SALT LAKE CITY — When Israel Gonzalez-Nieri saw the film “Coco” during his Christmas break, he was impressed and touched by the movie’s strong family-oriented message.
Gonzalez-Nieri, who was born and raised in Peru, felt a deep connection to the Mexico-based “Coco” as the main character, Miguel, an aspiring musician, traveled to the past, discovered his ancestors and grew closer to his family.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re from,” he said. “I felt very connected even though I’m not from Mexico. … I very much identified with the movie and the importance of family and the importance of belonging.”
Music from the Pixar animated film will play a role in this year’s "Luz de las Naciones" ("Light of the Nations") performance, which takes place at the Conference Center on Saturday, March 3. The annual Latino event for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints typically occurs around Christmastime, but this year is serving as the closing event for the RootsTech conference.
This year’s event, titled “My Family, Mi Herencia,” will celebrate family through music and dance. The cast totals nearly 1,000 people, with around 300 youth and adult singers, 300-400 dancers, a 30-piece orchestra and a staff working behind the scenes. The 90-minute program will feature songs and dances from the Andean region in South America and Argentina before traveling north to Central America and then ending with a medley of Mexican music and dances, including the popular tune “Cielito Lindo” and the hit song “Remember Me” from the film “Coco.”
“We feel like everyone — no matter where you’re from or what language you speak — will be able to recognize some of that music. (We hope) that people will identify (with the music) and sing along with us during the show,” Gonzalez-Nieri said.
It’s fitting that this year’s focus is family-centered, as the cast includes dozens of families — encompassing children, their parents and grandparents — performing together.
“We (even) have people who have met in our event and have started a family of their own,” Gonzalez-Nieri said. “It’s just a great family to be a part of.”
Gonzalez-Nieri, who has been the music director for "Luz de las Naciones" since 2011, has been preparing for this event since last September.
“It takes a few months for me to be able to think about, even pray about, what kind of music would be important for (a) specific show,” he said.
Gonzalez-Nieri, who first came to the United States from Peru to serve an LDS mission in Boise, went on to study music at Brigham Young University and has been dedicated to his role as music director for the past seven years.
“Music has always been a part of my life,” he said. “When I was 12, I taught myself how to play the piano because where I lived (in Peru), there were not many piano players. … One of my dreams was to join the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and I was able to do that a few years ago.”
Gonzalez-Nieri sang with the choir from 2010-2014, before leaving to focus more on his role as music director for "Luz de las Naciones." It’s a role he “never thought in a million years (he’d) be doing,” but one that he continues to be grateful for with each performance.
“I think this is where I’m supposed to be, the 'Luz de las Naciones,’” he said.
Themes of this year’s performance include heritage, family, how parents can pass traditions on to their children and the importance of getting children to understand their heritage.
“When we see a record or a picture of an ancestor, it helps to have this sense of belonging, and that's exactly what we want for our children,” Gonzalez-Nieri said. “To teach them things about life, the love of family and how important their roots are in understanding where they came from and … what their potential is.”
While this year’s performance is being held in conjunction with the family history conference RootsTech, Gonzalez-Nieri said the event also serves as a powerful missionary tool.
“It is very important for the members around the world … to get to know the Latino culture and how that also ties in with the gospel,” he said. “Throughout the years, we’ve seen people that are not members of the church join our cast and they can feel of the love and the gospel. We have had many baptisms, people joining the church because they joined our event. We want to invite everyone to come — no matter what language you speak — because you’ll be able to understand and feel the spirit as you attend.”
If you go …
What: "Luz de las Naciones: My Family, Mi Herencia”
When: Saturday, March 3, 6 p.m.; doors open at 4:30 p.m.
Where: LDS Conference Center
How much: Free, tickets issued at the door
Note: The program will be streamed on lds.org in English, Spanish and Portuguese.