Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Luis Rocha

Luis Rocha, originally from Bolivia, works for the Arlington Community Federal Credit Union branch on Columbia Pike. A student at George Mason University, he also dances in a traditional Bolivian folklore group.
The Job:
"I got this job, honestly, through the connections I have within the Bolivian community in this area. I was born in Bolivia, and my parents were also born in Bolivia. We were born in the same city, Cochabamba. This area, Northern Virginia, also just happens to be the number one most populated area of Bolivians outside the country of Bolivia, containing over 40,000 Bolivians in the Northern Virginia area. It’s through this community that I met a lot of friends, it’s what I call community. My mother remarried, with a great guy called Julio, my stepdad, who has a cousin who works here. We met Julio through the Bolivian community, we all danced a Bolivian folkloric dance called Caporalés
Just before finding out about Arlington Community Federal Credit Union, I was kind of at a low point in my life as I was suspended from school at that time. I was not doing great grades-wise, and my whole career plan was changing and I didn’t know if I still wanted to be in engineering and computer science, just because I was doing poorly in school. I had to do something. I couldn’t just stay at home and do nothing, so I was looking for a part-time job. So, Julio’s cousin who works here said, “Oh, we are looking for young people.” They didn’t have to have worked at a bank before and so I came here, eager to learn, eager to work. They taught me everything and it has been amazing here ever since.

