The rowhouse next to Salem United Methodist Church in Southeast Baltimore was empty. A priest had lived there once, Angelo Solera was told, but any traces of a home life had been wiped out by the time he first visited the building.
Dust covered the floors and piles of wood, dirt and trash accumulated in the backyard, including a letter board with broken up words. Water poured through the basement walls when it would rain.
None of it bothered Solera. He was grateful. He got to work, along with plumbers, painters, bricklayers and so many others in the Latino community and in Highlandtown to make it something special for the community.
“This is where ‘La Casa de la Cultura’ begins,” said Solera, the executive director of the community-based organization Nuestras Raíces.
For Solera and others, La Casa de la Cultura has been a long sought-after dream: a Latin American cultural center that nurtures art, culture and folklore and provides a community space for Latinos by Latinos.
The grand opening of the cultural center, which will also serve as the headquarters of Nuestras Raíces, will take place Aug. 13. On that day a block party and ribbon-cutting ceremony meant to evoke a sense of an ancestral home will be held from South Highland Avenue to Baylis Street. It will feature local folkloric dance groups, Latin jazz bands, food vendors and an art exhibit.
“This is ours, our place, our space,” said Lucia Islas, board member of Nuestras Raíces and longtime advocate for Latino communities in Baltimore. “This is where I belong. This is where I know I’m going to help my people.”
Nuestras Raíces regularly works with other organizations, like Creative Alliance, to put on cultural events, parades and concerts. They also organize Fiesta Baltimore, a yearly festival and parade that celebrates Latino culture. In the past, they ran COVID-19 vaccine clinics for Latino communities in Baltimore.
The group did all this work without having an office or a set place to meet before plans for the center, Solera said. Meetings were held in churches or someone’s house, sometimes at a restaurant that worked for all the board members. The group will open their space up to others who don’t have a permanent meeting spot.
Solera eventually wants the center to grow even beyond the two-floor rowhouse it is making its new home. But the building the church offered is a place to start, he said, so that Nuestras Raíces has a physical presence in the heart of Highlandtown. A grant they received from the France-Merrick Foundation covered the costs to repair and renovate the building, to buy office equipment and secure the place for the next two years, Solera said.
It took two months to transform the building. The trim was painted blue, orange and white, a nod to the colors of Nuestras Raíces. They fixed the plumbing, repainted the walls and replaced the flooring.
“When you are a community-based organization, you have to be creative,” Solera said. “You got to work with what you have.”
The top floor will be an office space for Nuestras Raíces board members, but downstairs will be for the community. As Solera looks at his surroundings, he lists his hopes for the house: workshops, where children and young people can learn about their heritage, a place for community groups to meet and practice, maybe a community garden in the yard.
“The possibilities are endless,” he said.
Those who are older, such as parents and grandparents, could teach kids how to cook, Islas added, or teach Spanish. It will be a space that will welcome those who want to preserve and pass along their culture.
“We were always looking for something that represented us,” Islas said.
In white spaces, Latinos are often boxed into an immigrant narrative when they have a variety of experiences, said Jessy DeSantis, a Baltimore artist with Nicaraguan roots. Their stories are often pigeonholed to what those outside of the Latino community expect from them, DeSantis said.
“Why narrow us down?” DeSantis said. “Why not talk about love? Why not talk about just our very human experiences?”
DeSantis volunteered to curate an art gallery for the grand opening of La Casa de la Cultura, featuring their work along with four other artists. Ignacio Herrera, who was born in Mexico and lives in Upper Fells Point, works with wood sculptures. Francisco Loza, also originally from Mexico, uses vibrant colors to stitch an artwork on canvas, using yarn and beaded pieces. Mariana Orellana uses photography to capture the landscapes of their homeland in El Salvador. Christina Delgado, a photographer of Puerto Rican descent, focuses on the intersection of family, sense of self and home.
DeSantis is the sole painter of the exhibit, and also an example of how Latino art will be promoted at the new cultural center. They described their work as ancestral and as magical realism, using flora and fauna, particularly birds, to honor Central American and indigenous roots.
DeSantis also invited artists to bring something they own that is meaningful to tag along the artwork. The gallery now feels like a typical household, DeSantis said.
The sculptures, for example, reminds them of wood utensils that can be found in kitchens, and the greenery and plants are odes to the tropical forests. One artist brought an altar, another gave their soccer shirt from El Salvador. There’s dried corn, too, that DeSantis grew in their backyard, and feathers.
“It really feels like you’re walking home,” DeSantis said.
At the age of 5, Alexandra Gonzalez performed in traditional folk dances held at public schools in the region of Puebla, Mexico, where she grew up. The attire, footwork, beats and rhythms of the music they danced to highlighted and celebrated the uniqueness of each region of Mexico, Gonzalez said.
“We are really rich in culture,” Gonzalez said.
Now in Baltimore, she teaches the dance to children, teenagers and adults. Her group will perform at the grand opening of La Casa de la Cultura.
In the city of Puebla, there’s a similar cultural center, Gonzalez said, with art exhibits and dances on the weekends.
To be able to pass along her culture for children is a gift, Gonzalez said, and the center’s mission is “beautiful.”
“It will be a space where we can express ourselves, unite, share and preserve these traditions and cultures that makes us so happy and bring that to our children and youth,” she said.
Sitting on a chair in the middle of the first floor, Solera’s eyes tear up. He has worked with the Latino community in Baltimore for 25 years, he said, and he sees it growing and thriving. Oftentimes, Solera felt the community has been neglected, and that if they want something to get done, they need to do the work themselves. But the grand opening of La Casa de la Cultura will be a time to celebrate.
“Definitely a way to make it a big entrance,” he said.