Tag Archive | "culture"

Bronx Cricketers Push For More Pitches

The Columbia Cricket Club and the Long Island Kings play a cricket match at Van Cortlandt Park on Sept 22. © Syra Ortiz-Blanes

Dressed in classic cricket whites, the players waited for their batsman to play the match’s crucial moment in Van Cortlandt Park. The Columbia Cricket Club had only one more chance to beat the Long Island Kings, who had scored 114 runs. As the bowler pitched the ball, the players watched from their place on the cricket pitch. When the batsman struck the winning run, they erupted into cheers. Their teammates on the sidelines stormed the field. Columbia Cricket Club had chased 115 runs with three wickets to spare. The team was going to the league playoffs.

Columbia Cricket Club players cheer on their teammates who are on the field. © Syra Ortiz-Blanes

Every weekend, the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park becomes a hub for New York City cricket. On a Sunday morning in late September, the 1 train headed to the borough was packed with players lugging their bats and equipment. Family and friends set up beach chairs on the sidelines to watch games. Spectators kept score and retired players served as umpires. South Asian and Caribbean music played from portable speakers.

Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx are among the country’s cricket hotspots. In New York City alone, there are more than 200 teams.

Experts say the sport is one of the fastest-growing in the United States. The Bronx is home to immigrants from some of the world’s most cricket-devout countries, including a Bangladeshi population that has more than tripled since 1990.

The Columbia Cricket Club and the Long Island Kings shake hands after the game finishes. © Syra Ortiz-Blanes

“Cricket gives us identity. It’s like a culture to us. It’s like a religion. We can’t stop playing,” said Lokendra Chauhan, President of the Columbia Cricket Club.

Players from the Columbia Cricket Club, one of the largest clubs in New York City, are from India, Australia, Antigua, Pakistan, South Africa, England, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. It also has one of the few American-born players in the city, an Irish school teacher with no tradition of the sport. 

For many immigrants, playing is a way to remain close to home and build community as they navigate life in the United States. “You have been living in one country, you leave everyone and everything behind for a better future,” said Chauhan, who is from India.

“Cricket brings us a family life.” 

But the rapidly-growing, cricket-loving immigrant population has put increased pressure on the Bronx’s pitches, with demand for playing time exceeding available fields, according to borough cricket leadership.

The Bronx’s three home leagues—New York Cricket League, Commonwealth Cricket League, and the newer Royal Premier League—share the pitches at Van Cortlandt Park, Soundview Park, and Ferry Point Park. 

“We need to play. We need space. There is a demand for space on the weekends,” said Milford Lewis, who was president of the New York Cricket League for 11 years until 2017. 

A traditional cricket match lasts around five days, but the cab drivers, executives, waiters, doctors, lawyers, and janitors who play cricket in New York City can only play Saturdays and Sundays. In the Bronx, leagues usually play Twenty20, a shortened version of the sport played in three hours. But even the reduced game time hasn’t averted scheduling issues, since the Bronx has lost seven official pitches in the last six years. 

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The Parade Ground at Van Cortlandt Park. © Syra Ortiz-Blanes

In 2013, the Department of Parks and Recreation injected $15 million to redesign the Parade Ground, a 66-acre swath of land used for cricket, soccer, baseball, football, cross-country, and Gaelic football at Van Cortlandt Park. The space was closed for three years until the construction was finished. 

Renovations were a significant improvement—the pitches were made regulation size and designated exclusively for the sport with no field overlapping with other sports—but two fields were lost. It left the Bronx with 18, still more than any other borough. Brooklyn and Queens trailed behind with 16 and 13 fields respectively.

But other sports have since cut into cricket real estate. Just last year, the Department of Parks and Recreation took away two more pitches at the Parade Grounds to create three small-sided soccer fields.

The Bronx now has nine fields in Van Cortlandt Park and two in Ferry Point Park, putting the official number of dedicated pitches at 11. There is also a cricket pitch at Soundview Park and a softball field that doubles as a cricket pitch, but NYC Parks doesn’t list the spaces for play on its website as of September 2019, although players said they are still using them.