Working here in Arlington where my family first settled when we came to this country, is just a huge coincidence. I have lived in many places in Northern Virginia. When we first came here, we lived in Arlington and when I started elementary school we moved to Fairfax County, to Lorton Station. That’s where I lived through most of my raising, and since I was being raised by a single mother I was out on my own a lot while my mother worked. I quickly learned how to use public transportation to hang out with my friends in D.C. and in Arlington. I also lived in Annandale for some time. Then we moved to Springfield and just about 2 years ago my family bought our first house. We are no longer in the Northern Virginia area but live in this small town called Montclair near Woodbridge.
I knew nothing when I came to work here. Honestly, I didn’t know what a credit union was. I barely knew how banking worked. At first, I had wanted to be a teller at Bank of America, and I had applied there but they denied me because I had zero experience. So I applied here and said I have zero experience, but I am a hard worker and can solve problems on my own, and if you teach me, I can do it. So I was given the opportunity, they taught me everything. What’s awesome about this company is that there was a two-week training/orientation seminar and in that I thought they were going to simply teach me what I am going to do, and what my responsibilities were going to be. But it was much more than that. I was taught what the company stood for, how a credit union functions, and what was the core mission. It was a lot more than just “This is your job,” and I loved it.  I resonated with the mission and the values that this company has. I was very thankful that they gave me this job and would teach me everything I would need. Ever since then I have been given a lot of opportunity here. I was really looking for just any part-time job and instead I found a great life opportunity here full of great caring people who I consider a second family to me.
Being a Student:
Right now I’m still a student at George Mason University. I am at the School of Business and am majoring in Management Information Systems. So I am doing full-time work and full-time school, which I never thought I’d be doing. I remember just a few years ago hearing about how my older friends would do full-time work and full-time school and always thinking “props to you, I could never do that,” but here I am doing what I once thought I was incapable of doing. It is a lot of work but I have a lot of support from my family and my co-workers here. My manager is very supportive of my studies. My girlfriend and her family are very supportive too. They help me. I am very thankful for that. I am very lucky.
Engineering and computer science is where I want my career path to go towards. I want to be in the tech industry for sure. One, I was always interested in technology, gadgets, and programming when I was a kid growing up. I loved jailbreaking devices, like hacking my own computers and phones and modifying them and injecting code. It’s fun. I loved taking something standard and universal and then customizing it when people thought It wasn’t possible. I’m not able to get a computer science degree or an engineering degree with my current credits so I am focusing right now to finish with a business degree, and also getting some tech certifications. Then I’ll start applying to intern, and try to get my foot in that career path. But I have been keeping my doors open. It’s not that that’s the one thing I want to do. I am interested and open to other possibilities as I don’t know what else is out there. I don’t know if there is a job I might like even more. I’m currently a teller but recently, just this past week, I got accepted to be an accounting specialist for this credit union. I never thought I’d be in accounting but it’s an experience that I really think will help me in any case. I am also part of the IT Ambassadors program which means that whenever there is an IT issue going on they send us weekly updates informing us how they fixed it, what was done exactly, and what the problem was - insider experience on what it means to be in IT. 
I was also the Cultural Ambassador for my branch for two years. It was awesome. It was a committee with one person from each department that would meet routinely to plan cultural events/celebrations and also work on projects to promote employee engagement and wellbeing. It’s our job to be the “cheerleaders” of each department and motivate our team to participate in community events and credit union activities. We also have the opportunity of thinking of new services or benefits for employees. For example when I was in it, we incorporated pet insurance as an optional benefit so our employees now have that option because one of us, as a cultural ambassador, brought it up in one of our meetings. We plan out what the credit union is going to do for Mother’s Day, Volunteer Recognition Day, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, what employee competitions we are going to have for Halloween… stuff like that. It’s to get the whole organization involved with the culture of the area that we are in.
The Future:
For my own future, aside from my career path, me and my girlfriend have talked about this—ideally, if we are able to, like if we can afford it and if we are able to find the right home, we would definitely love to live in Arlington. That would be our number one ideal place. We love the social aspect of city life. Originally we were thinking of DC, but then that’s too expensive and we have never lived in DC and we realized we really only like going there on the weekends. Meanwhile, Arlington gives us that busy, cultural city feeling that we really like and it's still home to us and right on I-95, so we decided we would like to live in Arlington, definitely. 
My stepfather and his whole family grew up and still live in South Arlington, they have a house there. He has three other siblings and right now the parents are looking to retire and they have a house there, it's beautiful, it's cozy. And me and my girlfriend have been eyeing it. Like sell it to us, please! But because Arlington is becoming so polarized and becoming the next big city, housing prices are insane and we’re not the only ones that want to live in that house! Ideally, if everything goes right, I will be living in that house, here in Arlington, with my girlfriend. I think it will work out. I’m hoping for it at least.
