Emma Lopez, Nachita Hernandez—and Rita Hayworth!
By Maria E. Garcia
Dancing lessons and dancing have been a focus at Neighborhood House since the early days. As stated in previous articles the dancers often performed at fund raisers held at the Marston House. The most memorable show from the early years was when they performed at the reception held for Jane Addams, founder of Hull House and a noted social worker. In those days they also performed in Balboa Park and at the Presido. Dance productions gave the entertainers from Logan Heights the opportunity to visit other parts of the city as well as for the members of the majority community to see the talent of the dancers from Neighborhood House.
A special presentation for the 84th California Admissions Day celebration in 1934 involved many of the dancers from Neighborhood House. Newspaper articles identify the performers under the direction of Miss Agnes Brinegar; however, it is very possible that the actual dance instructor was Luis Lopez.
Pictures belonging to Mr. Lopez are inscribed with “Best Wishes to my teacher Mr. Lopez.” Another picture with dancers at the Marston house is inscribed “with lovely wishes to my dancing teacher,” signed Celia Blanco and Lidia Smith. Some of the same pictures reporting on the admission day celebrations are the very pictures that were given to Mr. Lopez.
The same newspaper article refers to the quality of their work as equivalent to performers from Padua Hills. Padua Hills is located in the foothills above Claremont California. Like Neighborhood House it offered courses in Mexican Folk Music, Mexican Dance and Spanish.
Where the focus at Neighborhood House was to “Americanize” the immigrant community the stated focus at Padua Hills was to promote inter cultural understanding. According to Wikipedia “Padua Hills is the longest running theater featuring Mexican theme musicals in the United States. It opened as a nonprofit business promoting inter- cultural understanding between European Americans and those of Mexican descent.” There is no doubt that it was quite flattering to the Neighborhood House performers to be compared to the Padua Hills dancers.
In the 1930s Señora Villagrana was the dance teacher. Emma Lopez was taught flamenco dancing by Señora Villagrana, a strict no nonsense teacher who had very high standards for the girls. There was a bar on the west side of the wall that faces Beardsley. The dancer had to put one foot on the bar and practice the castanets. Once your leg was on the bar you were expected to hold your arm straight out and with your right fingers you used four fingers and would count 1-2-3 rollet. (rollet is the rolling the sound of the castanets. With your left hand you were to use your two middle fingers.
While you were practicing this stance Señora Villagrana would play the piano. As she played the piano she would watch the girls practice and no mistake went unnoticed. Mrs. Mary Barrios believes that it was Señora Villagrana who taught her to dance el jarabe tapatío. The tradition of the kids from Neighborhood House performing Mexican dances at the Marston home, Balboa Park, and the Presidio continued throughout the 1930s.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s there was an outstanding dance teacher named Nachita Hernandez. As a child Nachita had the distinction of being taught to dance by Mr. Cansino. Mr. Cansino is the father of the Mexican/Irish actress Rita Hayworth (Margarita Carmen Cansino) . He immigrated from Castilleja, a small town near Seville Spain.
He learned flamenco dancing in Spain and taught it in the United States and Mexico for many years. Nachita’s dance lessons took place in Tijuana where Mr. Cansino moved after experiencing financial problems in the early 1930s. Rita Hayworth herself said her father was a tough task master and she was made to practice dancing every day for hours at a time. It was his wish that Rita become a professional dancer.
Mr. Cansino’s strictness and style may have been why by the age of eleven Nachita was seen as a professional dancer. Sadly when she was offered a Hollywood contract that would have enabled her to dance in movies, her mother would not allow her to accept it. The opportunity for a Hollywood career came up twice and on both occasions her mother made it very clear that she would not be allowed to go to Hollywood. Her opportunity, to become a dancer in the movies was lost forever.
Mr. Oropeza says Nachita, his late wife, was known as the best dancer in San Diego. Her dances included flamenco, folklórico and other Mexican dances. By the time she reached her late teens she was hired by private parties to teach their children ballroom and the tango dancing. The parents of Margarita and Cristina Carmona along with several of the families hired her to teach their girls to dance. As a matter of fact several families hired her to teach their children to dance. This is same period during which she started teaching dance classes at Neighborhood House.
Members of the Lucky 13, a girl’s social club founded at Neighborhood House, were taught to dance by Nachita. She started teaching dance in the early 1940s and continued her lessons until she was about to have her first child. She returned to teaching dance after the birth of each of her children.
Nachita met Mr. Oropeza in 1940. He had come to San Diego from Northern Arizona. He says prior to the war they were just good friends. Nachita was working at an insurance agency in downtown San Diego. This is where Carlos Oropeza went to tell her he was going overseas.
Carlos was wounded in the battle of Okinawa. When he returned they began dating. They married on Halloween Day of 1948. Once again, her mother, who Mr. Oropeza describes as a very difficult person, would not approve of them being married. Therefore they planned a wedding without her. Carlos believes that Nachita’s mother objected to the marriage because she was accustomed to Nachita’s giving her entire pay check to her.
Mr. Oropeza was a big supporter of his wife’s dance instruction as well as her dancing ability. He is also very proud of the fact that she was well educated and bilingual. She was able to read and write in both languages. When Nachita became pregnant with their first child she went to the clinic at Neighborhood House for her medical needs. After their little girl was born her mother asked her to come over and show her the baby. However, she did not want Carlos to accompany her. Nachita’s response was “vamos los tres o no vamos”–we come as three or not at all. Her mother wanted to see her first grandchild so much she finally agreed that the whole family could come and visit. In later years Mrs. Hernandez learned to love Carlos.
Nachita had the opportunity to perform at the Del Mar Fair. She would also dance at the Fiestas Patrias (15 de Septiembre) which were held at the Organ Pavilion. She did not get paid for dancing at the Organ Pavilion but loved dancing so much she did it for free. Mr. Oropeza also enjoyed dancing. She taught him new steps and together they won several trophies. At around the age of forty she stopped teaching dancing.
There are several memorable occasions of them dancing together. Once they went to the Palladium in Los Angles, to see Lawrence Welk play. Everyone was dancing, however they were soon the only two on the dance floor, dancing a rumba. Mr. Oropeza remembers that a big spotlight was on them and they entertained everyone.
On another occasion they were in Las Vegas and Liberace’s brother George and his orchestra were performing. Carlos requested a rumba and once again people moved off the dance floor and left them alone to entertain everyone. When the dance was over the crowd applauded and cheered.
Two years later they were in Reno where George was playing with his orchestra. The minute he saw them he invited them up with the orchestra and introduced them to the audience. Sadly Nachita passed away in January of this year.
The complete History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights series is available here.