Our pitches were designated solely for cricket. Now we have to share it with soccer, share it with frisbee, share it with athletics,” said Lewis, who is from Guyana. “If we can at least get one or two other pitches put out for us at any other ground in the Bronx, we will be thrilled. Cricket wants to get bigger, so we need bigger spaces.” 

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Ravi Etwaroo, owner of Cricket Zone USA, pictured here with cricket bats at his Parkchester-based store. © Syra Ortiz-Blanes

Ravi Etwaroo, a Guyanese immigrant, has been running Cricket Zone USA, the Bronx’s only cricket store, since 2003. His clientele, which he estimates to be around 3,000 players from across the city, keeps him in the loop. Many of his customers complain about the need for more fields. Some say they have to commute to other boroughs to play. “Some have even stopped playing because it’s too inconvenient to play when you have to spend a whole day commuting and you have a family waiting at home,” Etwaroo said.

Leagues, in particular, are affected by the lack of space, since they are in charge of scheduling matches amongst their club members. They must apply to NYC Parks for a permit to play at public facilities. 

In 2017, twenty-two permits were approved, none were denied, and fourteen were withdrawn. In 2019, twenty-seven were approved, 4 were denied, and four were withdrawn. These statistics don’t include the Soundview pitch. 

 “NYC Parks works hard to accommodate space and scheduling needs for all of our permit applicants,” said Anessa Hodgon, a press officer for the Department of Parks and Recreation. “Denied applications typically stem from lack of availability.”

But permit statistics don’t account for individuals, non-affiliated teams, and smaller leagues who might also want space to play but don’t apply because established teams are often grandfathered into the same time slots year after year. People without permits will often just hop into a field that isn’t in use. 

They also don’t reflect league sizes. Commonwealth Cricket League has around 2,000 players and 162 teams across the city. “It’s the biggest cricket league in North America,” said President Lesley Lowe, who founded the league in 1980 with his father and brothers.

Lowe, the most senior cricket administrator in the country, agreed that there is a need for more fields, but doesn’t where they would go. “I’ve grown up here and played at Van Cortlandt since I was fourteen. I’ve scoped out the Bronx for pitches, inch by inch. A cricket field is twice the size of a baseball diamond. Where can we put that?” 

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The lack of fields doesn’t only affect adult male teams, who dominate New York City’s cricket scene. It’s especially difficult for women to form teams and carry out regular practice meets since men’s teams have established tenure over many of the grounds.

Samantha Ramautar’s official portrait for USA Cricket. © USA Cricket

Samantha Ramautar, a member of the women’s USA national cricket team, said that the lack of field availability impacts New York’s female cricket players, who only get together once or twice to play during the summer. She trains in a New Jersey facility that is one and a half hours away.

“We don’t get as many opportunities as the guys do,” she said, “If there were more facilities, you’d find more women that wouldn’t feel intimidated playing with the guys, and we would have more leagues.” 

New York City is also the only city in the United States with cricket teams at public high schools. Three of the 34 participating schools are in the Bronx.“The public school cricket athletic league is the brainchild of the development of cricket in New York City,” said Milford Lewis, who has been an umpire since 1996 and often runs youth games. 

Lewis says that the youth teams serve as feeders for the cricket scene, but that can be difficult to sustain when they don’t have regular, dedicated space to play. “They have to start playing in April to make sure everyone has time to use the pitches. I’ve done games where the temperature was in the 50s. Their hands are cold, their feet are cold, their faces are cold.” 

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Bronx Community Board 9 Chairman William Rivera is working with NYC Parks to create the first cricket-dedicated pitch in his district at Pugsley and Randall Avenues. Rivera was inspired to pursue this initiative when he attended a cricket award ceremony at Parkchester’s Starling Avenue, which is a predominantly Bangladeshi area.“Children in my district grew up watching this sport in their birth countries, grew up watching their parents, and moved here later learning that this sport they love doesn’t have a real outlet for them to play,” he said. 

