Cultural pride: Hispanic arts and culture organizations celebrate Latino pride through art

From exquisite art ranging from paintings to prints and sculptures to mesmerizing orchestral works, Cleveland’s Hispanic and Latin American communities present cultural events that people of all races, cultures, and genders can appreciate.

While Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated from mid-September through mid-October, the rich artistry can be experienced year-round.

“Hispanic Heritage Month draws attention to the abundance of organizations that bring Latinx culture to life throughout the year in Cuyahoga County,” says Jill M. Paulsen, executive director of Cuyahoga Arts & Culture (CAC). “We are proud to provide taxpayer funding to these nonprofits and others that showcase the true diversity of Hispanic and Latin American traditions.”

Noteworthy Accolades

For more than a century, the Cleveland Orchestra has performed world-renowned works crossing all cultures. A dedication to diversity and inclusion is at the forefront of Hispanic engagement initiatives the ensemble is currently creating and enacting.

The Cleveland Orchestra Hispanic Heritage Chamber Concert at Julia De Burgos in SeptemberThe Cleveland Orchestra Hispanic Heritage Chamber Concert at Julia De Burgos in September“Over the last several years, we conducted a community survey that centered on attitudes and perceptions about the Cleveland Orchestra,” says Joan Katz Napoli, Cleveland Orchestra vice president of education and community programs. “One of the things we learned is that the Hispanic community really doesn’t feel welcome and well-connected to the orchestra, and some members think it isn’t for them.

Katz Napoli says the orchestra is now on a mission to change that perception.

Over the last two seasons, the orchestra has set the stage for a variety of unforgettable evenings that culminated in October with a Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration Concert at Severance Music Center, featuring the Latin jazz legend Sammy DeLeon y su Orquesta and Latina DJ Yulissa.

Of the 2,600 free tickets the orchestra distributed, 1,400 guests attended.

“We were thrilled with that figure, which included many first-timers to Severance,” Katz Napoli says. “In the hour leading up to the performance, guests were treated to our DJ spinning wonderful tunes in the grand foyer, which people danced to. We served craft cocktails and hosted a VIP reception with 60 Hispanic leaders from our community, which helped us connect with them.”

Katz Napoli says the enthusiasm only increased when the performance started. “During the 90-minute concert, the audience danced in front of the stage and in the aisles,” she recalls. “Ward 14 councilwoman Jasmin Santana presented Sammy, who grew up in Lorain, with a special proclamation from the city of Cleveland. He was clearly touched by that.”

Other signature evenings included Hispanic Family Nights at Blossom Music Center, which featured pre-concert dinners and gatherings when a Hispanic orchestra member spoke in Spanish to the 80 in attendance about the music they would hear that evening.

Katz Napoli says she was heartened by a note she received from one of the attendees after one of the concerts:

“The last time I was at Blossom, I was high up on the hill and seated on the grass—and look at me now, seated in the pavilion with great seats, having just had a wonderful dinner and enjoying this beautiful concert.”

The $1,027.491 2023 CAC General Operating Support Grant helps support the continuation of the orchestra’s inclusive programming.

“Diversity is the fabric of the world today, and our orchestra is committed to be welcoming to everyone,” Katz Napoli says. “Our goal is to make Severance Music Center a center for all communities—and not just be known as the Cleveland Orchestra, but as Cleveland’s Orchestra, with all its rich diversity.”

Curtain Calls

From as far back as she can remember, Mónica Torres has had a penchant for science and medicine. The native Puerto Rican graduated from San Juan Bautista School of Medicine in Turabo Gardens, Caguas, Puerto Rico in 1996 and finished her pediatric residency in 2000 before moving to Cleveland to complete a postdoctoral fellowship in genetic epidemiology at Case Western Reserve University.

But the doctor’s lifelong passion for theater never strayed from the fore of her life.

LatinUs Theater - Tiempo MuertoLatinUs Theater - Tiempo Muerto“My philosophy has always been that the art of theater is food for the soul,” Torres reflects. “Being a physician, I know it’s important to pay attention to the physical health of the body—but what about the soul? We need to ask ourselves, ‘What makes us complete?’ And for me, that’s the theater.”

In 2018, Torres decided to turn that fervent belief into a personal reality. She left medicine to co-found LatinUs Theater Company, a non-profit in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood that is dedicated to improving the cultural experience and quality of life for Greater Cleveland’s Hispanic/Latin American population.

Each year, the troupe of five actors stage theatrical works that honor stories, culture, and traditions in respectful, welcoming ways. The performances are free of stereotypes and misrepresentations.

Productions are presented in the black box theater at Pivot Center for Art, Dance and Expression. Dialogue is performed in Spanish, with English subtitles projected simultaneously on a screen.

“I think that if the people of my community have opportunities to see themselves in a positive light that makes them proud of who they are, they’ll feel more comfortable of becoming part of another community that maybe doesn’t look like us or talk like us,” says Torres, who also serves as the organization’s executive artistic director.

A $30,000 2023 CAC Cultural Heritage Support Grant supports that objective.

“Cuyahoga Arts & Culture has been with us since the very beginning, and is making our dreams come true,” Torres says. “The reality of life is that everything costs money and, thanks to them, we can pay our actors—including those with college degrees in theater who have day jobs but can live their dream jobs with us. I’m so thankful CAC is focusing on diverse groups in our city.”

Upcoming LatinUs shows in the 2023-24 season include “Tú Ternura Molotov” and “La Botánica. The 2024-25 season has already been announced.

