As we wrapped up an interview with Cristina Gonzalez, owner and manager of Centro Musical, a popular music store in Fairhill, an old acquaintance waltzed in and began ribbing her while she tried to concentrate on being interviewed. The man was short, round-faced and full of plenty of good things to say about Cristina and her store.
Francisco Sandoval, manger of Taller Puertorriqueno, a community-based arts organization started in 1974, happened to be visiting the store on a break from his own organization’s first weekend of its new art exhibit “Dignity Transforms.”
Sandoval, a former actor, was not shy in front of the camera and invited us to the art gallery opening to get a perspective on another side of Fairhill’s arts and development movement.
After a quick walk, we entered the Lorenzo Homar Gallery, named after one of Puerto Rico’s most famous graphic visual artists. The gallery’s first floor was full of people scooping up Puerto Rican food onto plates as they perused the bookstore’s collection and chatting about just how beautiful the exhibit was. The new exhibit emphasizes the theme of community rehabilitation through art, development through visual awareness. The two featured artists, Betsy Casañas and Pete Ospin, are part of the Semilla Arts Initiative, a program created to develop ways to transform poorer communities through art.
“Basically what we do is we use art as a means of changing the social conditions of a particular area with a few small projects that dramatically change it. It all adds up,” said Betsy Casañas. “For me, it’s really a personal interest, because I live in the neighborhood.
Casañas has had a long standing relationship with Taller Puertorriqueno, first being spotted as an artist at the age of 16 and becoming a teacher at the organization at the age of 19. Taller has supported grassroots arts movements, including Casañas’s and Ospin’s in order to foster a self-promoted redevelopment of the community.
“This exhibit is called Dignity Transforms and the dignity is our cultural inheritance, that we may sometimes take for granted,” said Rafael “Papo” Zapata, assistant dean of the intercultural program at Swarthmore College. “With Taller Puertorriqueno, it serves as an anchor for a community beset by an array of problems. This is a place where we can come and learn about ourselves and who we are, which really grounds us.”
Zapata himself is a former manager of Taller Puertorriqueno, now a participant and faithful supporter of the organization. “Good people, hardworking people are struggling with issues around education, public health, violence, crime and unemployment. This is a place where you can learn where you’re from. Knowing where you’re from is important and transformative.”
Casañas agreed. “My kids haven’t been able to go outside, ever. It’s dangerous to go outside and worry about possibly getting shot. That’s the reality,” she said.
Part of Taller Puertorriqueno’s mission statement is that it “provides audiences and neighbors with safe facilities, creative outlets for youth and education programs that underscore our rich Puerto Rican heritage. Our work presents a ‘first-voice’ account of our accomplishments as Latinos.”
The organization has managed to assist many young artists with both resources and a forum for artistic development. Francisco Sandoval explained that the program has expanded its facilities from painting and sculpture to a theater program and even a film-making program in a neighborhood that is often found struggling to meet the needs of students.
“The first thing to get cut in funding is usually the arts programs,” says Sandoval. “What people don’t realize is just how important the arts are to society.”
Zapata added: “When I came to Philadelphia and saw this organization, I had to get involved, working with the youth, supporting it. And that’s what it means to me, as far as what it accomplishes.”
Taller Puertorriqueno is a small organization in Fairhill with little means but a wide word of mouth. Within its 36 years, Taller has managed to involve itself in almost every artistic aspect of Philadelphia, ranging from smaller art exhibits to deciding what will be put on the murals around the neighborhood.
As we left, Zapata and Casanas began to speak casually about how important the arts and the organization were to not only Fairhill, but to them. There was an air of passion coupled with determination in the face of a neighborhood bogged down by crime and violent desperation. Though the two acknowledged the problems, they also acknowledged a firm belief in the rejuvenating power of art and just how far it goes. The long-term effects remain to be seen, but the outlook is bright. In the meanwhile, a traipse down Fifth Street and Lehigh will show you how dedicated Fairhill is to fixing the wrongs, even if it’s with a brush or a pencil.