Nearly every star of screen or stage is surrounded by myth. So it is with Maria Benitez, whose untiring efforts helped transplant flamenco firmly into the arid soil of northern New Mexico.
Local lore, as well as countless books and articles, have portrayed Benitez as a Native from Taos Pueblo or at the very least a native Taoseño. That was the belief of Benitez’s former student, Jaima Chevalier, when she began working on a book about the dancer’s life.
In the course of her research, Chevalier went on ancestry.com and discovered the truth about Benitez’s roots. Like many norteños, Benitez has mixed indigenous and Hispanic heritage. But she was born in Cass, Minnesota, to a mother that was part Chippewa, Oneida, Algonquin and Iroquois, and a father who was Puerto Rican.
“I was shocked and completely floored when I found out,” said the author of “Fringe: Maria Benitez’s Flamenco Enchantment.”
At first, Chevalier didn’t want to violate her subject’s privacy. But when she revealed her discovery to Benitez, the dancer was nonchalant.
“I don’t think she ever tried to mislead people. I think she gave up on trying to correct us,” said Chevalier in a recent telephone interview.
Benitez isn’t the only flamenco great whose heritage was misunderstood. Jose Greco, who helped popularize flamenco during the 1950s and 1960s, was often identified as a Spaniard, even though he was an Italian-American who grew up in Brooklyn.
During a recent talk at Op.Cit. Books in the DeVargas Center, Chevalier noted that many articles she read while doing research for “Fringe” made reference to Benitez’s dark brown eyes. “Actually, her eyes are light green,” she said.
Chevalier said that although the Wiki entry on Benitez has been modified to show her place of birth as Minnesota, people in New Mexico still insist she’s from Taos. “People want to adopt her. She’s an adopted child of New Mexico. We gave her the space to flourish,” she said.
Benitez ended up in New Mexico because her mother had a contract with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to teach at pueblo schools, which took the family all over the West.
Chevalier first met Benitez when the author was around 7 years old and a student at Acequia Madre Elementary School in Santa Fe. After school, she took ballet lessons at Louise Licklider’s dance studio, where Benitez also was a teacher. “Maria taught me the castanets,” Chevalier recalled.
Chevalier’s mother, an elementary school teacher, died when the author was 10. “My dad told me we couldn’t afford my dance lessons any more. But the classes kept going on. I found out years later that Maria gave me a scholarship,” she said.
Although she was quite good at the castanets, Chevalier said it was apparent that she was not going to be a professional dancer. After graduating from the University of New Mexico, she got married and had two children.
Chevalier ended up in journalism and writing books, but her interest in the arts continued as she served on the boards of various nonprofit organizations. In 2014, her former teacher asked her to join the board of the Institute of Spanish Arts. Benitez and her husband, Cecilio Benitez, a Spanish-born theatrical director, established the nonprofit as a vehicle to keep the tradition of flamenco alive in New Mexico.
As Cecilio was being treated in New York for a heart condition in late 2013, Maria wrote Chevalier from her husband’s hospital room. “I really need you to help me write my book,” the dancer wrote the author.
Maria Benitez had been working intermittently since 1975 on an autobiography that chronicled her journey from Taos to Spain to study Old World dance and her return to New Mexico to spread the flamenco gospel in such venues as La Fonda in Taos and El Nido in Santa Fe with our own companies, such as Estampa Flamenco and Teatro Flamenco.
The story as Benitez envisioned it would follow her to New York and her triumphs performing “Carmen” and other shows at the Metropolitan Opera, and appearances at Jacob’s Pillow dance center in Massachusetts.
Running through the book would be the thread of keeping the flamenco tradition alive by teaching thousands of students and cultivating such talented dancers as Emmy (“La Emi”) Grimm, who today performs at the Maria Benitez Carbaret in The Lodge.
But Chevalier had a different kind of project in mind. “No one who isn’t a dancer wants to read an encyclopedia or almanac of dance,” she said. “I thought, ‘Why not use pictures to tell the story of Maria’s life?’ ”
After the death of her beloved Cecilio in January 2014, Benitez was willing to scale back her book ambitions and went along with Chevalier’s plan. “She allowed me to do an impressionistic survey of her life that shows how she could have emerged only in New Mexico,” Chevalier said.
It took the author three years to track down photos and get permission to publish them in “Fringe.” She didn’t have a big budget for the book, which was published by Atomic City Lights Publishers in Los Alamos. Most of the photographers or their survivors gave her the rights to use their work in the book and in marketing efforts free of charge.
The photos are of varying quality, but together they express the sorrow and passion involved in the art form that first emerged in Andalucia between the 13th and 15th centuries when Spain was under Arab rule.
The black-and-white photo by Ruven Afanador that Chevalier chose for the cover of “Fringe” does not convey Benitez’s breathtaking beauty. Instead, the stark photo, which shows the dancer in heavy, dark makeup, seems to carry the centuries of grief endured by flamenco dancers, traditionally outsiders who faced persecution.
Chevalier considers one of her greatest finds a collection of black-and-white photos by Winter Prather that was in the archives of History Colorado. The images capture the kinetic energy of the flamenco star and the flexibility of a spine that is a ramrod one minute and a twisting serpent the next.
Locals will appreciate the color photos by Brian Fishbine that show Benitez watching her troupe of young dancers perform in Santa Fe over the years. Benitez herself gave her farewell performance in 2007, Chevalier noted.
One of the most interesting images in “Fringe” is a collage by Jo Ann Garcia Orellana that was commissioned for the book. Garcia Orellana is an artist who used to work in the box office for Benitez, and whose career has included collaborations with the Walt Disney Co. and the artist Judy Chicago.
The piece, which incorporates a lace fan and a triptych of Benitez photos, attracted plenty of oohs and aahs when Garcia Orellana showed it off at the Op.Cit. talk by Chevalier on Feb. 2.
In a world dominated by the internet and social media, “Fringe,” published in 2019, has found an appreciative audience. The coffeetable book was displayed prominently in December 2019 when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham held a holiday open house for the public featuring hot cider and biscochitos.
“Fringe” is available for $35 at Op.Cit. and Collected Works bookstores in Santa Fe, and can also be purchased on amazon.com.