Luz de las Naciones unites people to God, heritage, each other

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Luz de las Naciones audience members shine lights during 2023 performance. The performance was held on Nov. 3-4, 2023. (Amy Ortiz)

For 21-year-old Celeste Escárzaga, dancing in Luz de las Naciones is more than just a cultural celebration. It is an opportunity to step inside a “secret heaven,” bridge the gap between her and her departed parents, and connect with her identity and purpose.

Celeste Escárzaga stands on the Conference Center stage dressed in traditional Bolivian attire. Escárzaga has been dancing for Luz de las Naciones since 2015. (Celeste Escárzaga)

Sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Luz de las Naciones is an annual cultural event featuring a cast of more than 1,000 volunteer musical artists and representing more than a dozen Latin American countries through music and dance.

Escárzaga, a BYU freshman who has danced for Luz de las Naciones since 2015, said she feels the show highlights each culture’s differences and the unity they find as they “put God first.”

“I love that (the show) connects all of these Latin American cultures together in one show because you can see … how God made all of us individually different, yet the one thing we do have to connect is the gospel,” Escárzaga said.

According to Luz de las Naciones director Israel González-Nieri, the show originated with a Christmas devotional in 2002, where music was provided by a Latino choir.

In years following, the show explored a variety of other events, such as devotionals, Christmas concerts and cultural events. However, as the show grew, González-Nieri said the show’s executive committee decided to stick to hosting a cultural event each year.

A timeline of Luz de las Naciones over the past 21 years. Luz de las Naciones originated in 2002. (Amy Ortiz)

Being involved with Luz de las Naciones for nearly 20 years and serving as the show’s music director from 2012 to 2022, González-Nieri said the process of putting the show together is always evolving and presents new challenges.

“You can’t really narrow it down to one single process. It’s ever changing and we try to always improve it,” he said. “Every year when we think we have it all figured out, there’s always something new that happens and we gotta be ready to grab the bull by its horns and go with it.”

With school and other responsibilities, Escárzaga said participating in the show requires a lot of commitment. It involves attending weekly practices for several months and almost daily practices in the weeks leading up the performance.

According to Escárzaga, staying committed to participate in the show is challenging but worth the struggle.

“It is very tiring and a lot to juggle in your life, … (but) I feel like (the show) has saved my life so much that I’d rather go through the experience every year, because even though you face so many challenges, you also face so many blessings,” she said.

Among these blessings, Escárzaga said she has gained a stronger testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ, had the opportunity to “be more in touch with the spirit world” and feel connected to her deceased parents.

Similarly, Luz de las Naciones dancer Karina Zurcher Arshad said she lost her mom to cancer and Alzherimer’s one year prior to her participation in 2022. She said performing strengthened her testimony of the plan of salvation and allowed her to feel her mom’s presence nearby.

“I was able to feel her so close to me during the whole time,” she said. “I felt her cheering me on — a feeling I will never forget.”

Zurcher Arshad also said participating in Luz de las Naciones allowed her to make new friendships.

“The many new friendships that were forged as a result of participating are priceless and one of the most important blessings that has come from participating in this wonderful program,” she said.

Echoing Zurcher Arshad’s sentiment, Cecy Gámez said joining the Luz de las Naciones choir in 2022 helped her find strength and comfort within a supportive community after losing her 12-year-old daughter to cancer weeks prior to the beginning of rehearsals.

“I didn’t feel like singing such upbeat songs … but in the choir, I found a lot of support,” Gámez said. “I found the warm (and) loving embrace of new friends … and friends I already had.”

Cecy Gámez and other choir members during rehearsal. Luz de las Naciones casts approximately 300 to 350 choir members each year. (Cecy Gámez)

Gámez said her situation completely justified her falling into depression, but she said the choir allowed her to focus her energy, strength and hope in blessing the lives of others.

In addition to strengthening her hope, Gámez said her participation in Luz de las Naciones helped strengthen her identity.

“(The show) makes you feel blessed for who you are, for having been born in the country you were born in … for your culture, your language (and) your traditions,” she said.

Having performed as part of the Luz de las Naciones choir since 2021, Mauricio Poujol said he enjoys participating and continues to return because of the connections he has made with people from “all Latin America.”

“There’s a lot of opportunities to meet these amazing people that otherwise we wouldn’t have the chance to meet (and) learn more about … their stories … background and miracles,” Poujol said.

Poujol also said the Spirit present in Luz de las Naciones enables both participants and attendees to have “spiritual experiences” through music and dance.

Cynthia Mimbela from Tijuana said she began watching Luz de las Naciones online with her family when she was young and said it played a big role in her father’s conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“The show helped him see that this wasn’t an American church, it was the church of the Lord,” Mimbela said. “So I will always cherish the fact that Luz de las Naciones helped my dad draw nearer to the gospel, nearer to Jesus Christ, in my heart.”

Mimbela added that watching the show growing up helped her connect with God and see that He valued her talents.

“I don’t sing or play an instrument, so growing up, I would often feel bad that I couldn’t share my talents at church,” Mimbela said. “However, I can dance and seeing God valued that talent too made me feel special, it made me feel needed.”

When asked about her experience attending Luz de las Naciones in person, Rebecca Valladolid from Eagle Mountain said she felt “overwhelmed with pride and love” for all of the countries represented.

“The atmosphere becomes so full with so many different positive emotions from so many people,” Valladolid said.

Watching the show leaves Valladolid with a mix of emotions, she said.

“On one hand, I feel so much love for having gotten to experience a little bit of my parents’ culture,” Valladolid said. “On another hand, I feel a bit of sadness and greater appreciation for what they sacrificed in order for me to be here.”

However, Valladolid said she feels the show creates a “beautiful moment” for those who have not been able to return to their native lands, as it allows them to experience and share a piece of it.

Those interested in participating should look for an auditions announcement in early spring.

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