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Race is always a touchy subject in D.C. But Maru Montero, the founder and artistic director of the Maru Montero Dance Company, believes stereotypes are meant to be touched, shaken, and broken into tiny little pieces. Montero, who was principal dancer with the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico for six years, came to the U.S. a decade ago, when she was 26, to pursue a career in sculpture. But what ensued rivals any Horatio Alger tale.

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1989: zero English, two friends, two costumes. 1999: 15 dancers, 120 costumes, and 40 to 50 performances a year at such venues as the Kennedy Center, the White House, and the nationally televised Hispanic Heritage Awards. “It’s been difficult,” Montero says, “but I think we’re finally breaking through. I think this year is going to be our moment, our time to say what the company is really about.”

Montero started the company in response to what she calls “a total ignorance” about Hispanic heritage. “Because we don’t know about our background, we cannot truly accept others,” she says. “Who are we? We’re not black; we’re not white. We’re brown.” Initially, the company performed Mexican folk dances, but its repertoire now includes more than 40 dances from elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean. In 1997, Montero received a citation in the emerging artist category of the Mayor’s Arts Awards; and currently, she takes part with 60 other people in the Leadership Washington Program, which helps heads of nonprofits, among others, build strong community networks. Recently, her company got a grant from Montgomery County Public Schools to run an after-school program, and in May it will conduct Cinco de Mayo dance education for D.C.-area kids.

But it gets lonely being a cultural emissary for what Montero considers to be a largely silent population of Hispanics in D.C. “They’re working, they’re paying taxes, but they sort of…hide,” she observes. “They don’t have a voice. But Hispanic culture is something already present in the U.S. We cannot ignore it.”

These days, a lot more is riding on every one of the troupe’s Mexican hat dances, mambos, and cha-chas. Until last year, the all-volunteer company sustained itself from ticket sales, but with help from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Meyer Foundation, and Anheuser-Busch, among others, the dancers are now paid, and Maru can expand her dance company for children, Mini Monteros.

“In my culture, we don’t have grants, foundations….We don’t ask,” Montero says. “For me, it’s been hard to ask. If you don’t ask, you don’t get anything. But if you have to demand, OK, I’ll demand.”—Amanda Fazzone