Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Relationship Between My Travel and Our Nonprofit Arts Organization "Raíces Culturales Latinoamericanas" (Latin American Cultural Roots)

One of countless performances by our organization Raíces Culturales Latinoamericanas (Latin American Cultural Roots)

In an earlier post, I gave some thought as to why I have never had the desire to become a "travel nomad" as many have done, in order to sample the world and experience the freedom that being tied down to a specific place does not provide. While there are plenty of practical reasons related to family obligations and other considerations, one that is especially relevant is that, from the time I started traveling, I always had the desire to bring back what I had seen and learned in my travels to the people back home in the States. This especially took root after I returned from a year of graduate study at the Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia in 1981, under the auspices of the Fulbright program. After a decade of interacting with the Latino community of Philadelphia, I decided to start a nonprofit arts organization in 1991 showcasing the culture of Spain, Latin America and the Caribbean, which we named Raíces Culturales Latinoamericanas (Latin American Cultural Roots). Fortunately, I had met a short time before a woman named Yolanda Alcorta who happened to be a co-worker of mine at Wyeth Laboratories and who shared the same passion, so together we started Raíces and worked together nonstop for 15 years until she moved to Washington, DC.

Yolanda Alcorta and I in front of the Raíces banner

The Raíces concept was to showcase several Latin cultures together in a single performance so that the audience could see the diversity. To achieve this end, we reached out to many performing groups and individuals in the Philadelphia area to invite them to collaborate with us, which they did. Ultimately, we presented at least some manifestation of the culture of every Latin American nation, as well as Spain. Groups came and went, but we always had the assistance of several of them when it came time to perform, or deliver a workshop to a school. Such was Yolanda's devotion that she quit her job at Wyeth to become our first full-time Executive Director, while her husband Chris supported their family financially.

Yolanda's mother Elvira Gaitán was born in Guatemala, and as such Yolanda gravitated toward her family in Guatemala and the richness of that country's culture in her travels. She brought back much research material from Guatemala, while I did the same in Colombia while visiting my wife Adriana's family there. We both tried to take in as much traditional culture as we could during our visits. Later, with the assistance of organizations such as Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the Pew Foundation, we traveled to other regions, among them Puerto Rico, Spain, and Trinidad to do research to assist us in organizing performances in Philadelphia.

Visiting Seville, Spain in 2006 with Julia López (seated, right), flamenco instructor and then director of the  Philadelphia flamenco troupe Flamenco Olé, to do research on the Feria de Abril (April Fair) and learn more about flamenco. I'm standing with Juan Iglesias and Nancy Hill, one of Julia's students. Juan Iglesias' wife is seated at left.

It goes without saying that traveling to these locations helped us enormously in our mission to render faithfully the cultures we witnessed, as well as create a storehouse of memories and "between the lines" anecdotal experiences that found their way into our events. Attendees would notice these subtleties and sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, felt an air of authenticity that would have been impossible without our travels. For Yolanda and myself, the events and the audience's reaction provided us with great satisfaction.

A footnote is that our direct involvement in Raíces initially ended in 2006 for Yolanda, and for me in 2009. Verónica Castillo-Pérez succeeded Yolanda as Executive Director from 2006 to 2012, and Mary Rivera from 2012 to 2015. To provide the Raíces Board an alternative to closing the organization in 2015 due to funding issues, I offered to take back the organization's management, which was accomplished in 2016. Yolanda enthusiastically joined me, and since then, we have created events both in Philadelphia and Washington, DC, helped by Yolanda's freelance cultural work in DC since moving there. You can read the story in my article Michael and Yolanda, Raíces Co-Founders, Retake the Reins.

You can follow Raíces more closely via our website , our Facebook pages Raices Culturales Latinoamericanas (in English) and Folklorelatino (in Spanish), and our Twitter account @RaicesCultural .

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