Antonia Pantoja, A Pillar Of the Puerto Rican Community, Remembered

From the film "Antonia Pantoja" by Lillian Jiménez

From the film “Antonia Pantoja” by Lillian Jiménez

The life of a Puerto Rican New Yorker who transformed the lives of so many Puerto Rican and Latino youth was honored and celebrated with the unveiling of a mural at the heart of the city’s “El Barrio.”

In her 80 years, Dr. Antonia Pantoja founded organizations that have helped educate and give opportunities to many. The educator and community activist, who identified herself as a “Nuyorican,” accomplished much more than most in one lifetime.

Perhaps best known as the founder of ASPIRA – a non-profit organization which to this day encourages positive self-image, commitment to community, and education to Puerto Rican, and other Latino youth; she also founded the National Puerto Rican Forum, which promotes economic self-sufficiency; and Universidad Boricua, the precursor to Boricua College; among many other organizations dedicated to community empowerment and education in New York City and beyond.

In 1996, Pantoja became the first Latina recipient of the prestigious U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom Award for her role in the education and leadership development of Puerto Rican Youth in the United States and Puerto Rico.

On Saturday, Nov. 20, after three years in the making by renowned artist Manny Vega, a mosaic mural of Dr. Pantoja was unveiled which will allow her live on forever in “El Barrio” – a predominantly Puerto Rican community in New York City, which was very close to her heart.

A mural for the late Antonia Pantoja, founder of Aspira and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, was unveiled Saturday, November 21, 2015 in New York City's El Barrio. (Photo: Kristina Puga)

A mural for the late Antonia Pantoja, founder of Aspira and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, was unveiled Saturday, November 21, 2015 in New York City’s El Barrio. (Photo: Kristina Puga)

The event, attended by 100 plus people of all ages, began with the screening of “Antonia Pantoja ¡Presente!,” a 2009 documentary of the activist’s life by Lillian Jiménez. Afterwards, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito – a Puerto Rican woman who is the first Latina in this position- gave a few words.

“The emotion in this room is intense,” Mark-Viverito said after watching the film. “When you think about the contributions she made, and the logros(achievements) we’ve made, we can trace them all the way back to her.”

Mark-Viverito went on to say that she had the privilege of meeting Pantoja in the late ’90’s. Together, they would take Puerto Rican students to the island to learn about their culture.

“She had a very infectious spirit,” said the New York City Council Speaker. “Everybody that worked with her would be inspired by her. She was a believer in young people and the concept of paying it forward. That’s what we need to continue to do. The importance of putting these mosaics up is a way of making sure our contributions will never be erased.”

Pantoja moved to New York City, from San Juan, Puerto Rico at the age of 22. The year was 1944, right before the end of World War II, and just preceding the mass exodus of Puerto Ricans to the mainland.

Although she arrived with a teaching certificate from Puerto Rico, Pantoja’s first job in NYC was as a welder in a wartime factory. However, since Pantoja was born with aspiration, she went to school right away – ultimately, graduating from Hunter College and then Columbia University’s School of Social work.

In the documentary, Pantoja said, “[Puerto Ricans] were coming to work in factories, and the children didn’t know what the teachers were saying.”

As was her character, as soon as she saw injustices, Pantoja would waste no time to take action.

“ASPIRA was absolutely the project that drove her – she loved the kids,” Jiménez, director of the film, told NBC Latino. “She had been thinking about the position of the Puerto Rican community in the ’50s, and the lack of leadership. She wanted to develop an organization that developed leaders.”

To this day, Jiménez says she is always meeting people that say “I was an Aspirante.” She says there are thousands of them – from actors Jimmy Smits and Luis Guzmán, to Angelo Falcón, political scientist and president of the National Institute for Latino Policy.

Jiménez told NBC Latino that the mosaic was a collective experience of all the people who were impacted by Pantoja’s life.

“We were about 12-13 on the committee – we had a lot of conversations. I gave [Manny] the film, photos of her, and he would always show us renderings. Finally we settled on this one design. Everyone on the committee laid tiles – [Supreme Court Justice] Sonia Sotomayor even came to lay tiles,” said Jiménez.

To many, Pantoja was a life-changing role model. But to Dr. Wilhemina Perry, her partner of 30 years, Pantoja was the love of her life. They met when Pantoja joined the faculty of the San Diego State University’s School of Social Work in 1978.

