Ballet Folklórico de las Américas: a home away from home

Details on a costume used by the group.

Story and photos by PALAK JAYSWAL

On the edge of downtown Salt Lake City, just behind the Gateway Mall, resides a small building in a fenced-off area. During the day, the white brick shines, the title on top proudly giving it an identity. The Centro Civico Mexicano, on 155 S. 600 West, is a nonprofit organization that is home to many different local groups. 

Late on a weekday night, you’re bound to run into a youth soccer group in the middle of practice. On the opposite side of the gym, behind a polyester red curtain, lives a stage. It is set for the dancers from Ballet Folklórico de las Américas. The oldest Latin American folk dancing group in Utah practices in the building twice a week, undeterred by conditions such as freezing cold temperatures in the winter. Each member arrives with a smile and a welcoming hug to all the members (and guests alike). They’re ready to immerse themselves in cultural dance for the next two hours. The silent message from the group is clear: everyone is welcome here. 

Ballet Folklórico de las Américas celebrated its 40th anniversary in November 2019. The group, originally formed in 1979, has continued to uphold its original mission “to unite the community under one heart as we communicate with the universal language of music and dance to show that Latinos are an important group contributing in our mainstream society with traditions and celebrations that bring enrichment to families and communities together as we celebrate diversity.” 

Legacy and Roots 

Members of Ballet Folklórico de las Américas.

The group celebrates diversity within Latin American countries as well as within a community of Latinos in Utah. Giselle Cornejo, a past dancer and continued supporter of the organization, identifies as Afro-Latina. She has been with the group since it originated when she was 15 years old. Her mother is one of the original founders and Cornejo’s experience and legacy with the group has helped her find her own identity. “When you’re learning a dance from Latin America, you learn why you do things a certain way. You learn what the movement means. It’s deeper than just a dance. It’s a projection of a culture,” Cornejo said. 

It is a culture that Cornejo has passed along to her own two daughters, now older, who also joined the group. The folk dance group not only becomes a second home for many immigrants, helping them adjust to their new lives and retain their identities, but also helps them stay in touch with their culture. In fact, Cornejo encourages involvement for this very reason. “If you have Latin American roots, I would say this would be a good place to bring your kids. It’s a fun group and it keeps families together. I think it helps [kids] identify who they are,” she said. 

Hats used in one of the dances.

While Cornejo is a generational legacy within the group, even the newer participants share the same sentiment. Miztly Montero, another dancer, has only been dancing for three months and she can already attest to the difference she feels in her life. “It’s an extended family, in a way, and it’s part of the culture you don’t get in any other scenarios where other people dominate the sectors,” Montero said.

As a first-generation child of an immigrant, Montero felt increased pressure to prove herself to her family and to the world. “You feel like people are looking down on you,” she said. “Part of that led me to work harder in school, at work, but it also led me to miss part of my culture and not embrace it as much.” The part of her culture that Montero missed out on is rediscovered through folk dancing — where she gets to learn about her heritage through songs, dance moves and community. 

Montero urges everyone to support groups like Ballet Folklórico de las Américas through attendance and inclusion. “It’s cool to embrace the value groups like this bring. Not just to the Hispanic population, but to other cultures and how we can come together and embrace those differences.” 

Resiliency, Teamwork and Patience 

Those differences are exactly what led Artistic Director Irma Hofer to her discovery of the dance group over 36 years ago. Hofer found herself drawn in by the different cultures of Latin America, not just the sole focus on her own Mexican heritage. “Latin American folk dancing has more variety and more stories. I learned history, traditions, celebrations and customs through that. The idiosyncrasies of Latin Americans,” Hofer said.  Through learning dances like the merengue, salsa, mamba and others she continues to grow. 

Boots and Decorations used during the dances.

Through her leadership, Hofer strives to make the group a place where her dancers can not only embrace their identities, but also learn to be better people. “We learn a lot of our personal and human values in this group,” Hofer said. “We learn resiliency, teamwork and patience.” 

All three of these traits are being put to work as the folk dance group, among various others who use the civic center, raise funds for a new building. With so many different groups using one center, there is simply not enough room for everyone. More often than not, Ballet Folklórico de las Américas has its practices canceled because other groups can’t get their work done with music playing. 