USA Cricket, which was re-organized by the International Cricket Council last year, is hoping to rehabilitate New York’s cricket infrastructure as it invests $1 billion in the sport across the country over the next ten years. Its ambitious plans include a cricket stadium for international play in New York City. The Bronx is on the list of potential locations because of its large green spaces and vibrant cricket scene. 

“If Bronx comes and says, we are ready to partner with you and we’ll give you a ten-acre park, we will help. Even if we forget about the stadium, even if they are looking to put a turf pitch, we are ready for that too,” said USA Cricket Club Director Ajith Baskar.  

The pitch above is covered with Astroturf, but has clay underneath instead of concrete. When it rains, there is inconsistent ball bounce and pitch variations. Having high-quality grass pitches is a priority for players in New York City.

“That would be heaven,” said Columbia Cricket Club President Lokendra Chauhan. © Syra Ortiz-Blanes

Rather than creating more playing spaces, some cricket players believe that enhancing the current pitches could make the usage of space more efficient. Implementing floodlights, for example, could double playtime by making nighttime cricket possible. Better upkeep of the facilities, such as keeping grass short and installing natural turf pitches, would help New York teams train to compete at an international level. In turn, raising the sport’s visibility could give clubs and leagues leverage as they advocate for more space. 

“If we have ambitions in New York to be delivering players that can step up at a high club and international level, the facilities here are inadequate at the moment to provide for that,” said Sumantro Das, a Columbia Cricket Club player from New Delhi.

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After winning its match against the Long Island Kings, the Columbia Cricket Club huddled together in a circle to debrief. Team officers gave a rousing speech to their players. They were proud of the work their team had done to secure the win. After the game, the players went for drinks to celebrate their victory.

This is what keeps bringing Das, who has been playing with his club for the last ten years, to the cricket pitches in the Bronx. He played professionally with the Birmingham League in England two summers ago and enjoys the competition and the thrill. But it’s the community aspect of it that he loves.

“This scene is vibrant. It’s exciting. The full breadth of diversity is incredible. It’s economic, it’s national, it’s community-wide, it’s international. It’s a beautiful picture.”

The Columbia Cricket Club storms the field after winning its match against the Long Island Kings on Sept 22. © Syra Ortiz-Blanes
A player from Columbia Cricket Club takes off his legs pad, used by batsmen and wicket keepers to protect their legs from the hard leather balls used in cricket. © Syra Ortiz-Blanes
The Columbia Cricket Club celebrates its victory against the Long Island Kings on Sept 22. © Syra Ortiz-Blanes


Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Featured, SportsComments (0)

Putting Little Yemen on The Map

At a small intersection with an under-developed park called Green Streets, no longer than the length of three tightly parked cars, lies the center of Little Yemen in Morris Park. Door-to-door services crowd the street in front, including Al-Meraj, a halal meat market, and Gamal Business Services, where Arabic-language employees provide tax, translation, and notary services.

The Green Steets intersection that Yahay Obeid hopes to rename “Little Yemen” park.

For Yahay Obeid, this is also the center of his dream.

Obeid, a control supervisor at JFK Airport, serves on Community Board 11 as the public committee safety chair and is the outreach liaison for his local mosque. His current mission is to establish the enclave’s identity as Little Yemen on Google Maps.

Obeid wants the official designation because it will encourage residents to feel a sense of belonging and pride in the Bronx, he said.

His goal is to give residents “a place where they can say, ‘Yeah, I’m waiting for you at the Little Yemen triangle.’”

The heart of the neighborhood is on White Plains Road and Rhinelander Avenue, where the most popular Yemeni restaurant, Arth Aljanatain, is located. The restaurant’s windowed walls offer a view of Green Streets, where passersby can see local Yemeni customers sitting on one of their eight tables. It’s where the coach of the Yemen United Soccer Club takes his his sons for dishes such as salta, a meat broth-based soup, and rice and chicken dishes. The main mosque of the area – that holds two Friday prayer services to accommodate the worshippers – is here too. Hookah cafes, a Yemeni supermarket, and Yemeni delis and pharmacies surround that one intersection.

