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GCLER: Using the Power of Art to Build Community

Words and photos by Olivia Bauso

Gathering for a traditional craft, learning the dances of your ancestors or putting together a cultural performance may have more weight in your community than you’d think. Evelyn D’Agostino, Founder and Treasurer of Grupo Cultural Latinos En Rochester, Inc., affirms: “I do believe in the power of art, the power of culture and how it can change people for good. It’s not expensive-- it’s time consuming, yes. It’s a commitment, but it’s worth it.”

Grupo Cultural Latinos En Rochester, Inc. (GCLER) is a non-profit 501(c)(3) that focuses on sharing the diverse folklore of Latino communities with Western, NY. With the support of recreation centers, towns and donors, the group offers dance classes, bilingual story time, public performances and cultural activities to Greater Rochester.

Jazmin Ruiz, Events and Programs Director (Left) and Evelyn D'Agostino, Founder and Treasurer (Right)

Originally from Panama, Evelyn moved to Rochester about ten years ago with her family. Seeing a need in the community for a cultural group, she and a few other families began gathering informally to share their interests and traditions with each other. She explains, “We started the group as a bunch of families who have the same backgrounds. We wanted to make sure that we shared our roots and customs with our children, so that they would have a better understanding of where they came from.” Eventually, they were invited to share their experiences at local events, and decided to formalize as a group. They have since become active in other communities like Saratoga and Buffalo, and retained their non-profit status this year. 

“[GCLER] creates a place for children to participate, to learn and to be curious,” Evelyn says, but the group’s programming serves more than just kids. GCLER is open to people from all different backgrounds, of all different ages. Under the artistic direction of Shirley Bittlingmaier and several handfuls of unpaid, passionate volunteers, GCLER is truly a labor of love. Events and Programs director Jazmin Ruiz explains, “The main mission of GCLER is really to preserve the traditions that we have from our Latin-American countries, our original homes, and to pass them on not only to generations within our families, but also with communities outside our own families. We’re looking to expand circles and unite different groups.”

D'Agostino's son wearing a paper mache Carnival mask

Jazmin continues, “Another mission for GCLER is not only to share our culture, but also to bring a positive image of Latinos to the city, where we often only see negative images.” Evelyn adds, “Yeah, we want to show that there is more to us; there are a lot of things to learn from us. We may seem crazy and loud, but it’s good loud! It’s good energy, it’s a lot of enthusiasm and we contribute to the city in many ways.” One of the primary traits Evelyn aims to showcase through GCLER is the importance of family. She explains, “We are very family oriented and it’s important to bring that value here. We have a crisis with families: there’s less time, they are less connected.” Most of the programs put on by GCLER work to bring multiple generations of families together.

One of the projects Evelyn and her team share with the community is the tradition of Carnival. She explains, “Carnival is more than random celebration. There are towns in Latinx communities that live for the Carnival. They spend their time preparing for it, getting masks and floats together. It’s a unique way that the community celebrates and gets everyone involved. We want to show where we are from and where our love from family stems from. Every piece of a mask has meaning, and it’s not just the paper, it’s the involvement of so many people.”

 

Some of D'Agostino's Carnival masks

The Panamanian traditions of Carnival go much deeper than just family rituals. Evelyn explains, “When missionaries first arrived in Panama, they wanted to spread their religion- which is already something really complicated- to people who didn’t speak their language. So, they used imagery and devils to teach about good and evil. They would dance and wear creepy masks to get their point across, but people over there thought it was just funny!”

She continues, “When you put people together from different worlds and they are able to celebrate, they now have something in common. With mixing of races, you got people from Africa who came to the country, with a story that wasn’t easy to digest. The masks have a lot of meanings, and for the African-Panamanians, it has a deeper meaning, because their dances and the way they carved their masks go back even further to their ancestors. They could bring things and celebrate in ways they were not able to on a daily basis, but during Carnival, they were able to bring that back to life.” This liveliness is also brought out through bright colors, showing skin and presenting over-the-top tricks/acts during celebrations. Evelyn adds, “It’s not because they want to show off, it’s because they want to show who they are.”

Ruiz and D'Agostino with traditional Panamanian Carnival Masks

Another GCLER program, one of Jazmin’s passion projects, is their Bilingual Literacy Program. They are currently collaborating with Writers & Books and hope to grow into libraries in the city. One of Jazmin’s personal goals is to expand the program and increase overall participation. Evelyn’s personal goal is just as simple. She says, “I just want to continue to share and have people be interested to learn.” She adds, “It’s not easy. Really our biggest competition is technology, and we’re starting to see the effects in childhood depression and obesity. It’s difficult to get some children into art, music and dance, but we still have a strong core of kids and parents who are committed.”

Evelyn believes that with more resources and publicity, the community may be able to recognize just how deep art is, and how much it can change peoples’ lives. She explains, “Before I moved here, I was a volunteer for UNICEF and did support for kids who had been arrested. We started a cultural program with art, drama, dancing, etcetera, but social interaction was really the goal. We started to see people change-- once they have a common goal to work towards, they feel challenged to prove themselves. I’ve seen how deep art can work, the power of art in people, especially people who don’t have that many opportunities. Once you start doing these kinds of projects, you can see people with different eyes, and they'll appreciate that more than you realize.”

Visit the Grupo Cultural Latinos En Rochester, Inc. website for information on programs and performances, and to volunteer or donate.

Join GCLER’s Evelyn D’Agostino on October 3rd to Make Your Own Panamanian Carnival Mask.  This class is open to students of all ages and backgrounds.

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