If you stepped into the spacious gallery at La Casita Cultural Center at any point in the 2019-20 school year, you were greeted by bold color: graffiti on faux brick walls, an expansive wall mural and dozens of vivid paintings, many depicting local Latinx community leaders. These pieces were created and curated by Syracuse-based artist Bennie Guzmán as part of La Casita’s yearlong project Pa’ la calle (To the Streets), an exploration and celebration of contemporary Latinx culture and music. Pa’ la calle provided a unifying theme in the events, activities and programs hosted at La Casita throughout the school year.
Established by the College of Arts and Sciences in 2011, La Casita is located in Syracuse’s Near Westside neighborhood and is a hub of community engagement and academic research centered around Spanish language and Latinx culture. The center serves as a learning lab and a resource for about 300 students annually. They are drawn to La Casita from a wide range of academic fields—social sciences, Spanish language, museum studies and education among them—for hands-on experience with the Latinx and Hispanic communities of Central New York.
“La Casita brings together sectors of the population that might not otherwise connect,” explains Teresita Paniagua ’82, executive director La Casita and of Syracuse University’s Office of Cultural Engagement for the Hispanic Community . The center’s programming for local children and youth features bilingual story hours, music, dance and art workshops, and training in career-oriented skills, all of which create opportunities for members of the University community to build relationships with city residents. “As a co-curricular unit, we work with academic programs across campus to support student research and meet service-learning requirements through internships, volunteering and work-study job openings,” Paniagua says. “But everyone loves the music, food and dancing! We invite people to come together to learn—and also to get to know one another and enjoy celebrating together.”
Seeking Common Ground Among Different Perspectives
It was this mission of bringing together different groups and inspiring dialogue that led Guzmán, who is also the communications manager at La Casita, to propose reggaeton—a music style that originated in Puerto Rico in the 1990s and is heavily influenced by hip-hop and Caribbean rhythms—as a thematic focus. Many elements of this music, and the culture associated with it, are controversial, he explains, and divergent perspectives often fall along generational and socioeconomic lines. “Pa’ la calle was about having a conversation about something in our community that we don’t necessarily agree on. It was about how we can find common ground and mutual respect,” he says.
“When I was growing up, reggaeton was the background music to my life, and I have many positive associations with it,” says rising senior Nicole Pacateque, who moved to Syracuse from Puerto Rico to pursue degrees in psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences and sociology in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs . But, she says, she was always aware of her parents’ disapproval of the music, and the critiques leveled against some songs’ portrayal of women. “The panel discussions we had about reggaeton and hip-hop led to the first conversations I’ve ever had about this music with people from older generations,” she says. It was a bonding experience, she believes, that led to a more nuanced appreciation of the music and the culture, by all parties.
For Guzmán, who grew up in Texas and graduated from Colgate University in 2017, the most important aspect of Pa’ la calle was the people it showcased and celebrated. “This is our culture,” he says. “It’s sometimes rough and edgy. But what I see is beauty. And I believe we need to see that we—and our communities—are beautiful and worth honoring exactly as we are.” Guzmán says one of the most moving experience he had during this project was working with middle and high school students on the wall mural. “Initially, I wanted the students to focus on what life is like in Syracuse. But instead they began to create images that reflected their hopes and dreams for themselves and their community,” he explains. When the mural was unveiled, the students were featured in local media and inundated with praise and encouragement from their peers and adults. “I am pretty sure that was unprecedented for them,” Guzmán says. “It was a validation of their experiences and their dreams, and I am so glad La Casita was able to make that possible.”
This is our culture, it’s sometimes rough and edgy. But what I see is beauty. And I believe we need to see that we—and our communities—are beautiful and worth honoring exactly as we are.—Bennie Guzmán
Shared Stories Unite and Inspire
For months now, La Casita staff and Syracuse University students—many now working from their homes in Puerto Rico, Miami and several New York regions—have been laying the groundwork for exhibitions and events for the 2020-21 academic year. They are inspired by La Casita’s next project: Abuelas (Grandmothers). Whereas Pa’ la calle was an opportunity to discuss differences, the Abuelas theme will invite people to share what they have in common, Paniagua says. “We all have grandmother figures in our lives. Especially in immigrant families, the matriarchs are often the glue holding the family together and maintaining traditions. When people with very different cultural backgrounds share stories about their grandmothers, similar themes emerge.”
The Abuelas theme will again offer abundant opportunities for the University community and city residents to work together and to celebrate diverse cultures. Christian Andino Borrero ’21, a dual major in policy studies and international relations in the Maxwell School, is coordinator of the storytelling program at La Casita and, along with other volunteers from the University, has been helping a group of students from local schools write and illustrate stories about their grandmothers. “Often we’re working together one-on-one. We develop real relationships with these students and get to encourage their confidence in the worth and value of the stories they have to tell,” says Borrero. These stories will be published in a book—the fourth such book La Casita has produced—that will be released in September 2020 and available online and in print.
Programming at La Casita this fall will be a combination of virtual and strictly limited in-person interactions, and while plans remain fluid in light of the University’s precautions around COVID-19, La Casita’s value to both college students and city residents remains unchanged. “Really, it’s the people who make La Casita what it is,” Pacateque says. “It’s the most warm and welcoming community—and I am so excited for all we have planned for next year!”