“A couple of people had gathered to greet her in San Diego – I was teaching there at that time,” Perry, now 81, remembers about the first time they met. “She and I had started talking – we talked about social work – our professions. I remember thinking this is the most interesting person I ever met…She was like dazzling!”

Together, they co-founded the Graduate School for Community Development in San Diego, where they lived at least 15 years, and then moved to Puerto Rico for 13 years. There, they co-founded Producir – a community organization that has helped a rural community create its own cottage industries to generate employment -before they both decided to move back to her beloved NYC. Unfortunately, they only had two years there, as Pantoja was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.

“They predicted she would have four months to live, and she only had three months,” Perry told NBC Latino. “No one wants to lose a loved one, but I felt a little relieved because she had no pain – it was so quick.”

What Perry says she remembers most of Pantoja was that she was, “a very powerful, tiny and intense person, but she could also be funny and have this smile come on her face. She was very intense, but had this light side of her…”

“I’m thinking what would make her most happy about the mural, is the fact that who she was, and what she was trying to teach, will live now publicly. Not so much for her, the person, but she would see it as a way of extending her legacy and encouraging people to use her work as an opportunity to do their own work. She felt very strongly about that. She would say it’s not about me, but what are you going to do to make society a better place?”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

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NYC songwriter couple sing together in the name of immigration

Katya Diaz and Chris Hierro (Courtesy Break Out The Crazy)

Katya Diaz and Chris Hierro (Courtesy Break Out The Crazy)

Talk about a match made in heaven.

Katya Diaz is the daughter of Puerto Rican opera singer Justino Diaz, and Chris Hierro is the son of Henry Hierro, music producer and Dominican leader of the 80’s merengue band La Gran Manzana.

Katya and Chris are singer/songwriters themselves and met while singing background for multi-Grammy-winning Spanish pop singer Alejandro Sanz two years ago. Ever since then, their love for each other blossomed, and they started writing songs together. Their repertoire has a wide range from country/pop to electronic dance music.

“After reaching out to everyone we know, we decided to just upload our demos to the internet via Soundcloud, and now YouTube, under the name ‘Break Out The Crazy’ and try our luck that way,” says Chris, who produces and accompanies other artists and is currently signed with Peer Aquos Music.

His latest project, with girlfriend Katya, is for a cause they are both passionate about – immigration.

“It was originally suggested by our good friend Anthony Valderrama who, like us, was seeing what was happening at the border on the news,” says Chris. “We are usually not political writers, but Katya and I were compelled by the fact that this was affecting innocent children. I am a father of a 4-year-old boy and will always champion for children’s rights.”

Originally published on DailyVida.com.

Latina Leaders: U.S. Army Colonel’s mission is to help others succeed

Colonel Irene Zoppi (Courtesy U.S. Army)

Colonel Irene Zoppi (Courtesy U.S. Army)

Many of us have high ambitions, but very few aspire to be a U.S. Army general.

That is a goal Colonel Irene Zoppi is striving for next. Currently, she’s one of only 15 Latinas in the U.S. Army Reserve who holds the rank of colonel. She also happens to be a full-time professor at Strayer University in Maryland, a wife and mother of three, and a Gulf War veteran who holds a doctorate in education policy, planning and administration and a masters in business.

“I think that I’ve taken every opportunity given to me,” says the 47-year-old who moved to the U.S. mainland from Canóvanas, Puerto Rico 26 years ago, barely speaking any English. “Often, as immigrants, we don’t get every opportunity so we start looking for them. Once we find them, we continue working at them so we can get ahead.”

As a girl in Puerto Rico, she says she used to wander around the naval station where both of her parents were stationed, admiring the uniforms and the discipline around her. She ended up joining the Army at 19, while continuing her studies at the University of Puerto Rico, because it “had more opportunities for women” than the Navy.

By 21, she got commissioned as an officer and had a bachelors degree in foreign languages – which she calls her gift. She eventually learned five languages and earned the nickname, “the Visa card,” among her fellow servicemen, because she often served as the translator for them.

Zoppi says moving up the military ladder and learning to acculturate to American culture — especially as a Latina — was not easy.

“A lot of time I was put down,” says the tough but light-spirited coronel who admits to having had trouble deciphering English for a long time when it was spoken too fast. That, however, was the impetus for her to work harder.

