Living Hip Hop in Uruguay: A Portrait of Bgirl China
Wendy Pedroso Martínez
It's six o'clock in the morning and China is already brewing coffee...she likes to beat the sun. She smiles, gives thanks for another day and sits at her sewing machine. She has to finish sewing some textile confections before leaving for the picnic area of Manitos Solidarias.
From Monday to Friday she coordinates the preparation and delivery of free food to more than sixty children and forty adults who are homeless or in extreme poverty in La Teja, a neighbourhood located in north east Montevideo - the capital of Uruguay. Together they prepare approximately 160 dishes a day. At 12:30pm they distribute lunch and at 5pm an additional meal so that people do not go hungry.
I met China through a friend we have in common. He insisted that I connect with someone who lived Hip Hop in a genuine way and although we never met in person during my time in Uruguay, she was one of those anchors that make you admire unknown lands.
She is not rich economically but her heart is wealthy and generous. Although she often doesn’t know what she is going to put on her own table, she never leaves the community of La Teja hungry. For China, it is always better to give than to receive.
"My children work in a street food stall and with a part of those profits we take out food to the picnic area. Fabian Romero (aka DJ FF) is a very important person in the work we do. He is the first DJ of rap and vinyl in Uruguay and we are united by more than 27 years of friendship. He produces, musicalises and edits the events of the foundation and he also participates in our social events. We have no support other than the collective will of us all."
And although the day has only 24 hours, China makes the most of them. Alongside the food preparation and delivery she organises workshops in public squares, zonal communal civic centres, schools, lyceums and at INAU - the Uruguayan Institute for Children and Adolescents - a centre responsible for helping the most vulnerable minors in Montevideo. From Monday to Sunday they deliver two hour workshops teaching children the origins of breaking and combine it with other dances such as flamenco, tap and salsa as well as rhythmic gymnastics and other traditional games. Supporting this work the foundation collects clothes, footwear and toys to donate to the community as well. She tries to guide them, share knowledge and show a positive path so that they do not change schools for joints.
"Helping those in need was always the premise of my family. That feeling of being able to share, provide love and a bite of food, I learned that from my parents. My mother was raised by nuns in an orphanage and they taught her charity. My father only studied until the fourth grade and as a child he started working. They both knew the value of having nothing and having someone lend you a hand. Since I was little I went out with them to distribute food and donations. That is why I consider dinner time with my children a special moment, it is that intimate space for family, where I thank God for having them as my support and my strength and for giving us the courage to grow and believe in every step we take." China says proudly.
Gabriela Judith Vidart Olivera was born on May 2nd 1978 in Montevideo, Uruguay. She is the eldest of the four children from the marriage of Carlos and Marta.
"My childhood was super happy. My father always gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted. He was a mechanic and had a commercial refrigerator manufacturing company and when I was six years old I went to work with him. He taught me how to use various tools - including a stainless-steel guillotine - and I cut metal sheets, spliced pieces...my mother was not happy. She didn't like that I went to work with dad because she wanted me to be feminine, at home and learning housework. But I loved that space with the old man because it gave me the wings to be free. Thanks to him I was able to practice dance, soccer and martial arts."
It was a difficult period for her country shaking off 12 years of dictatorship; people lived in fear and for children there were no public spaces for fun. Technology was scarce and in her neighbourhood children managed to entertain themselves by playing ball, fort and soldiers and teacher and school.
Gabriela says that for girls, classical ballet was predetermined as something delicate and feminine and so she began dancing at the age of five. She couldn’t join the group at Sodre Theater because they required a physical height that she did not have, so she did flamenco and Spanish dance...but she wasn't comfortable with the skirts and the tutu, the shoes and the bows. “I enjoyed dancing, but I was looking for something more.”
