POJOAQUE — Even in the womb, Valentino Tzigiwhaeno Rivera was a dancer.

“We went to see him inside of Felicia when she was in the very early stages of pregnancy, and he did a 360 spin,” his father, noted sculptor and artist George Rivera, a former governor of Pojoaque Pueblo, recalled Wednesday about seeing his son for the first time with the aid of ultrasound.

“He spun inside of her. He was about as big as a strawberry,” he said with a smile.

Valentino grew up to become a charismatic and energetic boy whose dance moves wowed the crowd at a Chris Isaak concert and whose talents as a hoop dancer put him on stages around the world, from San Diego and Hawaii to Paris and Geneva.

But in March 2015, tragedy struck. Valentino, then 6 years old, suffered a serious spinal cord and brain injury in a traffic accident in Española. Valentino fought for his life for more than a year, but he succumbed to his injuries in May 2016.

While Valentino has passed on, his spirit has been immortalized in bronze.

His father created a nearly life-size bronze and stainless steel sculpture of Valentino that will be unveiled Sunday at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture. The sculpture, created from a picture of Valentino hoop dancing, will be part of the museum’s permanent collection and installed in the museum’s dance plaza, which will be named after Valentino, Rivera said.

Rivera said creating the sculpture has been part of his healing process.

“When we were in the last weeks of his life, he was asked by one of the nurses what he wanted to be remembered as. He said, ‘I want to be remembered for who I was, not my injury,’ ” Rivera recalled. “He wanted to be remembered like this.”

Valentino’s mother, Felicia Rosacker-Rivera, said her son, who was anything but shy, would be excited about the sculpture.

“He didn’t dance like nobody was watching,” she said. “He had no inhibitions of people watching him. He danced like everybody was watching. His goal was to be seen and be noticed and be loved.”

Rosacker-Rivera said she and her family have been coping with Valentino’s passing in different ways. Valentino’s little sister, Paloma, for example, has taken up flamenco and hoop and break dance. Rosacker-Rivera started a nonprofit called Lightning Boy Foundation “for tribal youth who have an interest and passion for tradition, performance and visual arts,” according to the foundation’s website. The foundation is named after Valentino’s Tewa name, Tzigiwhaeno, which means lightning.

“I think this was George’s way of coping and kind of dealing with the loss and still keeping him alive at the same time,” she said of the sculpture.

Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales is among the speakers scheduled to attend Sunday’s unveiling. Gonzales delivered the eulogy at Valentino’s funeral and referred to him as “the little prince of the Pojoaque.”

“It’s hard to believe one child that young could provide so much inspiration and wisdom,” Gonzales said Wednesday in an email. “He taught us to live our passion, face our fear, and show courage when the deck was stacked against us. He is missed, but his impact will be lasting to those of us who live by his example.”

Coincidentally, the sculpture will depict Valentino in a pose similar to how his father first saw him in the womb.

“I was real fortunate to capture him in video and photography as he was dancing,” his father said. “I took one of the photographs [to create the sculpture], and that’s the pose that he’s in. He’s actually spinning a 360 on his toe in the sand with hoops in hand. … It just really showed how elegant and powerful of a dancer that he was for a 6-year-old.”

Contact Daniel J. Chacón at 505-986-3089 or dchacon@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @danieljchacon.

If you go

What: Sculpture unveiling and celebration of life for Valentino Tzigiwhaeno Rivera

When: 1-4 p.m. Sunday

Where: Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, 710 Camino Lejo

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