Little Yemen, which encompasses pockets from Van Nest and Bronx Park East, is a small pocket of the approximate 120,000 residents in the area, according to the NYU Furman Center.

Local Islamic-wear boutique, across the street from the Bronx Muslim Center.

And it’s even a smaller fraction of the approximate 6,900 Yemenis in New York State, estimated by the Arab American Institute Foundation. The number of Yemenis residing in the Bronx and specifically in District 11 is unclear to community officials. 

Obeid got the idea to reach out to Google earlier this summer, when he took part in the planning of the city’s first-ever Yemeni-American Day Parade. Anwar Alomaisi, the parade’s volunteer photographer, took a drone photo that captured the crowd at the triangle intersection. Once Obeid saw it, he was inspired to try to create “Little Yemen.”

Obeid submitted his request to Google using its My Business mobile application. Google verified the location and a few weeks later, Little Yemen was on the map. Sort of. It appears on Google Maps as a museum open 24/7. All Google Maps users can also manually add suggestions for businesses, hospitals, streets, and other places, where it will go through a verification process, but they cannot add neighborhoods.

Screenshot of Little Yemen on Google Maps as of September 5, 2019.

“It might not be an official museum, but people will check it out,” Obeid said about the designation.

Separately, Obeid has made a request to the Department of Parks and Recreation to rename the park to “Little Yemen.” He will reach out to Google to change the museum designation if the park is renamed with a sponsorship from the Department of Parks and Recreation.

In the meanwhile, “it will be somewhat of an outdoor museum of the Yemeni community.”

Google retrieves neighborhood information from third-party providers and public sources that they describe as local government websites and transportation operators, according to a Google Spokesperson.

They define borders with a red outline to map boundaries. 

Establishing Little Yemen on the map would solidify the Arab presence in the area, said Jeremy Warneke, Community Board 11 District Manager.

“They’re very visible and present, and you can either embrace the future or do your best to deny it,” Warneke said.

Ethnic enclaves, or Littles, in New York City, are typically defined by “commercial, residential, and institutional concentration of a particular ethnic group,” said Tarry Hum, Professor and Chair of the Department of Urban Studies at Queens College, CUNY

She notes that neighborhoods develop out of  “reciprocity and ethnic solidarity, class relations (and conflict) [that are] tempered by shared culture, language, experience of racial discrimination.”

Many Littles in New York don’t appear on Google Maps. The New York Times mapped out several based on population concentrations. In the Bronx alone, there are at least six distinctive neighborhoods, including Little Ireland in Woodlawn Heights, Little Albania in Pelham Parkway, and Little Ghana in Concourse Village, which are just some of the 30 Littles the Bronx Ink identified throughout New York City.

Obeid considers his efforts “a gift to the Yemeni community.” 

“Now they see us out of the grocery stores.”

On October 3, 2019, a few weeks after this story went live, The Bronx Ink discovered that Little Yemen’s designation on Google Maps changed from museum to neighborhood. The new designation can be viewed by clicking this Google Maps link.

This story was updated to reflect the following correction: Yahay made the request to change the name of the park to the Department of Parks and Recreation, not the community board.


Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Culture, Featured, ImmigrationComments (1)

A Boxing Gym Owner Fights to Keep His Culture Alive

If you walk into El Maestro Boxing Gym at 5 p.m. on a Monday, you might find the gym full of young men, battering away at the bags and shuffling around the ring to the metronome of the round-timer.

Come in on the right Saturday night though, and you might find that instead of fighters shadow-boxing inside the ring, there’s a bomba band, or a fiery patriotic Puerto Rican poetry reading. 