“We’re thrilled so many people of different races and genders come to see the shows,” Torres says. “Our hope is that they leave with the understanding that the differences in culture and language are really not that big.  I encourage everyone to come and give us a try,” she adds. “After all, we’re all just one big group of humans.”

Personal Reflections

Visitors to the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland (moCa Cleveland) are invited to experience engaging stories recounted through riveting works created by members of the city’s Latino community.

Through 2024, the Julia De Burgos Cultural Arts Center, located on the border of Cleveland’s Clark-Fulton and Brooklyn Centre neighborhoods, is partnering with moCa for an institutional and artist residency to showcase the work of Latino artists and provide professional development opportunities for them.

Julia De Burgos Cultural Arts Center 3rd Floor Residency Gallery at MOCAJulia De Burgos Cultural Arts Center 3rd Floor Residency Gallery at MOCATitled “¡Juntos! (Together),” the rotating exhibition features paintings, prints, and woodcarvings from artists throughout the region.

Through December, The Day of the Dead—a centuries-old practice that honors loved ones who have passed and keeps their memories alive—will be commemorated with artistic pieces representing lives well lived.

“When moCa invited us to begin the residency, we talked about what the theme should be,” says Julia De Burgos executive director Letitia Lopez. “At the end of the day, since ‘juntos’ means ‘together,’ we decided to focus on family. Many of the pieces on display represent back stories that have been passed down through generations.”

Julia De Burgos was founded in 1989 and named after the Puerto Rican poet and civil rights activist. The center offers classes and workshops for people of all ages, ranging from dance to pottery to a book club focusing on Latino authors.

Lopez and her team also conduct community outreach programs, sharing Hispanic culture with local businesses and art institutions throughout Northeast Ohio.

“It’s a wonderful thing that companies and organizations that are not Latino are [now] recognizing Hispanic Heritage Month,” Lopez says.

“At Julia De Burgos,” she adds with a smile, “we technically celebrate it every day.”

A $30,000 2023 CAC Cultural Heritage Grant helps the center continue its dedication to transforming lives by preserving, teaching, and promoting Latino heritage through history; culture, and visual, performing, and literary arts.

“Cuyahoga Arts & Culture has been just wonderful to us,” Lopez says. “Since we’re the only interdisciplinary Latino arts and culture center in Northeast Ohio, our existence is crucial to our community. Our mission is two-fold: To celebrate and support Latino artists and demonstrate how beautiful our culture is so that others may understand the different aspects of who we are and the value we bring to their community.”

Significant Steps

Hear the word “flamenco,” and, for many people, a provocative image of a female dancer in a red, ruffled dress stomping her feet as she swirls is the only one that comes to mind.

It’s a myth that Alice Blumenfeld, founder and artistic and executive director of Abrepaso Flamenco—taken from the Spanish phrase “se abre paso” (to forge a new path)—is dedicated to dispelling.

Dancer Christina Patterson of Abrepaso FlamencoDancer Christina Patterson of Abrepaso FlamencoLaunched in 2016, the nonprofit organization presents dance classes at the Julia De Burgos Cultural Arts Center, leads K-12 after school programming at the Center for Arts-Inspired Learning and stages performances throughout Northeast Ohio devoted to showcasing the true meaning of the flamenco art form that is most associated with southern Spain.

A native of Albuquerque, New Mexico—the city known for hosting the largest annual flamenco festival outside of Spain—Blumenfeld studied technique at the National Institute of Flamenco in Albuquerque and performed in five national tours with Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana.

She has mixed emotions about the time she spent on stage.

“Even though I was living my dream, I felt artistically stunted,” recalls Blumenfeld, who moved to Northeast Ohio to become a visiting assistant professor of dance at Oberlin College. “I was disappointed to see how many companies were playing to audience expectations—specifically when it came to frequently showcasing the woman in the red dress [role], which dictator Francisco Franco created in the 1950s to promote tourism to Spain.

“There were times when I was assigned to play that part and whenever I appeared, the audience cheered wildly, even though I hadn’t started dancing yet,” Blumenfeld continues. “I’d think, ‘This is it? Here is a form of artistry that dates back thousands of years and across cultures and this is what people remember?’ I knew I wanted to do my part to change that.”

The four dancers comprising Abrepaso’s apprentice training program, En Camino, portray a host of emotions in movements that complement the rhythms evoked by guitarists and vocalists who accompany them on stage.

“The dancers’ jobs are to embody the music and improvise as well, so there’s a conversation going on between them and the musicians,” Blumenfeld explains. “As it’s done for hundreds of years, flamenco has the power to remind us of our shared humanity. That theme is inherent in the stories we express on stage and teach our students how to tell.”

A $4,000 CAC Project Support Grant assists Blumenfeld with continuing that mission.

Abrepaso Flamenco has a full schedule of upcoming performances all over Northeast Ohio.

“CAC funding helps us bring in recognized musicians from around the world experienced in interpreting the range of styles the dance is known for,” Blumenfeld says. “I wouldn’t be able to present true flamenco without it.”

Linda Feagler
Linda Feagler

About the Author: Linda Feagler

Northeast Ohio native Linda Feagler never tires of indulging her passion for arts and culture Her favorite pastimes include attending Broadway musicals at Playhouse Square, visiting one-of-a-kind bookshops that include Loganberry Books in Cleveland Heights and The Learned Owl in Hudson, and spending the day with Impressionists at The Cleveland Museum of Art.