"On that Sunday I discovered what I wanted. I went with my parents to a small square near our house and saw some children on the grass dancing and making some nice movements, so I decided to approach them. I started watching them until I felt like I could do what they were doing too, and I got involved with them in their dance. It was like a feeling of relief, adrenaline and joy which I reaffirmed later that same year (1986) when the movie Beat Street was released. I was 8 years old and went with my family to see it. A dramatic dance story written by Richard Lee Sisco which made me love - from minute one - Hip Hop culture. As a child, I didn't know what it was or what the movement represented, but I wanted to relive every moment of that film with my friends in the neighbourhood." says Gabriela.
In that instant, she decided her future. To dance and express herself as an authentic bgirl. And so her games, antics and fashion style revolved around that. Meeting with her friends they performed choreographies and created new moves: “We recorded a small fragment of the film, one of the final dance battles and we repeated it a thousand times. Some of us grabbed the steps very fast, but for others it was a little slower, but we all shared that feeling of going out to dance like the cast of Beat Street. In bboy Juan's house, or bboy Jesus' house, also in my house...our families already knew the film off by heart. It makes me happy to think of my dad and my grandfather Marcos - they enjoyed those moments too. They looked at us and said when the choreography was good...they even grabbed some hats and began to imitate our steps."
The awakening that China felt had echoes of what Godlive Lawani expressed in her essay Dance As Hard As A Man: how female Hip Hop dancers have had to man up to try to get a place in the hip-hop scene:
When I was twelve, what I understood about Hip Hop as a dance was that it was a way to express and release my own body without putting limits on my imagination. A kind of indescribable freedom happened when I danced.
China started listening to the vinyl records that her dad bought for her. She preferred African American music, jazz and blues and she danced to the likes of Michael Jackson, Herbie Hancock, Donna Summer, Madonna, Bonnie Tyler, The Billy’s and Wu-Tang Clan. There was a radio station in Uruguay that she listened to - which at that time was the only one that played American music in the 90s - called Radio Del Plata FM that broadcasts in Montevideo on 95.5 FM and online. "Music always served the dance, even if it was merengue, salsa or opera. We felt the music and we started improvising with our movements...we went to the beat of the genre. The important thing was to express ourselves. First in our houses, then on our block and finally we went into different neighbourhoods of the city in search of battles."
Gabriela - popularly known as China - is supported by more than thirty-seven years in Hip Hop Culture and is distinguished as the first old school bgirl in Uruguay.
"They call me China because of my physical features. I have ancestry from the Charrúa Indians (the Charrúa culture was an Amerindian population of indigenous people from South America who lived in what is currently called Uruguay, NE Argentina and in the south of Brazil) and since I was little all my family and friends called me this. At school it was my classmates who highlighted the shape of my eyes and at first I felt that it was a discriminative nickname, but then I liked it. I understood that there was something distinctive about my face and that's how I got the nickname of China for life."
However, there was a Hip Hop encounter and anecdote that marked her as a young girl. Although at that time it was a painful experience, it demonstrated her strength and how she would chase her dream at any cost.
At the age of twelve she went to her first dance battle with a group of friends. China pauses, tries to remember, but her eyes reflect a bitter taste. “That day I went to Memphis, a recreational space where young people would meet (today there is no such place, because the owner is in a nursing home and the people who acquired it rent it for family parties). I remember I wore black shorts, black stockings, black booties and a little top. When we arrived there were some guys dancing and without thinking I threw myself on the dance floor to show that I also knew how to break. However, the euphoria lasted for a few seconds and I felt my hair being pulled, an arm squeezing my neck and a strong blow on my butt that left me convalescing in a corner. I could not move my legs. I cried a lot and I didn’t understand why they showed violence towards a girl who just wanted to be happy dancing. More than the pain of the blows, I cried because those boys said that a girl could not dance, that it was a man's thing."
This story has so many parallels with the reality described by Godlive. Yet again China offers a clear example of how masculinity is imposed in Hip Hop culture to form social acceptance. It wasn’t just happening in Germany, it was happening 7000 miles away in Uruguay too.