“The diversity wasn’t there at that time — so it was difficult and a lot of work. I was battling everybody — I didn’t go partying like everybody else so I could do better.”

Zoppi has seen her share of tough situations as she has advanced in the Army, but she clearly believes in her mission.

 ”One of the most impacting moments in my life was being in combat,” says Zoppi who has earned countless metals for her service, including the Bronze Star. “Although I believe in peace and diplomacy, sometimes the ultimate price we pay for democracy and freedom and national defense is war.”

The military first began accepting women into its ranks in the early 20th century. Yet according to the U.S. Department of Defense, as of 2011, approximately 13 percent of active duty military are women.

Today, as a professor and colonel, Zoppi is very motherly and even hugs her soldiers. She says she really cares for them and often gives them advice.

“In order to become successful, you have to know yourself by going to school, taking advantage of career centers, taking personality tests, and then develop a plan — long term and short term,” she advises. Zoppi already planned her life to age 100. “I have created a map of things I want to do, but also remember to be flexible and adaptable and don’t forget to be spiritual and give back.”

The Puerto Rican colonel advises to continue seeking opportunities throughout one’s life.

“Don‘t just do what feels good, but contribute to the good of our Earth,” says Zoppi. “We have to consider each other.”

In order to do her part in giving back, Zoppi often offers her time as a keynote speaker, motivating women around the world. She says she enjoys helping other women, especially Latinas, to get ahead.

“I want to help other women see they can do it.”

Dr. Irene Zoppi being promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1987. (Courtesy Irene Zoppi)

Dr. Irene Zoppi being promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1987. (Courtesy Irene Zoppi)

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

La India, the Princess of Salsa: “My first love is rock and roll”

The Princess of Salsa, La India (Photo/Uriel Santana)

The Princess of Salsa, La India (Photo/Uriel Santana)

Linda Caballero, better known as La India, has been giving a powerful voice to women in genres traditionally dominated by men — first with freestyle, then salsa — since she was 14. Three decades later, she’s still singing and  joining reggaeton star Ivy Queen on a one-night-only concert in Chicago this Saturday.

She’s also in the midst of recording a new album, which is written and produced by Mexican singer-composer superstar Juan Gabriel.

“He’s a dear friend,” says Caballero in a deep, slightly raspy speaking voice. “He’s always been someone I wanted to work with. Two years ago, I did a romantic mariachi ballad with Juan Gabriel. It was amazing working with him…He loves music so much.”

She also loves music — as much as the air she breathes, it seems. She goes back in time in an instant, remembering how it all started in the Bronx, NY, and where music producer “Little Louie” Vega discovered her through a friend.

“He gave me a microphone while he spun his music, and I would improvise — he saw talent in me,” says Caballero. “I was 14, and I was having a great time. I loved the 80’s…rock, dance music…We were just happy with having fun and aspiring towards where we wanted to go.”

Under the guidance of Vega, she released her first single, “Dancing on Fire,” and later “Lover that Rocks,” which made it to the Top 5 singles spot under the dance genre. This led to her first freestyle album in 1989, “Breaking Night.”

“I wasn’t shy,” she says. “That’s what they loved about me — I wasn’t afraid, and my ability to improvise.”

In her 20′s, Caballero says she started feeling like the industry was viewing her as the “Latin Madonna” and urged her to “be more white.”

“Everything was sounding the same…not growing,” says Caballero, reminiscing about her freestyle peers Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam and Lisette Menendez. “It started going under in pace and quality, and I decided to walk away. I told Louie we need to do more current stuff.”

She ended up marrying Vega, the man who discovered her, although they divorced years ago.

“He trusted my vision, and we decided to walk away,” says Caballero, who started collaborating with Tito Puente. “It was the beginning of where I was going with Latin music.”

Composer and pianist Eddie Palmieri, however, gave her the strongest nudge into the Latin music arena with the opportunity to record her first album in Spanish, “Llegó La India vía Eddie Palmieri”/”Here Comes La India via Eddie Palmieri.”

“My first love [though] is rock and roll,” Caballero makes sure to add. “Not a lot of people know about it, except my boyfriend…Janis Joplin was my idol…She shelves it out. I’m like Joplin — when I’m live, I have a lot of range in my voice, and I have the heart and I have the grit — the rock and roll feeling…”

But even though Caballero thoroughly enjoys listening to everything from hip hop to country music, she is not one to forget her Latina roots. She even returned to live in her native Puerto Rico for the past 13 years. She used to live in New Jersey, where she was honored with a star on the Walk of Fame at Union City’s Celia Cruz Park.

