Sara Perez has always loved the stage. Ever since she started dancing nearly three decades ago, the 32-year-old has been fascinated by the music, the costumes, and the thrill of feeling the audience’s eyes on her.
“I always knew that it was going to be tough and I would have to have multiple jobs at once and it wouldn’t always pay the bills on time,” she says of her chosen career, “but I get to do what I love.”
She credits her family with always encouraging her to pursue her dreams, and says she’s always been told by older relatives that she reminds them of her grandmother, Elia. Like Perez, she was the youngest of her siblings, but because she died a decade before Perez was born, many of her stories were lost to the younger generations.
With Ancestry®, Perez was able to find her grandmother’s birth certificate and records showing that, by 1910, her great-grandmother had given birth to 14 children, though only eight had survived. She was also able to trace her family line to Mier, a small city in northern Mexico near the Rio Grande, and the local church where both her great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother were baptized and married.
The records helped Perez not only form a deeper connection with her Mexican heritage but also better appreciate the strength and resilience of the women of her family. Inspired by this, she choreographed a piece paying tribute to her “guardian angels,” as she now thinks of them, who watch over her and laid the groundwork for her life and art. She presented the piece to her dad as an early gift for the holidays and is looking forward to sharing all that she’s learned with the rest of her family.
Read on for more on Perez’s experience and how she brought her family stories to life.
How did you first start dancing?
I started dancing when I was three. I have two older sisters that danced and they were mildly interested, but I saw that there were costumes, music, and you got to be on a stage, and that was just so intriguing for me. It’s the adrenaline that you get — you get up on stage, the lights are on you, you get to wear your costume. And there are certain moments where you get this rush of the music and the dance combining, and it’s just all those endorphins lifting you up, and you feel 15 feet tall, and the people in the audience get to enjoy what you’re doing and you hope that your energy goes to them as well. It’s just this ball of energy in that room.
How did you feel going through the documents and photos you found on Ancestry®?
It was super emotional. I’ve always thought of myself as just Texan, so it was really, really amazing to see the close connection to Mexico only three generations away. To see the baptism record and the border crossing and then the census was really cool. It said that my great-grandfather came to the U.S. in 1867. And just to see that in writing — I feel so far away from him, but now that I have this information, I feel a little bit closer.
It makes me wonder if maybe someone in my family wanted to dance or be an artist and they just weren’t able to. My dad’s side of the family loves attention — everyone loves practical jokes and making a scene. And I think that’s translated into my confidence as an artist. We have so much family history and we’ve worked so hard to get here and we deserve to love our life.
What was it like finding out these stories about the women in your family?
I was speechless. Just to know that I come from this long line of really strong women and to have two separate generations have 14 children each back in the 1700s and 1800s, I can’t even imagine what that was like. And I just think about what they would think about my life. Would they be proud? Would they be jealous? I have it pretty easy and I get to do something that I love, which is being an artist. And I’m glad that they lived the life that they lived so that I could live this life. They made all those choices for future generations.
How did this part of your family history inspire your gift?
Before this project even existed, I was working on that piece of choreography that we used for the performance. It was a song by another artist, but the lyrics were about having a guardian angel watch over you and make sure that the evil eyes stay away so whoever’s looking at you, they look at you with kindness. I had always thought of that choreography as my guardian angels looking over me, watching me perform. So I was really inspired by saying thank you to them. It reminds me that I should be grateful to have this moment and it feels like someone’s supporting me in a way.
Why did you want to present this gift to your dad?
I wanted to pay it forward with him. He’s helped me so much. And I’m so grateful for him paying for dance lessons and letting me go to college to be a dance teacher. So I wanted to bring him into this to let him know that I’m proud of who we are. Being from an older family — my grandmother was the baby of the family, my dad was the baby of the family, I’m the baby — that comes with a lot of older siblings, aunts, and uncles, and those stories don’t get really passed down. So my dad missed out on a lot of information about our family and I did too. And so it was really, really cool to discover this information together.
What does it mean to you to own your Mexican heritage?
It was just a little bit of validation for me personally, to be able to tell people about who I am. I never knew what to say before. ‘Oh, I’m just a child of the world?’ I don’t know. I know I don’t look super white, but I don’t look brown either. It’s this in-between space of being a mixed person. This experience really helped me find out what I need to work on to give this culture what it deserves and how to do it in the right way. I’ve picked back up my Spanish lessons. I also have been wanting to explore more Latin dance and I feel that I’ve ignored that for too long, and so it’s time to bring that into my practice. My dad and dad’s side of the family would speak to us in Spanish, but we would answer in English and we were never corrected. And so I never really got that conversational back and forth. A new goal that I have for the year is teaching a ballet class in Spanish.
Discover more inspiring stories of how artists have used Ancestry® research to create unique gifts honoring their family histories at nymag.com.
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