Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. Photo: courtesy
When Omar Torres came to the United States in 2000 from Puerto Rico he had one friend in Chicago. Caught between adjusting to Chicago’s brutal winters alone and struggling to stay connected to his roots, time and time again he found himself traveling back to Puerto Rico to revive that connection to his heritage. That is until he found the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center.
Established in 1971, the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center is the longest standing Latino cultural center in Chicago. Named in honor of Segundo Ruiz Belvis, a Puerto Rican abolitionist who fought for the freedom of enslaved children under Spanish rule and the independence of Puerto Rico, the center has long provided a safe space for youth to learn and grow artistically. On Oct. 6, the center will be celebrating 45 years of arts and culture at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
“From the very beginning it was very tied to the civil rights movement and everything that had to do with bringing more equality to Latinos,” Torres, the center’s Executive Director, said. “In the early years it was an organization that was using art and culture in their process of making the point for Latinos to bring equality and social justice with a huge commitment to the community.”
For decades, the cultural center has stayed true to their mission of preserving and promoting an appreciation for the culture and arts of Puerto Rico and Latin America with a specific emphasis on its African heritage.
With multidisciplinary programs that highlight the presence of African cultures in Latin America, most notably through their partnership with the After School Matters program, the center utilizes dance, music, theater and other forms of artistic expression to celebrate Afro-Puerto Rican and Afro-Latino cultural traditions. Among these programs are paid apprenticeships offered to a select group of teenagers to learn traditional Puerto Rican bomba, music video production, and eventually partake in an Afro-Caribbean jazz ensemble.
Through these programs, Torres explained that the students have the opportunity to be mentored by professional musicians locally as well as from Latin America. Grammy-nominated Puerto Rican saxophonist Miguel Zenón is just one of those musicians that the center’s youth have been able to share the stage with. Not only that, but Zenón even played two classic Puerto Rican songs along with the youth group.
Torres emphasized the importance the center places on ensuring their students are put on a path that allows them to grow and develop themselves artistically and personally.
“There’s an interest in having a path for our youth. The after school (Puerto Rican bomba) program leads to the (jazz ensemble) group, and then the group puts you in contact, and that’s really one of our main goals, with all these musicians that we bring from the island (Puerto Rico), Colombia, Brazil, artists that are doing residencies,” Torres said.
Even with the present success the center is having, from having recently received a series of generous artistic grants to moving into a brand new space to accompany their evolving mission, that trajectory for the community came from the early efforts of the Association House of Chicago and the Latin American Defense Organization (LADO).
While presently the center focuses primarily on arts and culture, it wasn’t always that way. As the center evolved from a community arts project initiated by the Association House of Chicago and the LADO, a focus was placed on the economic and democratic rights of the community while emphasizing civic involvement, citizenship, cultural identity, public education, health, safety and security, housing and economic opportunity.
Over the years, the center has showcased a diverse commitment to the community through General Education Development (GED) and citizenship programs early on, to the youth arts programs that are present today. While the community organizations were crucial to the center’s development, it was community activists that brought the center’s reach full circle.
Of the many activists who had a lasting impact on the center, Meca Sorrentini, a community activists and leader of the Puerto Rican independence movement in Chicago, was particularly instrumental in forming the cultural center. It was these activists who helped to enact meaningful change that included, among other things, facilitating meetings between Harold Washington and community leaders that helped him become Chicago’s first black mayor in 1983.
Percussions workshop at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. Photo: courtesy
After 45 years, these were the efforts that laid the foundation for where the center is today.
Torres explained that the center’s ability to continue doing meaningful work has been a direct result of their willingness to embrace the change they’ve been confronted with. Not only that, but also refusing to be afraid of continually evolving along with the communities they work with.
At heart the center will always be a Puerto Rican organization, but the developing diversity and continuing integration of the different cultures they work with has them excited for what’s to come.
“There’s never been that concern that if we collaborate and start bringing in programs from other cultures hours will disappear,” Torres said. “I like to look at this space as a place to encounter other cultures that want to express the African diaspora experience.”
As a direct reflection of their commitment to these values, Torres and his staff decided on one of Puerto Rico’s rising stars in Afro-Latino dance and salsa music to headline the 45th anniversary festivities. A fusion of Nuyorican salsa, Afro-Cuban son and Puerto Rican bomba, Pirulo y La Tribu are a 21st century reflection of the ever changing nature of Afro-Latino music.
Although for Torres, Pirulo y La Tribu’s rising popularity and unquestionable talent in the music scene is hardly a priority. What’s more is their humble nature and willingness to be accessible to the youth. Again, reflecting the center’s core values, the center seeks only those musicians who are involved in mentoring youth or who are looking for that kind of opportunity.
“We have that understanding with the musicians that there’s going to be a time in which they’re just going to sit down and meet the students,” Torres said. “We feel that level of quality time with these musicians is what’s going to make these programs. Not only do they get to play, but they get to meet these great people that many other people don’t have the chance to meet.”
And as if meeting the musicians that they look up to isn’t enough, Torres is using the 45th anniversary celebration as another opportunity for the center’s youth group to showcase their hard work and musical abilities. The youth group will kick off the celebration before Pirulo y La Tribu take the stage.
“I think the more of these things that you expose them to, the better equipped they’ll be to make decisions about whether this is something they want to pursue or if they want to move on to something else,” Torres said. “But whatever decision you make, it will be an informed decision.”
“What we want to do is create a very nurturing environment. We get a lot of situations of kids that come from broken homes and here they find a place where they can just jam. They know that this door is always open.”
If 45 years of continued motivation and support for Chicago’s youth is any indication, it appears that the doors of the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center are going to remain open for a long time to come.
“We see that we have an opportunity here … And now in Chicago, in the context of Chicago today and the problems that we have with violence, I think that when we have teenagers waiting for school to be over to run to their instruments, it’s a great thing.”
Indeed, a great thing it is.
Pirulo y La Tribu. Photo: courtesy of Omar Torres
Parker Asmann is a Chicago based journalist and a 2015 graduate of DePaul University with degrees in Journalism and Spanish, along with a minor in Latin American & Latino Studies. He is currently an Editorial Board Member for a bilingual Chicago based publication, El BeiSMan, where he focuses on issues of social justice and human rights. Parker has lived and studied in Mérida, Yucatán.
Tickets for Pirulo y La Tribu Celebrates 45 Years of Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center on Thursday, Oct. 6, can be found here at the Old Town School of Folk Music’s ticket page.