“The Mexican Civic Center is in much need of funding because we need a new building. We need dance classrooms, art classrooms, conference rooms where people can meet and not be canceled,” Hofer said. “This is the space we have. This is it.” 

The Mexican flag at the Civic Center.

Despite the circumstances, the dancers and members of Ballet Folkórico de las Américas continue to dance away, committed to making the most of what they have with a group that has offered so many of them a home away from home. The energizing music of the mambo, the dance the group is practicing, fills the cold building. Costumes are brought out for the dancers’ performance that weekend and a Mexican flag proudly waves next to the stage at the Centro Civico Mexicano, welcoming anyone who is looking for a place to belong.

 

 

 

 

 

Glendale/Mountain View Community Learning Center broadens early childhood educational opportunities

Story and photos by ELLIE COOK

Within the streets of the western neighborhoods of Salt Lake City, Navajo Street stands out because it is not your typical neighborhood block. Sitting in between Mountain View Elementary and Glendale Middle School lies the Community Learning Center. A place with a plethora of services for the locals, it also houses the Salt Lake City School District Early Childhood Program (ECP). For decades, the ECP headquarters has sat within the main district building in downtown Salt Lake City. However, moving the office has allowed easier access for families, and assisted in a significant expansion of classrooms and various educational opportunities.

The community center offers various education options for children and their families. More hands-on curriculum has been introduced, which allows the parents and children to learn together.

The program is recognized by Utah State Office of Education as a High-Quality Program. Though the district provides early childhood programs across the Salt Lake Valley, it centers its attention toward Title-1 schools. As time went on, the program became more needed, but that caused overcrowding. Families were being turned away because all classrooms were at the maximum of 18 kids. This left financially strapped parents with few other options. “Families require some type of care/schooling for their child. Preschool programs are much more productive than throwing their child in a daycare,” said Ann Cook, former director of the ECP. So, what could be done to provide for more families?

After much contemplation and planning, in 2012 the  board of education decided to construct a 30,000-square-foot facility to serve the west-side community and house the headquarters for the early childhood program.

Cook and her colleagues helped oversee the construction to assure the center provided a beneficial layout for their classroom and office needs. This included more/larger classrooms, garden beds, larger playgrounds, and appliances such as sinks, toilets and water stations that accommodated 3-4-year-olds. Lastly, it allowed the ECP to create a spacious office area to serve the community. “Moving our office from the main district building allowed us to assist our patrons much easier by making it more accessible for families who live on the west side,” Cook said.

By 2013, the dream center had become a reality. Since then, the ECP has been able to assist many more families and host various programs. The center has occupied multiple pre-kindergarten (half-day and full-day) classrooms, four kindergartens, and a Head Start room for infants.

The center sits between Mountain View Elementary and Glendale Middle School. There are various services offered within the center, including a public kitchen, a food pantry and dental office.

With the sudden growth of classrooms needing occupants, the expansion opened the doors for employment as teachers and paraprofessionals were in short supply. “We are a pretty amazing program with wonderful teaching staff. Our teachers are dedicated to supporting the students within our district,” said Teacher Specialist Robyn Johnson. Usually, classes have one teacher and one paraprofessional. Many of them are bilingual, mainly in Spanish and English. The ECP recognizes that it serves a large Hispanic community and therefore needs to ensure everything is communicated correctly, and respectfully. This applies to the classrooms and the main office. Communicating in more than one language is essential in a classroom setting, especially if English is not the child’s first language.

With such success with this center, this leaves room for potential expansions for the ECP. “We would love to provide more opportunities for pre-k. Families have asked for more full-day opportunities and we have been able to add a few more sites to meet their requests. Ideally, we would love funding for universal pre-k to support all families,” Johnson said. Currently, due to financial constraints, families are forced to pay on a sliding scale.

Three community learning centers are now operated at Mountain View/Glendale, Liberty Elementary (formally known as Lincoln Elementary), and Rose Park Elementary. However, the facilities are not as expansive as the one at Glendale/Mountain View. The district has already begun planning for the construction of even more community learning centers. These expansions would hopefully be able to grant more space for the ECP. Until then, Salt Lake City School District early childhood programs remain at other schools in the Salt Lake area. If interested, families may still register per usual.

How to Enroll?

Registration for the 2020-21 school year begins Feb. 26, 2020. Visit the website or call 801-974-8396.

