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Latino Cultural Festival Celebrates Diversity in Queens

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Oyo Oro group performs 'Bembe' in 2010. The Oyo Oro group performs "Bembe" in 2010. (Courtesy of Queens Theater in the Park)

In a borough where 47 percent of the population is foreign-born, according to U.S. Census data, and a Colombian pandebono is as easy to find as a McMuffin, diversity is definitely part of the DNA in Queens. For the past 15 years, the Queens Theater in the Park has organized its Chase Latino Cultural Festival (so-called for its leading sponsor), which kicks off on Wednesday, with music, theater, dance and other events geared towards putting the borough's diversity onstage. 

"The Latin-American and Latino cultures are so diverse that we needed to use the festival as a window to the community," said the festival's director, Claudia Norman. "By bringing the African influence, the European influences and also the urban and contemporary sounds and movement, we tried to do a multi-disciplinary festival where we can showcase dance, music, film and theater through a cultural manifestation."

In addition to having a diverse Latino population, immigrants from Asia have been building vibrant communities in Queens for decades. 

"New York has always been a place where different ethnic groups have always come together and interacted and created a new kind of culture," said Ed Morales, the author of "Living in Spanglish: The Search for Latino Identity in America."

Morales said the significance of cultural events like the Chase Latino Cultural festival is that it can unite generations and nationalities.

"It's a very New York Latino experience and it's a very New York experience in general," he said. "It's something that may bring distinct communities together who are trying to understand what kind of cultural life they do have in New York or in the United States."

The festival will be held at the Claire Shulman Playhouse in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park from Wednesday through Sunday. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Oyu Oro This Afro-Cuban troupe opens the festival with dance, folklore and music. With colorful costumes and the sensibility of an academe -- the head of the company is an ethnologist -- many of the dances tell traditional Afro-Cuban stories featuring gods, characters and dance techniques native to the Caribbean island. On Wednesday at 8 P.M.
  • Open Mic La Bruja is a poet whose work mixes old-school tradition with new world complexity and represents the newer voices of the Latino community. She has all the credentials necessary to host and emcee this free event, where poets, singers and all manner of performers unhindered by stage fright can express themselves. On Friday at 7 P.M.
  • Tola y Maruja Carlos Mario Gallego and John Jairo Cardona will take the stage as two old ladies who refuse to reveal their ages from Medellín, Tola and Maruja. With their kerchiefs intact, the two comedians mock Colombian politics and society as characters who are weekly favorites on Colombian television. On Saturday in Spanish at 7 and 10 P.M.
  • Albita Since leaving Cuba in 1989, Albita has brushed elbows with Hollywood elite as a singer in Miami and appeared on Broadway in "The Mambo Kings" in 2005. On Sunday at 7 P.M, she'll be performing songs with her famous deep alto voice from her new album Toda una Vida.

The newly-appointed director Ray Cullom took over for long-time leader and founder of Queens Theater in the Park Jeffrey Rosenstock this past March.

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