Celia Cruz, she was my girl!” says Caballero, who did many collaborations with the Queen of Salsa before her death. “She would say say, ‘If you keep it up, you’re going to make it — be true to yourself.’ She would always hold my hand before a concert.”

She says everything Celia did, she did with a lot of love.

“She taught me not to be afraid to love,” says Caballero. “She would say, ‘Let’s love each other and have a great time, there’s no time for hate.’ At the end of the day, it’s all about love.”

That’s also what she appreciates so much about the late Pop King, Michael Jackson.

“Michael Jackson was putting out the message of love, and people used to say he was crazy, but I would say no,” says Caballero.

Last year, she was one of a few Latino musicians chosen by music producer Tony Succar to be a part of his upcoming album and documentary, entitled “Unity: The Latin Tribute to Michael Jackson” – expected to be completed in June, in time for the anniversary of the pop star’s death.

“This is when all Latinos come together for the love he’s given throughout the years,” says Caballero about the Jackson tribute arranged by Succar. “It was really magical…”

Succar calls La India “the most important woman salsa singer icon after Celia Cruz” — one of the reasons he chose her to participate in his project, besides the fact that she understands Michael Jackson. She grew up listening to him.

“The way La India can connect with songs, her artistic feel and passion for music — this is what allows her to give you goose bumps as soon as she sings one word,” he says. “She actually lives the lyrics, she lives what she’s saying…”

Caballero says after all these years, she still believes in her music, as well as herself.

“That’s how you make it happen,” she says is what she tells her fans. “I feel that I made my dream come true — that’s what I feel when I sing salsa.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

Rita Moreno reveals all in her new memoir

Rita Moreno (Courtesy Rita Moreno Archives)

Rita Moreno (Courtesy Rita Moreno Archives)

Rita Moreno, at 81, says she might return to taking flamenco classes now that she has finished writing her book, “Rita Moreno: A Memoir,” which hit shelves this week.

The first Latina to win an Academy Award (Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Anita, the tough girlfriend to the Sharks’ gang leader in “West Side Story”), was also one of the few artists to also win an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony Award. The Puerto Rican-born actress has been breaking down barriers in Hollywood for more than 50 years, and last year, she concluded a sold-out run of her one-woman show, “Life Without Makeup,” in Berkeley, Calif. In her book, she talks about all of it, including her love life in between.

“I got inspired by doing a play about my life in Berkeley where I live,” says Moreno about what made her write her memoir now. “It had so much success with audiences, I figured a book would be better, because I could include a lot more material — that’s how it started.”

She says her love for performing and dancing began at a very young age.

“I started dancing for grandpa in Puerto Rico when I was 3 or 5,” says Moreno. “He’d put on some music — I’m sure it was salsa, and I’d shake my little booty and everyone thought it was adorable. I loved the attention. It’s also another way of being appreciated…through an audience.”

The very graceful actress with a feminine voice and manner, was also born very headstrong. She says she felt an incessant pull to audition for her first play at just 13 and asked her mom to take her.

“It was very interesting, because I had never been in a theater,” says Moreno, who had at the time been taking dance lessons. “Doing a play was exotic. It was a wonderful experience, but the play [“Skydrift”] closed the very next day. That gave me the taste of how cruel show business could be…”

She says the business changed a lot since she started her acting career. Moreno says it’s still not really great for Latinos in film yet, but at least the door is ajar.

“It really was impossible,” she remembers. “There were no Latinos anywhere, and if there were, they would play Indians. [Today,] Jennifer Lopez is able to talk like herself. When I did films, I always had to do an accent.”

But the memory that will always bring a smile to her face, she says, is getting an Oscar.

“It was my very first award and still the greatest of all,” she says. “I was really in disbelief. I couldn’t believe I beat Judy Garland. I didn’t have a speech ready. It never occurred to me…I was so unprepared.”

She says she played back the video of that moment in time, many times, to her two grandsons who are now 14 and 12. She can still recite it by memory.

“‘I don’t believe it…pause…Good Lord, I don’t believe it…pause…I leave you with that,’ That was it!” laughs Moreno. “That sure was poetic, huh? It certainly shows I was very surprised.”