 

Ski programs molding better lives for those living in Salt Lake City’s west-side communities

Story by MARTIN KUPRIANOWICZ

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Children living on the west side of Salt Lake City enjoying the snow and cross-country skiing. Photo by Peter Vordenberg

It’s Saturday. The sun is shining and snow is on the ground. Parents are dropping their children off at Mountainview Elementary in Salt Lake City and the kids are already exploding with excitement — they are going on a field trip. Juan Gilberto Rejón — or “Coach Juan,” as those in west-side communities refer to him — is patiently waiting outside of the school to take roughly 50 elementary students to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge to view a population of wild eagles on this day.

Coach Juan is the founder, executive director, and coach for the Hartland Community 4 Youth & Families, which is a program that aims to create pathways to college for the underserved by getting students involved in the outdoors. Coach Juan started this program because he believes the experiences earned in the outdoors are valuable ones that can set children up to better handle adversity throughout their lives.

On weekends throughout the school year, Coach Juan often takes students on excursions to participate in a wide variety of outdoor activities, from bird watching to skiing. Recently, cross-country skiing has been a big emphasis of the program.

“It’s a blessing for our underserved and our underprivileged because they wouldn’t be able to do it otherwise. It’s too expensive,” Coach Juan said. “For a family of five or six to go skiing at $200 a pop, that’s already over $1,000 being spent for just a day of skiing. There’s just no way these families living in poverty could afford that.”

His ski program is partnered with the Utah Nordic Alliance that takes students cross-country skiing on weekends in the winter. Another partner is She Jumps, an organization that motivates women and girls of all backgrounds to step out of their comfort zone in a fun, non-threatening, inclusive environment to learn outdoor skills.

Coach Juan’s program has been operating for three years, but his inspiration to get students involved with the outdoors goes back almost two decades to the birth of his son.

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Coach Juan pictured outside of Mountainview Elementary, the meeting place for students going to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Photo by Martin Kuprianowicz

“When I first moved into a 300-bedroom apartment complex here (on the west side) there were a lot of things happening that were not safe for kids. We had a lot of robberies, carjackings, prostitution, drugs, alcohol, so as a community advocate I had to do something for my child,” Coach Juan said.

What began as a mission to improve the quality of life for his child then translated as improving the lives of everyone in his community, especially vulnerable children on the west side of Salt Lake City. Coach Juan started a community soccer program that would eventually grow into a multifaceted, multi-partnered community outdoor program for youth.

The program focuses on helping students to pursue higher education. Coach Juan’s son went through it. Now, his grandchildren are enrolled. Hartland Community 4 Youth & Families has since grown and is now partnered with the Utah Nordic Alliance, headed by former two-time Olympic ski racer Peter Vordenberg.

Vordenberg coaches ski racers who have won gold medals in the Winter Olympics and World Cup championships. In addition, he helps Coach Juan organize the single-day cross-country ski trips by providing students with everything they need to go skiing.

But he didn’t always plan to be a community advocate. It all started by chance one day when he was invited by a friend to tag along with the kids on one of these ski programs.

“I was out there hanging out with all the kids and with Coach Juan and I was like, ‘Oh man, I got to be more involved, not just take pictures but I got to see what I can do to help out.’ So, I joined the board,” Vordenberg said.

Vordenberg has been on the Hartland Community 4 Youth & Families board for three years. He says that his favorite thing about being involved with the program is watching the kids develop a love for skiing and the outdoors. “It really builds their confidence and helps them dream bigger,” Vordenberg said.

Another opportunity for the west-side youth is the Parks and Recreation program that is affiliated with world-class ski areas Brighton and Snowbird. The Northwest Recreation Center is one of many centers throughout the Salt Lake Valley  that shuttle elementary and middle school students to those ski areas and provide them with gear, lift passes, and instructor training.

Snowbird Mountain School Director Maggie Loring has run this program on Fridays in the winter for 18 seasons. She said programmatic goals include developing new skiers and riders who may be interested in one day working as staff at the resorts, and providing a community service to children who may not otherwise get the opportunity to enjoy winter sports.

“One anecdote I can share is that the current manager of our programs was initially in our 4th-grade program, became a junior instructor, and kept going. It’s really an opportunity for resorts to capture both new guests and new staff,” Loring said in an email interview.

However, the impact of these programs is also a lot simpler than getting kids involved with the outdoors and setting them up for potential life paths in the ski industry.

