Leading the skirt dance at Festa Junina - Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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Margarita Durán leading the children of São Paulo’s Haiti community in the skirt dance at Festa Junina.

It’s been almost a year since I began to volunteer in Haiti—no, not that Haiti, but the favela community of Haiti in São Paulo’s neighborhood Vila Prudente.

This community is relatively new and under construction. Many families who currently live in Haiti previously occupied a neighboring property. However, several years ago, because they lacked land titles, the city council forced them to move to make way for a planned infrastructure and commercial expansion.

Families occupied the new space and began to build their community, which today is known as Haiti. The community is primarily made up of Brazilians who migrated from the country’s Northeast and Haitian immigrants (hence the name ‘Haiti’).

I was introduced to Haiti on Easter Sunday of 2018. But I did not begin working there until later that year. A group of Spiritan seminarians invited me to collaborate with them in their catechism program with the kids. I gladly accepted, for working with children and religious education is exactly what I envisioned for myself in mission.

The program quickly evolved, and today we continue to gather the children at the community every Saturday morning for several hours of educational activities. We strive to build a safe platform for the children’s’ growth in self-expression, creativity, personal development and social skills, while also providing religion-based education to promote their growth as faith-filled individuals.

Over the past year I have had the pleasure of participating in various activities and events that take place in the community. But the greatest highlight for me was being asked to play a key role in what is probably the community’s biggest event. Thanks to Eliana, a dear friend and teammate in the community, we were able to successfully incorporate the Festa Junina’s traditional skirt dance into their celebration.

Festa Junina is Brazil’s second largest festivity behind Carnaval. It takes place throughout the month of June and in some places carries over until August. These festivities were originally introduced by the Portuguese during the colonial period. They were also known as Festas de São João for their part in celebrating the nativity of St. John the Baptist (June 24). But with the feasts of St. Anthony and St. Peter also falling in the month of June, all three saints are being celebrated during those days.

The Northeast of Brazil, being largely arid and rural, adopted the festivities and correlated them with the end of the rainy season. People also took the opportunity to give thanks to St. John the Baptist for the rain. The festivities celebrate rural life and feature typical Northeastern Brazilian food, countryside clothing, and traditional dance (particularly the quadrilha, which is similar to square dancing).

The dança da saia (skirt dance) is one of the many typical dances during the Festa Junina parties. This dance is predominantly known and used in the Northeast of Brazil. The dança da saia is usually performed with pre-school aged children, as a way to include those who cannot participate in the advanced movement and speed of the quadrilha.

It gives an opportunity for all ages to take part in the fun. The skirts’ diameter reaches up to 10 meters. A dancer (usually a female) wears the skirt, putting her at the center of the circle while the young children dance around her holding on to the ends.

Margarita leading Zumba in Haiti.

The entire experience was so much fun, to say the least. The little children and I were so animated, so excited to simply have a bigger part in the festa. I was happy to have been able to incorporate them as well.

This celebration was an opportunity to strengthen my relationship with the community, and I took it without question.

I recently started giving Zumba (dance workout) sessions to the women who live in Haiti. The children hear the music, see us, and ask if it’s time to practice for another skirt dance. Their curiosity shows that the skirt dance and everything that led up to it had a strong impact on them, and knowing so is heartwarming.

I look forward to continue walking with the children, women and families in the community of Haiti because, as St. Teresa of Calcutta put it, “I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things.”

Here is a little video of our Festa Junina skirt dance:


Margarita Durán
Margarita Durán teaches art, P.E., English and religious education to at-risk children and youth in São Paulo’s Haiti favela and at the Migrant Integration Center in the Brás neighborhood.