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6.4 Mildred Dance Class at Rosie the Riveter Park_00013

Celebrating the Conflict: Mildred's Story

Published: 2/14/2024

“The tango is a direct expression of something that poets have often tried to state in words: the belief that a fight may be a celebration.” - Jorge Luis Borges 

Mildred Caudillo 
cannot and will not stop moving. She wakes every morning at the break of dawn, downs a cup of broth, hurries to mass, and returns home for breakfast before getting in her daily exercise. To her, movement is the key to a long and fulfilling life—tai chi, yoga, karate, archery, spending time in her garden, you name it-- as long as she is not sitting down for too long, she is happy. She is a deeply curious, multi-talented woman always looking to stretch her creativity

But what she truly loves is the art of dance.  

While ballet is where Mildred got her start, tango is where she gets to express herself, sweep off her burdens, and celebrate the conflictTo this day, at the age of 94, Mildred is teaching tango classes at Wardlow Park. 

“I used to be so shy. I couldn’t even walk on the dance floor in front of people,” Mildred said. “But now I have so much desire to dance tango. I love the music. I love the movement.” 

Mildred believes she owes her love for the arts and the need to stay active to her mother and father.

She was born in 1930 and was the oldest of 13 children. Mildred learned from her parents at a young age how to overcome adversity and turn it into grace. She grew up without experiencing true peace in her own town. She could not even walk her own streets without being met with overwhelming racism.  

She would watch her parents closely, especially her father, a man who worked every job he could to keep a roof over their head and food on their table despite their circumstances. She did not know it at the time, but she would take his methods and curiosity as lessons. 

“He was the iron man, the fish man, the ice man. Whatever it took to raise us, that’s what he did,” Mildred said. “And even with all that was happening around us and the responsibilities that came with raising 13 children, he taught himself how to play the piano, accordion, guitar, and harmonica. He even made all our furniture! 

Mildred was always fascinated by her multifaceted father. He was the kind of man that even the animals on their farm loved. He was Mildred’s hero. 

In 1955, Mildred said goodbye to her family and moved to California with her husband. When they settled, they adopted two daughters, Theresa and Ann, and started their family. These were transformative years for Mildred, when she felt she truly began to appreciate her dad’s influence on her and how his voice would guide her maternal care. “My dad was the model to my life,” Mildred said.  

Mildred wanted to instill in her own children the curiosity she and her father shared. And in 1962, Mildred signed her children, as well as herself, up for ballet.   

This was how dance entered her life. Mildred instantly fell in love. It was like she found her purpose. For the decades following, she honed and shared her craft with others of all ages. She began teaching ballet and other styles of dance 

In her 40s, Mildred married again and had another daughter, Veronica, who would later become a professional dancer and dance teacher as well. Dance became synonymous with Mildred and her family. Despite struggling financially, she felt fulfilled. As she continued to expand her dancing portfolio, she found her love for tango and soon thereafter combined it with her love for teaching. She would lead classes several times every week. It became her passion. She never wanted to stop. 

“If you don’t move your body, you lose it,” Mildred said. “You can’t store your flexibility. So you can’t stop. I don’t stop.”  

And yet conflict can arise at any time. Mildred’s progress came to a screeching halt in 2008 when she had a sudden electrical house fire, leaving her without a place to call home. For 14 months, Mildred experienced homelessness. At 78 years old, she was living out of her car or a garage or couch surfing to stay afloat. Still the call of dance endured, and for nearly a year, she commuted between Canoga Park and Long Beach so she could continue to teach, even if only once a week. But with each month that passed, it seemed harder to get out of the situation she was in. 

“It gave me a sense of desperation,” Mildred said.It was a terrible thing.” 

This is when she met Lucinda (Lucy) Hayes with the City of Long Beach Homeless Services outreach team. Lucy had heard of Mildred’s situation from a local community faith leader and quickly sprung into action. 

Prior to her time working for the City, Lucy had experienced homelessness herself. She understood firsthand how many people are just one predicament away from a similar situation. Lucy was instantly drawn to Mildred and knew how much harder it would become for her to turn things around the longer time went on, especially as her age advanced. 

“Mildred is such a beautiful person,” Lucy said. “She has such a pure spirit and she’s always willing to help others. That’s what I really liked about her. She’s given back to her community for years.” 

Lucy knew she had to be Mildred’s dance partner in this journey to find housing. And after quick, but careful work, they securehousing through a Housing Choice Voucher from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

After Mildred attained permanent housing, she continued giving back to the community, paying forward the work her and Lucy did together. Every month during the Long Beach Symphony season, she partners with local faith leaders and cooks dinner for people in the community who are experiencing homelessness before taking them out to the symphony. These events are not only ways to share the love of the arts, but also an outlet to share their lived experiences. 


It did not take Mildred long to make her new place feel like home. She had always wanted to be a gardener among the countless other things she had already mastered, so she began turning the shared space behind her unit into a garden for her and her neighbors to enjoy.

When I moved here, it was nothing but dirt out there,” Mildred said.So I started digging. And I started planting little seeds here and there. Everything you see out there, I did that. It’s been so wonderful being able to do that.”

Above all, having her own space has meant she is now afforded the time to continue teaching tango regularly. She loves it more than even she can explain. 

And she is still out there looking for her next dance partner to move with and against her, to take the conflicts and turn them into celebrations. She has all the credentialsMildred has faced adversities her entire life and still found the means to dance nimbly along with them and much like the abrazo in tango, embrace them, and reflect on them as blessings.  

A few years after Mildred attained permanent housing, she was invited to join her daughter, Veronica, at an Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performance at the Segerstrom. Sharing this moment was specialfor Mildred, as Veronica had years ago trained with the Alvin Ailey Company, but Mildred could not afford to keep her in the program. 

Sometime in the middle of the performance, a few of the dancers started inviting audience members to join in the fun onstage. Mildred watched in awe as a dancer reached his hand out and motioned her toward the stage. As if in a dream, Mildred swept and whirled with her impromptu partner. And after what felt like both an instant and a lifetime, Mildred turned back toward her daughter as the music faded and saw an audience on their feet cheering what they had just witnessed. 

“I couldn’t believe it,” Mildred said. “I got a standing ovation where people from all over the world get to dance. I was crying. It was the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me.” 




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