“Boxing is not enough,” gym founder Fernando Laspina said. Boxers can end up broke and brain damaged, Laspina said, and that’s why he designed El Maestro not just as a gym where neighborhood kids could learn to fight, but as a place where they could connect to Puerto Rican culture and history.

But after 16 years, Laspina’s community center is now under threat. His landlord has put the squat two-story building that houses El Maestro up for sale.  Laspina has lost locations and been forced to downsize before, he said, but yet another move could be disruptive to what he’s managed to build at 1300 Southern Boulevard.

 Akmicar Torres, 33, whose son Joseph trains at the gym, said it would be unthinkable to lose El Maestro. When he first walked into the gym to sign his son up for boxing classes, he was struck by the huge mural on one of the walls. It depicts a mix of Puerto Rican nationalist heroes and scenes from Taino folklore.

“It was like I was looking at a history book from my third grade in Puerto Rico,” Torres said. He described standing in front of the wall and explaining to his son Joseph, then 10-years-old, what their connection to this history was. 

For many in the Puerto Rican community in this corner of the Bronx, El Maestro is a little piece of the old country. 

“There’s no other place in New York that feels like home,” said Akmicar. “When I feel homesick, I go to El Maestro.” Four years after signing up Joseph, now 14, he’s a New York Junior Olympic Champion. His boxing lessons, Torres explained, take place entirely in Spanish. 

Laspina’s path hasn’t been a straight one. A “jibaro” from the mountains of Puerto Rico, he moved to the Bronx at fifteen and quickly became a target for schoolyard bullying. He joined The Savage Skulls, a notorious black and Puerto Rican street gang, for protection. Within a few years, he’d risen to the rank of regional leader in the South Bronx. Fighting quickly became a part of his life. “Everyone always said I was good with my hands,” he chuckled. 

But a two-year stint in prison for extortion made him rethink his priorities. He resolved to change. Prison proved to be a crash course in community organization, as he and other Spanish-speaking inmates had to band together and use their collective voices to, among other things, demand a bi-lingual chaplain.

Once out, he’d channeled the skills he’d learned as a prison-yard organizer into a career in grassroots community activism and outreach, helping to lead a campaign to keep Puerto Rican-founded Hostos Community College open. He enrolled in college, eventually earning a masters degree from Buffalo State University in Latin Studies. More than 40 years later, Laspina’s ties to his community go deep. He runs El Maestro and works as an extracurricular coordinator for the New York City Housing Authority. 

Rising rent prices have caused the gym to have to move before: they’ve had four locations in the past 16 years. But now, the possible sale of the building, coupled with the discussion of zoning changes along Morrisania’s Southern Boulevard has many community members worried about what this might mean for El Maestro

Yet another move could force them into a smaller space, less easily accessible by train than the current location, which is just down the block from the 2 and 5 stop at Freeman Ave. In turn, this could shrink the programs the gym is able to offer, and take away a critical linchpin in the cultural landscape of the neighborhood. “This gym keeps kids off the street and out of gangs, people come here who have messed up their lives and are trying to straighten out,” said 16-year-old boxer Firdaus Abdulai. “People take this place for granted, but it would be terrible if the gym got sold.” 

Fernando doesn’t seem worried though. The Bronx has changed a lot in the years since the gym was founded, and they have always managed to survive, and if that means finding another location, so be it. Instead of dwelling on the potential sale of the property, he’s thinking about ways to grow. He’d love to launch a tutoring program for the kids who come to the gym. “That’s the dream, to have a space with computers where the kids could come and do homework,” he said. For now though, he’s happy to listen to the thud of gloves against the heavy bag.

Posted in Culture, MorrisaniaComments (0)

Bronx celebrates cinematic masterpieces at inaugural film festival

Conventional wisdom does not usually pair up Hollywood with The Bronx.  But the nonprofit Yes the Bronx would like to change that misperception this coming weekend with the inaugural Yes the Bronx Film Festival. Festival planners said the goal is to spark a discussion about how the borough has been portrayed in popular films.

