pays Homage to Ancestry and Latin American Culture

by Fiona Dang

Founded in 2018, the dance company EL SUEÑO centers the experiences of BIPOC communities as powerful narratives worthy of being seen and celebrated. Founder Alicia Mullikin has sought to cultivate an inclusive space in the dance world that recognizes ancestral lineage and Latin American culture. EL SUEÑO seeks to dispel the myth of the American Dream as a self-made accomplishment and recognizes it as a collective effort, tied to the past.

The dance company’s website addresses this perspective with the statement: “La primera generación de Americanos son las flores que florecen después de generaciones de cosecha.” (“First generation Americans are the flowers that bloom after generations of harvest.”) 

In 2018, EL SUEÑO partnered with Velocity Dance Center to produce an eponymous performance. Mullikin casted six dancers who shared similar values and had close relationships with their families: Devin Muñoz, Aachix̂Qağaduug Elise Beer, Elizabeth Sugawara, Tessa Bañales, Melanie Katzen, and Olivia Anderson. When the pandemic hit, the group decided to translate their live performance into a feature film entitled EL SUEÑO. EL SUEÑO became a collaboration between Mullikin as director and choreographer and Muñoz as dancer and filmmaker, with an original score by multi-instrumentalist Daniel Mullikin.

Photo depicting Tessa Bañales in a white outfit holding a dancer's pose against a backdrop of a desert environment.
Dancer Tessa Bañales in the film ‘EL SUEÑO.’ (Photo: Devin Muñoz)
Photo depicting Devin Muñoz in a white outfit dancing against a backdrop of a desert environment.
Dancer Devin Muñoz in the film ‘EL SUEÑO.’ (Photo: Aachix̂Qağaduug Elise Beer)

EL SUEÑO weaves together moments of beauty and hardship that reverberate across time and space. The dancers embody powerful female archetypes of mother, grandmother, queen, or warrior. Set in the Mojave Desert, their performances bring to life the journeys of these powerful women and the traits that have been passed to them through generations. They assert their presence, freely and wholeheartedly expressing the fortitude, resilience, and softness inherent to their ancestors, immigrants, and People of Color.

A first-generation Mexican American raised in Los Angeles and the surrounding area, Alicia Mullikin discovered her love for dance and choreography in public school. Support from family members and mentors bolstered her belief that she could earn a place in the dance world as a plus-size dancer, Brown woman, and daughter of immigrants. During auditions, Mullikin recalls enduring discouraging remarks asking her to lose weight or erase elements of Spanish language and Latin American culture from her work.

“I never felt like I could put myself in my work without getting oppositional messages. I thought getting a college degree would provide my American Dream, which was to do the thing I love. It doesn’t matter what education or work I invested in; I wasn’t really going to be accepted,” Mullikin reflected. “I had a revelation: If the space I wish I had in the dance world doesn’t exist, then I’m going to create that myself.” 

Photo depicting the cast of 'EL SUEÑO' wearing various white clothing and posing in front of a white and gold flower background.
Cast of ‘EL SUEÑO’ film at the premiere in March. (Photo: Daria Fisher)

As history has shown, people of marginalized identities are rendered invisible in spite of their labor and inherent value, and their sacrifices are frequently unacknowledged by dominant institutional forces. The work of EL SUEÑO aims to redress this gross oversight and honor the contributions of BIPOC communities.

“When I thought about what has allowed me to be in the dance world, I had to look back and realize that [it] was not my own doing. My parents, grandparents, and ancestors are the ones who have strived for the next generation to be better. It’s my Native American ancestors who survived genocide. It’s my grandparents and dad who immigrated here. It’s my mom who worked three jobs while I grew up,” Mulikin said. “Those folks have continually put in the effort and continually put aside their dreams for me to be able to do what I’m doing. I’m in a place where I am now a recipient of generations of work put into me. Generations of love and harvest have gone into allowing me to be at the exact moment right now.”

Photo depicting Alicia Mullikin in a birght-pink suit posing in front of an art installation EL SUEÑO: THE FLOWERS THAT BLOOM.
Alicia Mullikin and art installation EL SUEÑO: THE FLOWERS THAT BLOOM, 2021. Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle. Gallery.(Photo: Devin Muñoz)

EL SUEÑO and its community partners have encouraged people to embrace their identities, heal from intergenerational trauma, and commemorate their lineages. In particular, the dance company collaborated with the Henry Art Gallery on an exhibition, titled EL SUEÑO: THE FLOWERS THAT BLOOM (November 18, 2021–April 17, 2022). For its finale, the EL SUEÑO Healing Day featured a series of programs: Yoga & Your Ancestry with artist Alfonso Cervera; a sound bath, meditation, and intentional journaling session with healing practitioner Maria Muñoz; and a screening of EL SUEÑO, featuring a Q&A with Mullikin and Muñoz. Through community-building events, the dance company continues to unapologetically pay homage to ancestral ties and Latin American heritage.

“I want to say to my people, ‘I see you.’ I’m trying to reach a lot of people and make sure that it resonates with them [and that they can] see themselves or people they love in it,’” she shared. “I didn’t get to see Brown women in dance. I want to make sure that when a young Brown person sees this work, they know that this is a Latina making this work.”

Through their work, EL SUEÑO invites everyone to imagine a collective future that is hard-won and generations in the making.

The feature film, EL SUEÑO, premiered at the Northwest Film Forum in March 2022. It is now available to stream on the dance company’s website. Follow their Instagram account for updates on new projects including a dance to “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio.

Fiona Dang (she/her) is a first-generation Chinese American art historian. Fiona has demonstrated her commitment to building bridges between scholarship and expansive art publics through her experiences working at museums.

📸 Featured Image: EL SUEÑO founder Alicia Mullikin. (Photo: Devin Muñoz)

Before you move on to the next story …
The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With over 1,000 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible. 
If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn't have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference. 
We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!