Luz de las Naciones — a celebration of belonging

Stepping to the rhythmic and lively folk beat of a traditional Brazilian Carimbó song, Vanubia Sillar radiated a joy brighter than the tropical flowers on her head or the colorful skirt swishing in her hands as she twirled around the stage in the Conference Center at Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City.

For Sillar, dancing is what brings her joy. But in getting to perform a dance from her native country of Brazil, Sillar said feels like all her prayers have been answered.

Sillar is just one of nearly 1,000 volunteers who gathered in the Conference Center on Saturday, Oct. 26, for the first big dress rehearsal for “Luz de las Naciones,” an annual celebration hosted by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to celebrate the Latin American and Hispanic cultures that are a part of the state of Utah and the Church’s membership around the world.

Although Sillar has participated in the event for 13 years both as a dancer and a volunteer, this year’s event and its theme has a special meaning for her.

Dancers perform during the dress rehearsal of the Brazilian dance Sinha Pureza for the Luz de las Naciones performance at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019.
Dancers perform during the dress rehearsal of the Brazilian dance Sinha Pureza for the Luz de las Naciones performance at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019. Credit: Colter Peterson, Deseret News

The theme this year — “A Home for All” — is meant to emphasize a sense of welcoming and belonging to all, both in the gospel of Jesus Christ and the communities of Utah. The cultures and countries highlighted rotate each year, but for Sillar, the fact that both her home country of Brazil and her native language of Portuguese are being featured again this year for the first time in many years makes that theme ring truer than ever.

Brazilians are sometimes excluded from the Latino community because they don’t speak Spanish, Sillar explained. So although she has participated in the event over the years, with her husband, who is Mexican, and their children, Sillar said this year is different because the Lord has answered her prayers.

“The theme is perfect because now the Brazilians are welcome with the Latinos,” Sillar said. “It couldn’t be more perfect.”

This year’s Luz de las Naciones, which is the largest Latino cultural event of its kind in all of Utah, will be held on Saturday, Nov. 2, at 8 p.m. at the Conference Center and will once again provide a beautiful and spectacular array of cultural music, dance and art.

Soloist Alex Melecio performs during dress rehearsals for the Luz de las Naciones performance at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019.
Soloist Alex Melecio performs during dress rehearsals for the Luz de las Naciones performance at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019. Credit: Colter Peterson, Deseret News

In choosing this year’s theme for the event, Elder Jorge T. Becerra, an Area Seventy who has helped oversee the event for the past six years, said the purpose was to emphasize to all who may feel lost or lonely in a new country that, “there is always a place for them in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

“This event is a symbol of our desire to make them feel at home by celebrating their cultures through music, dance and singing,” Elder Beccera said. “It is our desire to become good neighbors and friends to those who surround us. Regardless of where they come from and what language they speak.”

For the hundreds of volunteers from the Latino and Hispanic communities in Utah that participate each year, the event is a huge time commitment.

“It’s a lot of hours, but I love it,” said Carolina Rubio, a member of the choir. “I love being able to share my testimony through music and through dances. I think there’s no better way to share the gospel than with music. … Music is such an inspiration and it really goes to your heart.”

It’s been amazing to watch how people have come together and created a sense of community and belonging as they have helped one another through their weekly rehearsals, noted Malcom Mignel Botto, this year’s dance coordinator for Luz de las Naciones.

Dancers perform during the dress rehearsal of the Brazilian dance Sinha Pureza for the Luz de las Naciones performance at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019.
Dancers perform during the dress rehearsal of the Brazilian dance Sinha Pureza for the Luz de las Naciones performance at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019. Credit: Colter Peterson, Deseret News

“It was really beautiful to go to the different dance rehearsals and feel the excitement of someone from El Salvador learning a dance from Brazil and how they made that connection,” he said. “We’re brothers and sisters and we’re helping each other out.”

By making such connections, participants come to value one another, help one another through challenges and better understand that everyone comes from a loving Heavenly Father and is part of an eternal family, Botto explained.

For Alex Melecio, one of the solo artists who has performed with Luz de las Naciones for several years and is returning again this year, participating in the event also offers important opportunities for ministering.

“I think we get to minister by sharing our talents and our feelings through art,” he said. “It strengthens our communities and it strengthens families. … And I want everyone that is here in attendance to leave this place feeling more connected to the culture and to their neighbors.”

Although the purpose of the event on the one hand is to celebrate the cultures of the many Latinos who have come to Utah over the years, it is also intended to help those communities and cultures “strengthen their faith in God and the Lord Jesus Christ,” Elder Beccera said. “It is our hope that, at least for a time during the Luz de las Naciones event, they feel at one with the community and with our Savior Jesus Christ who pleads for unity among His children.”

Dancers perform during the dress rehearsal of the Mexican dance La Iguana for the Luz de las Naciones performance at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019.
Dancers perform during the dress rehearsal of the Mexican dance La Iguana for the Luz de las Naciones performance at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019. Credit: Colter Peterson, Deseret News

Sharing his experiences in working with the event over the last six years, Elder Beccera said, “I have witnessed how year after year, many donate their time and energy to produce a cultural event that blesses the lives of many. Their tireless service to their fellow Latino friends is a marvel to behold.”

And for the volunteers who participate as well as all who will view the event either live at the Conference Center or through broadcasts of the event in the coming months, Elder Beccera said, “they will feel a sense of belonging to a worldwide Church that celebrates their culture while blessing their lives with the deep, lasting influence of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”