“It happens to be the 100th anniversary of the Bronx,” said George Stephanopoulos, president of the organization and film festival director.  “If we are going to do something to promote the Bronx community, this is as good a year as any to launch.” Stephanopoulos is a television and film lawyer by trade, in addition to a producer and life-long aficionado of independent cinema – a combination that he felt might be put to good use in organizing the festival.

When he put the plan into effect, his first call was to famed film historian Foster Hirsch to assist in selecting the best films to program for the event, and organize the panels and talkbacks. The two experts settled upon five feature films: “The Pride of the Yankees” a 1942 film about Lou Gehrig, “The We and I” a 2012 picture about Bronx teenagers’ bus ride on the last day of school, “A Bronx Tale” the 1993 De Niro directorial debut about a Bronx boy’s two heroes, “Marty” the 1955 Best Picture Academy Award winner about a socially awkward Bronx butcher, and “City Island” the 2009 family comedy-drama.  The films all encompass different historical periods and perspectives of the borough – ranging from the heartwarming to the shockingly realistic, and tickets to each of the screenings cost between $10 and $15.

 

Yes the Bronx Film Festival Poster (courtesy of George Stephanopoulos, Yes the Bronx)

Yes the Bronx Film Festival Poster (Image courtesy of Yes the Bronx organization)

Compared to other film festivals that Hirsch has helped to curate,  this weekend’s festival has a larger focus on current films and lots of talk about the future. “We want response from the audience,” Hirsch said.  “What is the effect of this film on your thinking about the Bronx?  We want a sort of interactive connection between the spectators and the films.”

A key goal is to encourage the city to open up the Bronx to future filmmakers. To that end, on Saturday, Hirsch will moderate a panel entitled “The Bronx in Hollywood Films” featuring Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. and Commissioner Cynthia Lopez from the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.“I think opening filming sites to the Bronx increases the variety of locations that New York has to offer and also corrects the misperception that filming in New York City is just about urban congestion and density,” Hirsch said.

In addition to the five films, the festival will also showcase several shorts shot by local Bronx filmmakers and artists. Stephanopoulos worked with the Bronx Artists Collective to create a short documentary film Artistic Energy: The Bronx, based upon the Bronx Artist Documentary Project – an exhibit featuring local visual artists on display at the historic Andrew Freedman home on the Grand Concourse.

The project is the brainchild of painter Daniel Hauben who, with his wife Judith Lane, worked on a series of photos documenting the artistic community of the Bronx. Lane said the idea to photograph artists at work came to her husband when he was painting on location in an artist friend’s studio.  He began ruminating about the significance of artist’s spaces, and thought non-artists would be interested as well.

Artistic Energy: The Bronx Trailer

So Hauben and Lane began to send photographers into artists’ studios in order to create an exhibition, with the help of New York Times photojournalist and adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School, Michael Kamber, who joined the project. The Documentary Project was intended to cap at 100 photos to celebrate the centennial, but the interest was so large that the project wound up expanding to document 110 different artists, a number that Lane says is ironically reflective of the “110 percent” that all participating artists gave.

A primary goal of the documentary is to allow those outside of the artistic community to recognize the local artists who are working on beautifying their neighborhoods. “This project was designed to get people connected with each other, to get collaborations going, to get friendships going,” Lane said.  “So that the arts community as a whole can grow and flourish within this new Bronx that is growing and flourishing.” Kamber noted the groundbreaking work and the “astonishing diversity of creativity that exists all over the Bronx.”

The Bronx itself is a “brand,” said Stephanopoulos.  “The aim is to showcase the borough’s renaissance.  But it has become clear that we really are also promoting the Bronx as a film site.” And Lane has one main sentiment that she hopes attendees will walk away with after the three-day festival. “I hope they think, ‘my entire viewpoint of the Bronx has changed and it is not what I thought it was, and I am going to go tell the world,’” she said.    

