If you’ve attended a Rio Grande Valley Vipers home game this season, there is a good chance you noticed a burst of energy from the Venom HypeSquad.
One individual in particular attracts the spotlight like no other, and her name is Viva Selena Lopez.
Viva, 24, of Mission, is a former cheerleader at Palmview High School who has won numerous pageants, and she has Down syndrome.
She now takes the court with the Venom HypeSquad, an experience borne out of love for the dance team.
“We’re always going to go see the Vipers. Always,” Viva’s mother, Mary Jane, said. “Every time she would see them, she would say, ‘I want to dance with them.’ I would say, ‘I don’t think you can because they dance really fast. They have really fast moves.’ So I bought her the same outfit they wear at the store there, and she would wear it every time we would go.”
During a pep rally for the Vipers as they prepared to play in the G League Championship, Viva was given the opportunity to dance in front of all who attended. People from the organization took notice and encouraged Mary Jane to let her daughter try out for the HypeSquad.
She tried out on Aug. 25 and has been dancing at home games ever since.
Viva’s confidence quickly caught the attention of Amber Mejia, entertainment director and games operations director for the Vipers as well as the coach for the HypeSquad and the Snake Charmers.
“Her confidence is amazing,” Mejia said. “She learned the choreography and we had freestyle. You know, not many people can go up by themselves and just dance. She does it without even thinking about it. That’s what she loves to do. She loves to perform. That’s the type of people that I want on my team.”
Asked how she felt when she found out that she had made the HypeSquad, Viva, who struggled to contain her excitement as she recalled that day, said, “Happy and crying.”
An average of 6,000 babies are born with Down syndrome each year, or one in every 700, according to the CDC.
Down syndrome occurs when a baby is born with an extra chromosome, known as chromosome 21. Babies born with Down syndrome run a risk of having hearing loss, sleep apnea, ear infections, eye diseases and heart defects.
According to Mary Jane, doctors did not expect Viva to survive her birth. She was told that Viva would not be able to eat without a feeding tube, and that she would most likely never be able to walk or talk.
Soon enough, Viva was feeding out of a bottle. Six pageant titles, a high school diploma, and a Special Olympics Athlete of the Year award later, Viva doesn’t show any signs of slowing down and has made beating the odds a habit.
Viva stays busy with her involvement in Capable Kids, the Step Up for Down Syndrome Walk, cheering with Sparks Cheerleading, and participating in the Special Olympics in bowling, basketball, and track and field.
Viva spends most of her time coloring, solving puzzles and word searches, and singing and dancing.
“It’s awesome, honestly. She always brightens up not only our practices but our game days,” Mejia said. “Whenever anyone is tired or doesn’t get something, she’s always the one to brighten our day. She says hi to everybody as soon as she gets there, individually, which is not something that we always do in a team of 20 people. She usually goes up to every single person, gives them a hug, asks them how they’re doing, stuff like that. She’s in our practices like everybody else. She does our stretching, our warming up, she does (choreographing), she’s a regular member on our team.”
Viva’s favorite Viper’s player is No. 55, Isaiah Hartenstein, a power forward. Mary Jane said that he will take the time to wave at Viva and gesture with a peace sign before games.
“They can do freestyle, and once she steps in the middle, everybody goes crazy,” Mary Jane said. “The crowd goes wild. She peps everybody up. She loves doing that. She likes to be included, and she is included. It’s about acceptance and inclusion, and that’s what they’re doing.”
When a Monitor reporter complimented Viva on her dancing abilities, she said, “Thank you,” with a big smile.
“I sign?” she joked about providing an autograph.
Mary Jane said that she gets emotional when she watches Viva dancing during Vipers games.
“They’re happy tears, like she says,” Mary Jane said. “I get really emotional, and I feel super proud. It’s like this feeling that… I don’t know, I’m just all smiles. They treat her so good. The HypeSquad is always taking care of her. They make sure that she’s got a sign to hold. They make sure that she’s got enough T-shirts to throw.”
“I love for her to be involved in everything,” Mary Jane added. “There’s so much acceptance now, and I love it. It’s what we still need because it’s still not fully 100%.”
You can catch Viva in action at the next Vipers home game, which is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 3 at Bert Ogden Arena in Edinburg.