Dear SPS Faculty,
National Hispanic Heritage month, from September 15-October 15, is a time to appreciate the cultural contributions this varied community has had in the U.S. For me it is a time to reflect on one of my favorite contributions to the world this community has made, salsa music and dancing. I grew up in the Bronx, but it was not until I was an adult that I began to appreciate the origins of salsa music, the rhythms, and the great moves on the dance floor. When I was growing up there was a strong division of neighborhoods and cultures and it was not “safe” for me to venture into the areas where salsa had its roots. I missed out on experiencing the vibrancy of the development of this unique form of music that was created in the Bronx.
As an adult I was able to see many of the salsa greats perform at venues around the city in the 1990s and I even saw Tito Puente and Celia Cruz in Japan! My fieldwork takes me to Medellín, Colombia, and once people find out I am from New York, they talk about NYC salsa music. I learned more about this part of NYC history by leaving the city (and the country!) to discuss with people who revere it and have taught me a lot about it. The divisions I experienced growing up deprived me from knowing more about this important part of NYC history and culture.
In the work I do with youth and community leaders in Medellín it is really important I develop trusting relationships in order for me to be effective. One of the ways in which I am able to develop these connections is through the mutual appreciation for salsa music and dance. I learn so much about the people I work with by socializing with them around music and dance. I guess this is a second chance I am being afforded to learn about this cultural contribution and the type of people who appreciate it.
In setting up my schedule when I visit, I make sure there is at least one weekend trip to Son Havana to listen to good live salsa music and to dance. We spread the word around and we all meet up there. It has become our ritual. With COVID I have not been there in 1.5 years so I look forward to returning and meeting up with friends and acquaintances.
The cultural segregation I experienced in my youth has had an impact on me and it probably influenced my love of travel and cross-cultural communication. In fact, it is through the lens of intercultural conflict that I became interested in conflict resolution. Culture has the ability to bring people together to transport them to other places and spaces. It is a way of learning about the history of groups of people and what they find meaningful in their lives. Until we are able to appreciate cultural diversity on a daily basis as the norm, we can take time for one month a year to focus on the richness of the traditions and cultural contributions they make in this country.