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Walking On at 8 Years Old: Valentino Rivera Was Born to Dance

Earlier in May, Valentino Rivera returned to his Pueblo of Pojoaque just north of Santa Fe, with a singular purpose—he came home to walk on.

Earlier in May, Valentino Tzigiwhaeno Rivera, 8, returned to his Pueblo of Pojoaque just north of Santa Fe, New Mexico with his parents, former Governor George Rivera and Felicia Rosacker Rivera, with a singular purpose—he came home to walk on.

For the boy who could dance before he could walk, who by the time he was 6 had performed in European capitals and had competed in the World Hoop Dance Competition in Arizona, living, at least by his definition, was no longer attainable; death by increments, no longer endurable. Confined in an approaching endgame to a Baltimore rehab that specializes in spinal cord injuries like his, Tino, as he was called by the many people who loved him, was ready to transcend the medical odyssey that had consumed his family’s energy for over a year.

The family soon found themselves swapping the medicinal air of an institutional setting for breezes scented with juniper and sage; trading the relentless sirens of the big city for an encompassing peace, occasionally punctuated by the cry of the coyotes roaming the clay hills on the horizon.

The vista from his high desert home atop a hill overlooking the Pojoaque Valley, facing the Sangre de Cristos on one side and the snow-dusted Jemez Mountains on the other, looks like a version of earthly paradise, and for Tino, it was. The acreage surrounding the Riveras’ home and sculpture and painting studios was his playground, his open air dance studio, his soft landing pad where he whirled and leapt in displays of grace and dare-devilishness. “It’s beautiful, and he knew it,” said his father, painter and sculptor George Rivera. “He would always go out there and say how beautiful it was out there.”

“He was a wild child who loved nature,” said his mother, educator and administrator Felicia Rivera. “The first thing he’d do when he got up in the morning was go outside to clamber on the rocks and play. He’d recruit his little sister. He’d say, ‘Hey Paloma let’s go fight bad guys; and they’d be out there in their underwear and rain boots looking out for zombies and bad guys.”

When danger came, it was not the kind that could be blown away by imaginary rays from a toy gun. A random driver had a fatal heart attack and lost control of his car; the damage to Tino’s body was severe, just this side of lethal. “We might have lost him on a roadside amidst glass and wreckage,” said George. “But our life together was extended for 14 months.”

When Tino did walk on May 13 there were no screeching tires; he met his end bravely and honestly with prayer and song, courage and calm. Outside, Valentino’s sister PoQueen, 23, lay on a pallet to one side of him and brother PaaWee, 25, on the other, under the sheltering gaze of Felicia and George. Little Paloma was close by too. Love infused his last mortal breath, it’s what he saw with his eyes’ last light.

“Everything about him was remarkable,” said Felicia, starting with his conception. “It took us five years to get pregnant with him.” And the labor to deliver him was… labored. The 7 pound, 6 ounce newborn announced his arrival via hard contractions a full two days before he actually emerged in a natural birth at 3 a.m. on April 6, 2008. “He didn’t cry at first,” she remembered, “so the doctor pricked him until he wailed.

He was named Valentino after his maternal great-great grandfather—Valentine Montoya, a stonemason who helped build the cathedral in Santa Fe. His Tewa name Tzigiwhaeno means lightning, which came to be ever more apt as this indefatigable performer of the Buffalo dance, Hoop and freestyle hip hop, electrified audiences here and abroad in venues as exotic as the USS Santa Fe when it was docked in Honolulu, as well as the Medici Palace in Florence, Italy.

Courtesy Steven Katzman/2013

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Valentino Tzigiwhaeno Rivera could dance before he could walk. By the time he was 6, he had performed in European capitals and had competed in the World Hoop Dance Competition in Arizona. He is seen here during a Buffalo Dance.

Dance was his natural state of being, on the playground during recess, in the lunch line at the Pablo Roybal Elementary School’s cafeteria, even when eating at home with his family. “He’d take a bite, get down from his chair, run around and dance, and then come back to the table,” his mother recalled. “Eventually he’d finish, as long as he could dance in between.” Superstar Michael Jackson (via videos) was his instructor for hip hop; Ohkay Owingeh’s Nakota LaRance taught him Hoops in real life. When LaRance won last year’s Hoop Dancing world championship at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, he gave the trophy to an already bed-bound Valentino.

If Valentino got his passion for dance from his mother, a former Flamenco dancer, he inherited the art gene from his father. At the Louvre, in Paris, Valentino got a sketchbook in the gift shop, and to his family’s astonishment commenced sketching the works exhibited there. In George’s studio, there’s an abstract sculpture in clay by Valentino: tubular forms, a study in connections, some sturdy, some fragile. His father plans to have it cast in bronze.

With big sister PoQueen, Tino built a garden. “It was supposed to be a one-day project,” she said pointing to a patch of ground near the portal. “It was overgrown with weeds; he and I were the weed busters.”

Despite allergies and puffed up eyes, they worked together past dark. “At a certain point I realized, this is really turning into a serious project. I explained to him about building up the soil over time, the benefits of adding nitrogen-rich manure, the life cycles of organic matter.” So the next day they collected goat manure from his Aunt’s animals to spread on the plot. “He was a little confused about animal poop, and maybe a little grossed out too, but he did it with me anyway.”

Eventually the dirt was tilled, in time the seedlings were planted, but in her rush to return to university, something essential was forgotten—a fence to protect the plantings from the local wild critters.

“When the rabbits ate his garden, he told me, I hate rabbits! I explained that the rabbits needed his crop for food, and after that he didn’t have a hatred for rabbits,” big brother PaaWee remembered.

PaaWee also recalled hiking for more than five hours with Tino to the top of the nearby hills. It was an arduous climb, and as they ascended, the trails narrowed through the cliffs and the drop offs became more shear. Fatigue became a factor, but Tino remained surefooted. “As his big brother, I’d push him and be there for him, until he started to understand his own strength. I knew that he [always] possessed a very strong will.”

George and Felicia concurred. “When he knew that his body wasn’t going to get better, he didn’t want to be laying there all day, and he told us: ‘I want to go to heaven and be with God.’”

They had to let him go.

Valentino Tzigiwhaeno Rivera was born on April 6, 2008 and died on May 13, 2016. He is survived by his father and mother, George Rivera and Felicia Rosacker Rivera; brother PaaWee, sisters PoQueen and Paloma; grandparents Charles “Buddy” and Rita Rosacker, Dora Martinez; many uncles, aunts and cousins. He was eulogized by the mayor of Santa Fe, the Honorable Javier M. Gonzales in a Mass held on Tuesday May 17, 2016 at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe. Pojoaque Tribal War Chief Adam Duran officiated at the Traditional Burial at the Pojoaque Community Cemetery and other tribal spiritual ceremonies held at Valentino’s home.