Besides her award-winning career, what it was like moving to New York City, and leaving her brother in Puerto Rico at age 5, Moreno also writes openly about a short fling with singer Elvis Presley and her tumultuous 8-year love affair with actor Marlon Brando — which at one point dragged her low enough to almost commit suicide. Since then, she’s learned a lot about herself, and love.

“Love is a great deal about respecting the person you’re with,” says Moreno, who later had a happy 45-year marriage with Leonard Gordon. “That’s what makes a lasting relationship. Romantic love is all based on fantasy. The people who dream of the handsome prince are in for a big surprise.”

Instead of fantasizing, she says she’s learned it’s more practical to follow your instinct and ask yourself, “Is this the person I want to spend the rest of my life with?”

She says that was one of the biggest questions she’s ever asked herself, but she ultimately chose her husband because she felt he offered her “enormous protection.”

“I had too many frauders in my life,” says Moreno. “Also, he a sense of humor — he really made me laugh — that has always been very important. We met through a mutual friend who just felt we were meant for each other.”

She concurs their gut was right. They had a daughter and spent many happy years together until his death in 2010.

Just last night, she says excitedly that Justice Sonia Sotomayor came to her book party at the house of the producer of HBO’s controversial series, “Oz,” from which she won an ALMA Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series in 1998, 1999 and 2002.

“I loved it,” says Moreno about Sotomayor’s book, which she narrated for audio tape. “It’s a wonderful book and she’s a remarkable woman.”

On March 7, there will be a special screening of “West Side Story,” and a book signing of “Rita Moreno: A Memoir,” at New York’s Cinema Arts Centre.

“It’s the whole business of presenting my life to an audience,” she says. “I hope people will be moved by it…cry at the sad stuff…laugh at the funny stuff…”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com

“Lemon”, the story of an ex-con who wins a Tony Award

Lemon Andersen (Courtesy Miami International Film Festival)

Lemon Andersen (Courtesy Miami International Film Festival)

Lemon Andersen is an accomplished spoken word artist, but he’s also a champion at hurdling obstacles. He went from growing up in a Brooklyn gang and being a thrice convicted felon, to a Tony-Award winner for “Def Poetry Jam on Broadway.”

On March 3, he’s having his story be told in a documentary, “Lemon,” at the Miami International Film Festival.Laura Brownson saw Andersen perform for the first time a little more than three years ago. She was so moved by how he conveyed his painful past through his poetry, that she and her partner, Beth Levison, decided to follow him around with cameras to document his personal and professional life for the next three years.

“He won a Tony Award and then at the heels of that had a hard fall living with 13 people in the projects, and he said to me, ‘I’m going to write my life story and get out of here. I’m going to get out of here for good,’” says Brownson, the filmmaker of “Lemon.”

And he did.

The half-Puerto Rican, half-Norwegian Andersen, says he now lives in artist neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife and three kids. He enjoys spending his days getting up early to do research on his newest play, reading “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and writing in his neighborhood cafe.

Andersen, whose birth name is really Andrew, got his nickname “Lemon,” because he was the whitest kid in his Sunset Park neighborhood. He grew up with drug-addicted parents who died by the time he reached 15 from AIDS. The only way he knew how to support himself was by stealing and selling drugs.

“I’ve come a long way. Today I feel, I am a working artist,” he says.

It all started when he got out of jail for the last time at 19. He says his life sucked as it was hard to get a job with a criminal record, and one day at barber shop someone handed him a flier about a poetry reading.

“I didn’t even have a poem,” says Andersen. “I wrote it right on the spot, and I got on stage. They asked me if I would be part of the theater troupe, and I said, ‘Yeah, I need a job. And I never stopped.”

Hungry to become better, Andersen started taking continuing education classes at New York University funded through AmeriCorps.

“I wanted to learn all styles,” he says. “I ended up in ‘Def Poetry Jam’.”

Andersen was featured as a regular on HBO’s “Def Poetry” presented by Russell Simmons and then was an original cast member and writer of Russell Simmons’ Tony Award winning “Def Poetry Jam on Broadway”.

“I was imprisoned four years before I was on Broadway,” says Andersen. “I was pinching myself every morning.”

He says he would tell people that he would go to Broadway before it happened.

“I had a dream I’d perform my poetry on big stage, he says. “I know the smell still. I relive it in my play ‘County of Kings’.”