Yes the Bronx Film Festival runs from Friday, September 19 through Sunday, September 21 at Lehman College, Lovinger Theatre. You can view the complete schedule here.

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Bronx’s Little Italy set for Sunday festival

The Belmont area of the Bronx will celebrate its annual Ferragosto festival to mark the end of the summer season this Sunday, DNAinfo reported.

Food vendors, musical guests and other merchants are set to line the streets of Arthur Ave. in the Bronx. Other entertainment is also scheduled throughout the day in honor of the annual Italian tradition, which marks the change of seasons with food and festivities.

Frank Franz, chairman of the Belmont Business Improvement District, says most people consider the festival to be the “biggest and most successful festival all year” within the Belmont area.

Posted in Culture, NewswireComments (0)

Caridad de la Luz: An Artist-Activist Bred in the Bronx

By Carmen Williams

Eight years ago, Caridad De La Luz, then a 27-year-old Puerto Rican poet and performer, finally found her artistic voice. It was just a month after the World Trade Center attacks and De La Luz — like most New Yorkers — was still in shock. But she was also inspired. The result was one of her best-known poems, WTC, which uses only carefully crafted three-word phrases that begin with the letters W, T or C: “What’s the cause/Work to connect/Wish to change/Want to cry…Wish time could/Wash this clean…Watched the Calamity/ Weakness to Courage.”

The poem is emblematic of De La Luz’s work. Through her art, she aims to transform tragedy into hope. Known by the stage name “La Bruja“, or witch, De La Luz performed recently at Nuyorican Poets Cafe as a part of “The Sense of a Woman” musical, dance and poetry exhibition. Her rhythmic speech, passionate raps and charismatic delivery wowed the crowd. “It’s not easy being a woman,” she told the audience. “We deal with menstruation, menopause and MySpace.”

Now 36, De La Luz has been performing on the popular East Village cafe’s stage for 13 years. During that time, she has evolved from community organizer and marketing rep to actress, singer, songwriter, comedian and artist-activist. She has also used her talents to give back to the community by working with local organizations that help young people, especially young Latinas.

Born in the Soundview neighborhood of the Bronx (where she still lives), De La Luz graduated from Murry Bergtraum High School and attended the State University of New York in Binghamton. But it wasn’t until she began working as a community organizer in Hunts Point in the 1990s that she witnessed the direct impact of high rates of teen pregnancy, low educational attainment, drug abuse and STDs. After her stint as an organizer, she worked in retail marketing for Bloomingdale’s but then quit to begin a full-time artist and poet. But even as she developed her artistic side, the energetic Bronx native couldn’t forget what she had seen as an organizer. Those memories led her to start Latinas4Life, an organization that runs high school workshops around the city.

“I worked with youth before becoming “La Bruja,” she said. “but once I saw the statistics of Latinas in particular, I felt the need to create something to bring awareness about these issues from a Latina perspective.”

The numbers are indeed grim. In New York City, a third of Latinas leave high school without graduating. One in every four Latina teens becomes pregnant. And even more disturbing are the effects of these issues. Nationally, one of every seven Latinas will attempt suicide.

De La Luz believes that many of the difficulties young Latinas experience are the result of trying to balance two cultures, family roots and American identity. Research backs that up. A 1999 study conducted by the National Coalition of Hispanic Health and Human Services found that the lack of communication between daughters and mothers and the lack of information about how to deal with the conflict between old and new values was a factor in suicide attempts by Latinas.

But she thinks its possible to successfully reconcile both cultures, as she has. “I don’t think you have to choose,” she said. “You can embrace both cultures at once. Have a balance and love both sides for the ugliness and the beauty.”

Her work as a role model extends beyond Latinas4Life. “She’s very connected to the community and she’s a great representative of the Bronx,” says Victoria Sammartino, founder and executive director of Voices UnBroken, a non-profit organization that produces writing workshops for Bronx young people in foster care, as well as adults in homeless shelters and correctional facilities. De La Luz is a board member of the group and has helped with workshops. “It’s important to the participants because they know that someone who has achieved success is actually interested in them and their work,” Sammartino said. “They’re all big fans of hers and feel connected to her.”