But that’s another thing. When my family came here to Arlington I’m pretty sure they also wanted to stay in the area. It was familiar as there was a large – outside of just the Bolivian community – Hispanic community which was amazing for my parents. Like my mom could go to the market, do laundry at the laundromat, do everything and she didn’t have to know English. But, as you can see, we moved away as we couldn’t afford Arlington’s rising prices. I had other friends from the Bolivian community who were born and raised in Arlington but their families are also moving away over time. They are buying their first homes or renting elsewhere like in Woodbridge, Fairfax County, or Maryland. They tell me they would prefer to stay in Arlington, though it seems like some families are getting priced out and those who grew up there can no longer afford to live there. And that’s sad. It’s an issue that I wish there could be a solution for but you can’t really stop people from buying homes and you can’t stop people from selling their homes if someone is willing to buy it for a higher price. It makes me a little scared for the culture we have here. Like someone my age you ask them why you want to live in Arlington and they will tell you it’s the next big city, the next D.C. There’s a lot of tech companies here, Amazon is here, and other big tech companies are going to be here. There’s new hip apartments, new construction for luxury high-rises, there are new cool restaurants and coffee shops here and there and that’s all cool and everything. I admit I like going to those places on the weekends, I like taking pictures around parks and things like that but when I grew up, it was a much different Arlington. I still go to Pan American Bakery, it's five minutes down the Pike because they make my favorite salténas. I really love Arlington because this place was my community and my heritage. So hopefully if I get that house, I still want there to be that same familiar Latino community here. But not just that. I know that there is a large Eritrean and Ethiopian community here. Right next door there is an Ethiopian restaurant, and they have whole plazas full of their culture---foods, hair salons, markets. Me and my girlfriend, we love going through those. We went to a little Indian market the other day because she was looking for a specific curry to make dinner. She had roommates in college that were Indian so she learned to make authentic Indian food (as best as we could of course). I loved seeing new products in different languages, different candies and foreign products from there. I just love the raw culture, the melting pot of it all. I’m not necessarily excited for the gentrified Arlington. But I mean it’s progress nonetheless, I’m not against it, I’m not saying we shouldn’t let people come into Arlington who want to be part of it. But I mean everyone should be aware of the rich culture we have in this area and should at least somewhat respect it or appreciate it.
If the people move away the businesses will be gone. The culture is slowly slipping away and becoming a new culture. It’s just not the one I grew up with. Which, I guess is okay. There is now a large Latino community in Woodbridge, and I can go to certain markets there and speak in Spanish. So I think it will move and in a few years maybe those areas will be the central Hispanic communities in Northern Virginia. So right now I am witnessing and experiencing the reallocation of where the culture is, it just seems weird to be living through these changes. No one is kicking out anybody but it kind of feels like it to an extent. It’s also not a very obvious change. We don’t see it happening, but we are definitely seeing the effects of it afterwards and for me what was really an eye-opening moment was when Food Star was gone. I still vividly remember going there to buy some last-minute barbeque supplies. There was a park right down the street from there, and that’s where we would go a lot of times. To see it completely change—it looks cool, very city-like, all the new shops and the Harris Teeter, very futuristic. But in my head, I just miss the Hispanic families that shopped there, and the Harris Teeter doesn’t sell Chicha Morrada, which is a purple corn drink, that’s my number one favorite drink. You need to try it! They used to sell big 2-liter bottles of that in Food Star when it was there. Although Food Star  has relocated and are still here but in a different town, it was very evident to me that things are changing. I remember reading about it for school. We had a human geography class and we had to read about how, why, and when groups of people move around—based on their culture or their demographic—it causes a big change in the culture and the population. We learned about New York City and what happened there with gentrification. Big businesses moved in, bought up properties, pushed out the lower income renters. So for me I knew what gentrification looked like, but it wasn’t until I saw Food Star gone and the new Harris Teeter replacing it that I realized it’s happening right here and its happening right now.
The Road Ahead:
So if you ask me how do you fix the erasure of culture when people are just moving in I guess my answer is to be aware that you are moving to somewhere which has a rich culture and try to keep it alive. Interact with it. Somebody doesn’t go to live in Paris and happen to hate what makes Paris so unique, you know? Be aware that you are moving to Arlington, VA, with a rich history of culture, and support the local businesses, buy food from the hole in the wall restaurants. Be involved in your community.
Dance is my Life:
The dance that I do is called Caporalés. It’s the one with the big bells on the boots and the ladies in skirts and sequins on shiny colorful costumes. As far as I know, the dance is kind of a story, a snapshot of Bolivia’s history. The name given to the dance, Caporalés –as I know it from my parents and other members of the community–comes from the word El Capo which means “The Boss” or “The Leader”. And what this snapshot in history tells us about is from back in colonial times when there were still large plantations and land owners and slaves or people who tended to the fields, Caporalés shows us all the people dressed in shiny clothes and boots and with the whip, that is the land owner. And it’s not seen anymore in the dances. but back in the 1970’s or 80’s Caporalés was presented also with people who dressed like the plantation workers. So that was a snapshot of Bolivia’s history at that time. And Bolivia has hundreds of dances, and each dance is a little story of Bolivia’s identity, culture, or history. I think it is just something about Bolivia where everyone just enjoys learning about the history and culture as a whole. 
The other dances which are popular here are the Tinkus, the Diablada. The Tinkus are fun to dance and the Diaibladas have the best costumes in my opinion. Diabladas means demons and if you’ve seen the dance, it’s a bunch of demons and they are all wearing extravagant masks. They are the flashiest and although they look really uncomfortable to wear, it is definitely the flashiest – and the masks are huge! Especially nowadays for the Halloween parades and presentations that we do, they have LEDs in them they light up bright at night and are so cool to watch. And the one leader in Diablada groups, it’s an angel. I love watching them but personally I’ve grown to love Caporalés and that’s why I primarily dance Caporalés.