Andersen tells his own story through his solo spoken word play “County of Kings,” which is produced by Spike Lee. He has been performing it in many New York theaters since 2010.

“It’s like outer space, because I’m really out of my space,” Andersen says, and adds that his own family has never seen him perform, even on Broadway.

“It wasn’t easy for people to take it when I was on the cover of TheNew York Times,” he says about the people from his childhood neighborhood. “It’s like putting a mirror on them. But hey, sometimes you gotta be ‘F… that’. Piri Thomas from ‘Down These Mean Streets’ taught me that.”

He hasn’t even seen “Lemon,” the documentary about him.

“I don’t think I will ever see it,” says Andersen. “This film is not my film, it’s about me. I’m a different kind of story teller, but I’m really rooting for them.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com

The Hispanic Museum of Nevada finds its home

Lynnette Sawyer at ribbon cutting ceremony for the new  Hispanic Museum of Nevada.

Lynnette Sawyer at ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Hispanic Museum of Nevada.

You might call Lynnette Sawyer a pioneer. Proud to call herself Nuyorican, she moved to Las Vegas, Nevada in 1978. Sawyer brought along the most precious belongings given to her by her family – a güiro, a piece of mundillo, a cemi, a Fania All-Stars album, and a Puerto Rican flag. Little did she know these few mementos of her heritage, which she held so close to her heart, would lead her to become the founding director of the only cultural museum in Las Vegas.

Culture was always a part of Sawyer’s life. She says she lived through the Black Panther and Chicano movements, and was exposed to the elements of NYC’s El Barrio and Museum Mile growing up.

Sawyer left her historically-artistic haven and comfort zone to follow her military husband to the city of lights and casinos in the desert Southwest. Las Vegas was a city of only 37,000Latinos in 1980.

She vividly remembers when DJ Rae Arroyo played salsa music for the first time on a Vegas radio station around 1993.

“Tears came to my eyes, when I heard ‘Vamanos pal’ Monte’ play. When you hear something like that after so long it’s like, “Am I hearing things?’,” Sawyer reminisces.

Sawyer taught middle school at St. Christopher’s Catholic school for more than 25 years and is now retired. In 1990, she says her life changed for good – all because of a broken glass display case in the school’s hallway.

“I asked the principal if I could fix it and put some things about Hispanic culture there,” says Sawyer. “From there on we kept growing.”

Sawyer and her husband started a family in Las Vegas, and she wanted her sons to be exposed to culture. But since there wasn’t much of a museum scene, she started adding items to the glass cabinet, from pieces she brought from NY, to pictures and posters about Cesar Chavez and Selena. She says others also started to chip in with special objects of their own.

A few years later, Sawyer opened the first Hispanic Museum of Nevada in the lobby of The Nevada Association of Latin Americans.

For the past 20 years, Sawyer says the Hispanic Museum led a nomadic existence, moving to different community centers and lobbies depending on the group’s budget. In November, it moved into its sixth home in the Boulevard Mall, after an anonymous donor agreed to cover the expenses for a year. Those expenses range from $30-50,000. The official grand opening was Jan. 27.

“The reason it was given to us was the person knew the work we have done in the community through the years, and that we would be an asset wherever we went,” says Sawyer. “And now with the focus on tourism from President Obama, there isn’t another cultural museum in Nevada.”

At the Boulevard Mall, the museum is now at a central location. It’s the only cultural institution in a city which only has six other museums. Among them, the Atomic Testing Museum and The Mob Museum, according to the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce.

“We have a whole demographic of people that may or may not go to a museum, and then they walk by and come in,” says Sawyer. “At our grand opening we had artists present their talent, their work was for sale, and we had different countries showcased.”

She says the favorite part of her job, which she calls a “lifelong passion,” is interacting with the many different cultural groups – ranging from Colombian, Cuban, Mexican, and Dominican, and seeing how they light up when they see their traditional dances and art showcased.

She says the Museum has received about 1,000 visitors since January from places as varied as Alaska, MexicoPuerto Rico, and Montana.

“We know that although we are termed Hispanics in the U.S., we have our own differences within our own subculture, but because we are called Hispanics in the Census, we should then unite to become more of a force in our country,” says Sawyer. “We are able to that and we are doing that. I feel that is where the strength is – in unity.”

Originally published in NBCLatino.com.