Caridad de la Luz performing at the WORD Series for Voices Unbroken at Yankee Stadium with La India.  Photo Courtesy of Caridad de la Luz

De La Luz performing at the WORD Series for Voices UnBroken at Yankee Stadium with La India. Photo Courtesy of Caridad De La Luz

But Latinas4Life is closest to her own journey. Through the group’s workshops, she has heard harrowing tales from young teens: tales of rape, suicide attempts and depression. De La Luz can relate because she has experienced these issues herself. She overcome bouts of depression, suicidal thoughts and date rape, the subject of her poem She: “She fought, she yelled, she lost, she fell/She left her body there and swore never to tell/She let some years pass believing she was at fault.”

“It took me 15 years to write that poem and share it,” she said. Her hope is that talking about her experiences will help others heal. “This work is transformational,” she said. “It’s about transforming lives without leaving someone behind.”

She is often emotionally drained after a workshop. “We think because they’re teenagers, they don’t deal with this,” she said. “But most of these girls have been dealing with these issues. They’re dying to pull themselves out.”

De La Luz tries to correct these issues in her own home, talking candidly about problems with her son Kelson, 11, and daughter Carina, 9. She even broaches conversations with her kids that are still taboo within her traditional culture. “The old Latina way is to not tell the truth about things like sex but when you treat it as not natural and you grow up with complexes and insecurities,” she said. “I share with my daughter the things I’ve seen.”

She and her husband, G. Bo Vasquez, a professional DJ, live next door to her parents. And she says they have no intention of leaving. She’s close to her parents and says they encouraged her to pursue her passion, even though it was an unconventional career. Her late great-grandmother sparked her desire to write poetry by teaching her poems that she would recite them in front of family members. It was a poem inspired by her grandmother in 1995 that laid the foundation for her work as a full-time artist.

“My best friend’s brother told me about Nuyorican Cafe,” she said. “The first poem I performed was so full of pride and love for my island and culture. It was like my grandmother was talking to me.”

She received a standing ovation for her performance, and eventually her poems earned her a monthly slot at the cafe. Since she first appeared on the stage, the poet has developed in many artistic areas–actress, singer, song-writer.

An advertisement for Boogie Rican Blvd.  Picture is courtesy of Caridad de la Luz

An advertisement for Boogie Rican Blvd. Photo courtesy of Caridad De La Luz

“The thing that’s always impressed me about La Bruja is her combination of talent,” said Daniel Gallant, the executive director of the cafe. “Last year, she did a two-week run, and every single night she had a different show. She has enough breadth of talent that different audiences know her for different reasons–comedian, actress, singer, poet.”

“Her talents match the venue,” Gallant said. “She’s developed great characters at the cafe. She has range.”

Some of those developed characters were on display this summer when De La Luz portrayed seven different family members in her play “Boogie Rican Blvd.” She said the play was meant to be entertaining, but it also served as a healing tool.

“It was a labor of love, and I hope to shop it around to other theaters,” she said.

She has also become involved in the organization LatinosNYC through her assistant, Paul Rios. He met De La Luz two years ago after he contacted her over MySpace to perform at an event for suicide awareness. LatinosNYC gives information about HIV awareness, domestic violence, suicide to the Latino community.

“I contacted La Bruja, [to perform] and on the day of the show, she showed up and did a hell of a job,” Rios said. “I admire her for what she stands for–a poet, actor, activist, hip hop artist, mother and wife.”

Rios hopes many other will get to see that talent. “I would like her to reach the skies with her talent and beyond any limits that society sets on people, especially Latina females,” he said.

De La Luz is also excited about her future. She’s working on an anthology of her work and she’s slated to release an album next month on her independent record label. She will also continue her charity work.

“I have schools lined up for this year and I want to get the organization registered as non-profit status,” she said. “I am going to continue to grow.”

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