Many people thought China's best option was to avoid similar scenarios in the future and remove herself from encounters that could cause her physical and psychological harm. However, Gabriela Judith Vidart Olivera decided to shed some of her feminine traits and live hip hop differently. "As a child I always had a thin build, I didn’t paint myself and I liked to wear wide clothes. What gave away my gender was my hair...so I decided to cut it very short and dress as a man. From that moment on I was Chinese."
She describes how she dressed the following Saturday: "I put two caps on, one forward and one back. On the sleeves of my coat I put two handkerchiefs - one with the flag of Japan and one with the flag of the USA. I grabbed my mom's red pants, cut one leg off and patched the other leg with a blue one. I wore different coloured shoes and more scarves on the knees. My sister Jessica accompanied me in that madness, and we walked arm in arm as if she were my girlfriend. And guess what? I was able to dance that night. I went into the round, threw some mills, head spins...and everyone was asking who is that Chinese? Where’s he from? I kept myself disguised as a man for six months and only my friends and family knew what was going on."
"My mother was very angry when she saw my haircut and it took her a week before she found the pants I tore to make my outfit. She complained to my dad, but because he always said yes to my every whim, he told me that I was his pride and if dancing made me happy, I should never stop dancing."
As Godlive says: "showing femininity was ridiculed." That is why China decided to disguise herself as a man, she had to fit into a movement that is built on machismo.
In a battle six months after that disguise had worked she noticed that her shirt was open and the top that covered her breasts was visible: "I didn't know how to react at first, but I was filled with courage. In the middle of the dance floor I revealed that I was the same girl that they had assaulted months ago for daring to dance with men. One of the ones who hit me - I will never forget the disappointment on his face - he could not accept that a woman beat him and that woman was me.”
From that day on girls did not enter the dance as companions or girlfriends or friends. They were part of the dance and were encouraged to throw down. “I’m happy to be part of a change that was so necessary for women and for me personally," she says proudly.
Over the years China has continued on her creative path. She studied several courses related to dance, participated in the youth category at carnival balls, learned how to play the piano, guitar and violin as well as studying haute couture, industrial mechanics and masonry. In 1994 she launched a community radio program (Lady in Red) of Hip Hop culture, in 1995 she created a women's group called Ladies Crew composed of herself, Malena Rops and Jessica Vidart as well as organising competitive dance events in her neighbourhood La Teja.
She joined different crews across the country including Beast Street, Alpha de Night, Old School Crew and New Breakers with whom she participated in an international competition in 1997 and achieved second place in the South American championship.
"I never stopped dancing. Although many times along the way I found mountains and stones, I dodged them. That was my youth - dancing, studying and working to help my family. Later my father died and my own children arrived. With them I give workshops, go to charity events and attend artistic meetings. They saw from their childhood what mom does and today they do it from the heart. That is why they are part of this organisation ZENAKE ZULU URUGUAY."
The Uruguayan journalist Nicolás Tabarez believes that Uruguayan women enter the universe of rap without asking permission. In his article for El Observador he interviews several Uruguayan women who rap including Elisa Fernández (aka Eli Almic) and states: "The male presence in Hip Hop is of an abysmal numerical superiority, but there is space. Open doors and break this prejudice that [Hip Hop] is a musical genre in which only men sing."
Gabriela insists that many aspects related to women in Latin America and Uruguay still need to be addressed. Discrimination and gender-based violence continue to drag chains in a world that is equitable only when it suits it.
"In Uruguay in the late nineties and early twenty first century, discrimination was evident in every way. If you had dark skin colour you were a thief, if you wore a cap backwards you were a thief, if you dressed in wide clothes and scarves you were a thief. But then imagine being a woman. Getting dressed to go out to a dance there’s always a fear. Because on the street any person could beat you, sexually abuse you or even kill you simply because you are a woman."
According to data from the second National Prevalence Survey on Gender-Based Violence and Generations, approximately one million Uruguayans (from a total population of 3,422,991) have experienced situations of gender-based violence at some point in their lives. In 2021, thirty femicides and more than 38,000 complaints of domestic violence were registered in the country. Gender-based violence in the social sphere has a prevalence of 21.1% (approximately 300,000 women) in the last 12 months and 54.4% throughout life (approximately 795,000 women) according to the research.
