Locals stress need for Latino community center

Fernando de Aragón, treasurer of the Tompkins County Civic Association, recites poetry at the ¡Cultura! event on Friday.

When she was 12 years old, Maria Gimma and her family left Colombia and came to the United States, seeking treatment for her sister’s rheumatic fever. Gimma and her sister were granted student visas, but their mother was sent back to Colombia, forcing them to stay with an uncle they barely knew.

“Nobody spoke any Spanish in the neighborhood so it was really difficult,” she said. “We had to learn English fairly quick.”

 Gimma has been in the U.S. ever since. She now lives in Ithaca, and is one of 4,264 Latinos living in Tompkins County, and one of more than 50 million in the U.S.

Today, Gimma teaches Spanish and videography at New Roots Charter School. She has sought different ways to stay in touch with her roots — such as the local group ¡Cultura!

¡Cultura! is an Ithaca-based community that supports Latinos in the area. The group marked National Poetry Month on Friday at an event titled “Poesía: Comunidad y Rimas.” Students, professional performers and Ithaca residents came together at this event to use slam poetry to celebrate their identities and cultures.

Carolina Osorio Gil, founder and director of ¡Cultura! Ithaca, was born in Bogotá, Colombia. She came to the U.S. when she was four years old. A graduate of Cornell University, Osorio Gil said she started the group to educate people about Latino culture.

 “I am very outgoing so my experience as a Latina living in Ithaca has been fun,” she said. “It took me a while to find Latinos in Ithaca…I do find that some people who are not as outgoing who are Latinos in Ithaca have a hard time finding that community so that’s why I have my program to kind of get that out to people.”

¡Cultura! is supported by several departments at Cornell University, including the Latino Studies Program, and by the Latino Civic Association of Tompkins County. Fernando de Aragón, treasurer of the association, said the Latino community in Ithaca comprises mainly students, academics, professionals and an invisible population with immigration and visa concerns.

“It’s not uncommon to encounter people who think Latino is one homogeneous group, “ he said. “Indeed, we are a highly varied group. Even if we are all of the same socioeconomic status or level, just our nationalities, our backgrounds are going to be different.”

However, he said they are all bound by the fact that they are far away from their homelands. Commending initiatives like ¡Cultura! for giving the Latino population a platform, de Aragon said the community still needs a central location for Latino services and events.

Osorio Gil agreed, saying she has plans to meet with the mayor of Ithaca to discuss these concerns.

“I actually have a grand vision…of having a Latino Cultural and Community Center in Ithaca,” she said. “I think that will really help, having a place people can go and look at Latin American art and eat Latino food and take dance lessons and go to see theatre in Spanish. That would really come a long away. I also think that Ithaca needs a stronger translator-interpreter service in town because we don’t really have that.”

 Similarly, Gimma said there is a need for a centralized location for the local Latino community. She also said she is working on a project to document the history of Latinos in the county.

“I went down to the History Center and tried to find out what is the history of Latinos here in Ithaca, and they don’t really have much — it’s pretty sad,” she said. “Through my videography class, we’re hoping to, through the summer months, work on trying to find out what are some of the different things that brought Hispanics in [and] put it into a documentary.”