Over the years, especially today in 2022, the meaning and the story behind it has been lost, but personally it makes me feel at home. It makes me feel connected to my culture and my heritage. I left my country when I was 3 years old and everyone I speak to that’s from Bolivia, they say, “Oh so you are basically American,” and they are somewhat right. I speak English–that’s the language I am most fluent in. I love all American food and I participate in all American culture, but I grew up with Bolivian parents and grew up with their teachings and how they were raised. So naturally Caporalés became part of my identity. Above that, it was my stress relief. The feeling and joy I get from dancing Caporalés, that is when I feel that I am in the moment.

I was very young when I started. My parents were dancing even before I was born, and nowadays groups are very open and family friendly. But back when I was learning, here in the US (and I think in Bolivia too), it was almost taboo for little kids to be dancing. It was an adult celebration with adults socializing and at times drinking and all, so not really a children-friendly thing at first. I watched my mom dance and my dad was more in the administration or on the board. As a kid I would always dance next to them and I would get in their way and it would be dangerous as dancers would jump and run and I was just this little kid in their way. So kids were always in the sidelines when I came to this country but little by little, year by year, they let the kids dance and participate. I remember my first costume. It was a used one from someone in Bolivia. My parents had noticed how much I loved to dance and they got it for me. It was awesome. There would be older kids who would say, “You’re not supposed to dance.” And I would just be dancing and ignoring them. I loved to dance.
Beyond the culture and heritage, it was my calling. If I could somehow manage to do this, my dream job would be a professional Caporalés dancer sponsored by Nike or Adidas or any company really, and just dance. Practice as much as you can and be the best dancer and go present and compete everywhere. I would do that with no hesitation.

I’ve only noticed recently how much of a positive effect dancing has had on me. I never noticed before, since I was dancing every year, non-stop throughout the year. There were a few months in the winter when people didn’t dance– it’s kind of like there is a season for CaporalésCaporalés dancing groups take breaks in the winter but right after winter break we start dancing and it’s a weekly thing again. Small groups will meet in somebody’s parking lot in the neighborhood but now that we are in a bigger group we do it more officially. We have an agreement with certain property owners, and we practice sometimes even in public schools. My girlfriend’s old group practiced behind a grocery store, so we make the best of what we can get. Groups used to scavenge around for empty parking lots to host practices, but now it has evolved to paying for indoor locations and making deals with property owners.
I grew up in a low income family, and Caporalés is an expensive hobby to keep up with. It is actually more expensive for my family to support me dancing Caporalés than it would have been to play any organized sport! On top of that, my father didn’t think there was much merit from dancing Caporalés outside of having a social life. That’s where we had a bit of a disconnect, because this is more than something I just like to do on the weekend. This is actually what my passion is, this is my life. And this realization hit me really hard when I got into college. Since dancing Caporalés takes up a lot of time and a lot of money, I had to stop participating once I got into college. And shortly after deciding to stop dancing I started to notice my mental health was declining. Like drastically. I was doing worse and worse in school. I was just in bed most of the time. Even though I was hanging out with friends and going out socializing, I was starting to go out less and less. I found that I was in a depression. I didn’t realize it before but when I would go visit my dance group and dance, I would be the happiest person ever. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie “Soul” but in that movie they describe this feeling of being “in the moment” where someone feels like they’re doing what they were born to do, at ease and just naturally at bliss. For me, Caporalés was like that. I wouldn’t even know who was around me. I was blind, just enjoying it, in my element, in my trance. So yeah, it was my passion. Especially for my family too, we did not have a lot of money, we moved around a lot, and when my parents divorced it was difficult for me. But Caporalés was my release, my escape. On top of this, Caporalés gave me my circle, and everyone who I consider my family. My immediate family was the first generation in the US so I didn’t really have any relatives around. No aunts, uncles, cousins or anything. It was almost always a small table for our holiday dinners. Caporalés has given me a giant family now, my step-father who we met through Caporalés has a giant family and they have accepted me, my sister, my mother and my new siblings into their family - it is so beautiful having a large family now. Growing up my sense of family and who was close to me, I met all through Caporalés. I still keep in contact with all the friends I’ve made through the various dancing groups I’ve been in. Even though I don’t talk to them daily they are who I consider family. I think the dance was the center of my life. For most of my life.
My life is making a great turn right now. This year has been a great year for me. I have been doing great in school, having a great relationship with my family, my dad, and it’s been great at my work too. I really appreciate my community and even more now that I am reconnecting with Caporalés. I love dancing but the whole community is its own animal. It gets political at times - groups and families and who hangs around who. Because I have danced so long with one group I’ve grown a loyalty to that group, and have danced for them for many years now. If I were to ever leave and join another group I am pretty sure quite a few friends of mine would reach out and ask me if I was okay! The downside of being associated with one group is that I have many friends in other groups who I would like to dance alongside with. So my girlfriend and I have thought of an idea of hosting our own little practices where anyone is welcome and it is not associated with any group, so there would be no group politics. After all, I did meet my girlfriend through Caporalés, and we were even competing against each other when we met. So why not create a space to celebrate the love for this dance and culture and also promote unity? I am excited for the future of this community, and I am excited to grow with it."

Interview by Sushmita Mazumdar. Photography by Lloyd Wolf.

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