Today China continues with firm steps. Aware that her movements are not as physically daring or rebellious as when she was 17 or 25, she follows her passion which drives her to be a better person every day. Since November 20 2020 she is the president of the SENAKÉ ZULÚ UNION URUGUAY Foundation chapter - a non-profit organisation whose essential objective is the preservation of the roots of Hip Hop Culture and its elements. Guided by love for living beings, community values, volunteering, education with job opportunities, sports, healthy recreation and other social premises.
"That invitation came to me in 2019, a year in which my work began to be recognised internationally. Zulu King Tonatihu - current president of Zulu Union Latin America - trusted me, explained to me the responsibility I had to face with my appointment and we talked about the goals, objectives and how the project could work in Uruguay. For me it was a new impulse because it requires more professional preparation and more personal growth."
She studies hard to be a worthy representative of the chapter. Her current learning includes the skills to be a Physical Education teacher, perfecting the practice of martial arts as 5th DAN KARATE, composing rhymes for some MCs (she wants to record an album with her own rhymes) as well as writing a column for the magazine HIP HOP BLVD where she disseminates and recognises the work of other bboys and bgirls.
She also organised the second Summit of the Americas of Pioneer Women and Hip Hop Activists event last year which brought together 22 women from different countries to discuss the realities of women within the movement to create new ways of collaboration, work and support. I participated in the first meeting and thank China for that opportunity. To be with women from different parts of the world, rappers, dancers, graffiti artists, activists...all with their stories, fears they’ve overcome and goals to fulfil, it served as an example of how much can be done. It felt like a space that needs to continue expanding for the sake of Hip Hop culture.
China received an official invitation to participate in the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the birth of Hip Hop in New York City, a trip that was stalled due to a lack of financial resources. The History Channel will give her an opportunity to share her journey and this will come out later in 2023 alongside other pioneering exponents of the international break dance.
There is much to discover about China. In a single article it is impossible to tell the whole story and what she leaves as a legacy. I invite readers to search for her on social networks to learn a little more about her life and work in service of the community.
At the end of our interview, I ask her about the Hip Hop scene in Uruguay: "Although we are a small country, urban culture is lived. Here there are exponents of all the elements. We have very talented young people as well as veterans who try to teach the new generations history, because if they do not know where they come from it is very difficult to keep the pace firm. I recognise that unity is a weak point, but with artists, the ego sometimes prevails. They prefer individual work to collective work. Hip Hop for me is family, that's what we need to work on more."
"We have to set short term goals to get there and then move forward. We achieve that one and head for another. I never let myself get down by a first no, nor by a second or a third. We must believe in God and in ourselves. Support us as women from a position of respect and love. Let no one limit you, least of all those people who fear your growth. We are lionesses and heroines who never lower our arms."
It was a Sunday when I called her to talk about the interview and since dawn she had been cleaning weeds, removing debris and preparing a new field. A place that will become a dojo for children, adolescents and adults to have a space for teaching.
"I don't plan to stop. When fragility makes me doubt, I look at everything I have built to this day - my family, my friends and my projects...that joy of giving without having and seeing the transformation it causes in the person who receives it without expectation is priceless. I’m gratified by who I am and will be until my last breath of life. I am BGIRL JV CHINA. "
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, May 2023
A response to Dance As Hard As A Man by Godlive Lawani
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Wendy Pedroso Martínez
Wendy is a Cuban journalist, broadcaster, communicator and filmmaker.
She's a writer who tells, contributes and grows hand in hand with Hip Hop. Since childhood she was linked to the urban movement of the island and after completing her studies in journalism, she's put her knowledge at the service of culture.
She's collaborated with several magazines dedicated to Hip Hop, including
Palamusica Underground and is a member of the Active Cuban Hip Hop Movement.
She's a chronicler of international events and festivals such as Potaje Urbano and the Producer of the podcast Forjando Luces.
Wendy Pedroso Martínez