The Power of Youth Cultural Exchange

By Guiomar Ochoa
young dancers performing

Dancing Grounds and Semilleros Creativos de Danza Urbana de Empalme performing together at the Cervantino Festival in Guanajuato, Mexico as part of an international youth cultural exchange between the United States and Mexico. Photo by Carlos Alvar

During a September 2022 meeting between Mexican Minister of Culture Alejandra Frausto, and NEA Chair Maria Rosario Jackson Secretary Frausto introduced Chair Jackson to her principal youth arts program, Semilleros. Semilleros aims to make visible the processes of collective artistic formation within more than 300 creative youth groups in Mexico 

When the United States was selected as the country of honor for Mexico’s annual Festival Internacional Cervantino in Guanajuato, Mexico, the U.S. was asked to curate a selection of American performing, visual, and literary artists to represent the country at the festival, which draws over 400,000 visitors from around the world. 

Given the conversation between Secretary Frausto and Chair Jackson, it was decided that a cultural exchange between Semilleros and an American youth arts group would be an ideal merger to highlight the close partnership and next cultural generation of both countries. The program would focus on the cultural richness of the chosen communities and foster a culture of peace in safe spaces where critical thinking is developed and young people are promoted as cultural agents.

International cultural youth exchanges offer numerous advantages that contribute to personal, social, and global development. Through youth cultural exchange young people can immerse themselves in different cultures, fostering a deep understanding and appreciation for diversity. This firsthand experience helps break down stereotypes and promotes tolerance. Participants also gain a broader perspective on global issues and challenges. Exposure to different cultures, traditions, and perspectives helps young people become more aware of the interconnectedness of the world and the importance of global cooperation.

Semillero Creativo de Danza Urbana de Empalme from Sonora was chosen to represent Mexico, while  Dancing Grounds, a New Orleans-based advocate for social change through inclusive and accessible dance programs, was chosen to represent the United States. The groups spent the latter part of 2023 participating in a cultural exchange spanning both countries that culminated in a performance at the Cervantino Festival. 

Semillero Creativo de Danza Urbana de Empalme was formed organically by young people who wanted to dance reggaeton and K-Pop. But the Semilleros go further, one of their objectives is to promote peace in safe spaces in which the critical thinking of minors is developed. Since its inception in 2019, they have had many success stories, especially of repressed and shy adolescents who have found in this group a place to express themselves and belong. Their mission is to generate positive changes and propagate new thoughts in order to help young people become changemakers in their communities.  

Dancing Grounds’ flagship initiative, Dance for Social Change, inspires New Orleans youth to use their artistic talents to catalyze positive social change in their community. In August 2023, the Semilleros from Empalme spent one week experiencing the Dance for Social Change Summer Intensive in New Orleans. This program is designed to push youth artists to think critically and build movement around a social issue. The Mexican and American youth took classes with professional guest artists who set choreography on them and also propelled them in crafting their own movement. The week culminated with the NOLA Youth Town Hall, which welcomed young people and youth organizations across the city to strategize the best ways to support New Orleanian youth. The pinnacle of the Town Hall was a special performance by the Dance for Social Change Teen Company and the Semillero Creativo de Danza Urbana de Empalme.

Between August and October, Mexican and American choreographers met, via Zoom, to jointly prepare the piece the two youth groups would perform together at Cervantino. In October, Dancing Grounds spent a week in Mexico. They reunited with their friends from Empalme in Mexico City, where they spent time perfecting their piece for the festival as well as taking in the local culture. Both groups traveled together to Guanajuato where they performed their emotional dance piece. 

Ultimately, the project showed that music and dance can provide a common thread between cultures, and that engaging youth in cultural exchanges teaches them how the arts can build resilience, and offer a path to individual and social healing. International cultural youth exchanges such as the one between Empalme and New Orleans have the potential to create a generation of globally aware, open-minded, and culturally competent individuals who can contribute to a more interconnected and harmonious world.

Guiomar Ochoa is the International Activities Specialist at the National Endowment for the Arts.