“One of my favorite things about this program is the opportunity to see the kids pour out of the buses so excited to get onto the mountain,” Loring said. “Many of them may not be able to sleep the night before because of how excited they are for this new adventure. I remember from my own childhood how excited I was to get out of school to go skiing!”

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It’s nothing but smiles when the kids get off the bus and go skiing. Photo by Peter Vordenberg

University Neighborhood Partners aims to widen access to education for west side residents

University Neighborhood Partners, located on the west side of Salt Lake City, partners with 25 organizations across the Salt Lake Valley to provide access to education and services for residents of that community.

Story and photo by LAURA SCHMITZ

When Sarah Munro began her dissertation at the University of Michigan, she saw a need to bring access to education to minority communities.

After conducting research in Italy and receiving her Ph.D. in anthropology in 2002, she now works as the associate director of University Neighborhood Partners to make that need a reality.

As part of the president’s office at the University of Utah, UNP is “a bridge between the U and nonprofits on the west side,” Munro said.

UNP was launched in 2002 and acts as that bridge by creating partnerships under three main “umbrellas” — youth and education, community leadership and capacity building.

Serving two ZIP codes and seven neighborhoods on the west side of Salt Lake City, UNP currently boasts about 34 partnerships with 25 organizations. Munro admitted that monitoring the success of UNP is difficult, given that much of its work is seen only by the success of its partners.

“We’re always the convener,” Munro said. “We don’t actually do the work — we bring in community organizers to do the work.”

Munro collaborates with UNP staff in choosing organizations with which to partner. She said she and the seven to 10 staff members then maintain partnerships through ample communication and a positive attitude.

“We’re in constant communication,” Munro said of UNP and its partners. “We sit in both worlds and anticipate needs and goals.”

UNP works by building relationships with organizations that work with underrepresented populations, including refugees and undocumented immigrants. Munro said language, transportation and childcare are major hurdles west-side residents face in accessing basic freedoms, including education and healthcare.

“Our policy is we help anyone who comes to the table,” Munro said. “We don’t choose who we help, the organizations do. We simply create the table.”

According to 2010 census data, about 13 percent of Salt Lake City residents are Hispanic — a 78 percent increase from 2000 census data. As demographics continue to change in the United States, Utah and the Salt Lake Valley, Munro said institutions of higher education must adapt to prepare future students for college by widening access.

“A long-term goal is to move students from the west side to succeed, completing high school and coming to the U,” Munro said. “In 20 years, if the U can’t be more effective at this, it will no longer be the flagship university in the state.”

Rosemarie Hunter, director of UNP, was inspired to join hands with UNP after her time as a social worker. She was involved in the U’s College of Social Work for 16 years.

Hunter said education allows individuals to make choices and decisions from a place of knowledge.

“Education is a shared value across all communities and families,” she said. “Education really is power — anytime you can get access to education, you can take better care of yourself and your family.”

Hunter said UNP’s goal is not to try to jump in and “fix” everything, but to create a “mutual shared space” of learning between members of the west-side community and the U, allowing the U to change to support a more diverse population.

“What we look to do is go into existing places to (allow west-side residents) to interface with university life while going about their daily life,” Hunter said. “The U is learning a lot from residents and their cultural backgrounds and life experiences.”

Another UNP staff member, Brizia Ceja, began working for the organization as a freshman at the U as a student intern.

Originally from Mexico, Ceja moved to the U.S. at 13. She then grew up on the west side and still has family living there. She said she is therefore able to relate to that community on a personal level.

“I’m able to identify with most families I work with,” Ceja said. “I come from an immigrant family. I am the first person in my family to go to college.”

Ceja now works as an academic consultant for UNP to facilitate partnerships with middle and high schools. She said schools on the west side are often crowded with one academic adviser serving many.

“We want to start working with them young to make sure they don’t slip through the cracks,” Ceja said. “We want to make sure students have a safe place with (academic) mentors.”

Ceja said she wants children on the west side to view college as not only a possibility, but a natural progression after high school.

“I want them to know (college) is an option,” Ceja said. “Just like high school follows middle school, college follows high school.”

UNP has established partnerships with two elementary schools, one middle school and two high schools on the west side of Salt Lake City. The organization continues to foster relationships with these students to help prepare hundreds for a collegiate experience.