Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass. Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture – the arts, humanities, and sciences – to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.
Celina Miranda: … and really thinking about, how do you make sure that a city like Boston, who has had a long history of Latinos in the city, are able to uplift that culture and that history and recognize it in a very symbolic way?
Anita Walker: Hi, I’m Anita Walker at the Mass. Cultural Council, and welcome to “Creative Minds Out Loud.” Our guest today is Celina Miranda. She is executive director of Hyde Square Task Force, and welcome to our program.
Celina Miranda: Thank you for having me.
Anita Walker: I am so glad you’re here, and there are so many things we could talk about, because you are one of our star organizations in our creative youth development program, but I want to start with one of the really significant and signature accomplishments of the young people who are at Hyde Square Task Force, because in the first and only instance that we know of in the country, it is the youth who stood up and said, ”We want to create a cultural district.” We have 46 state-designated cultural districts here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but this is the first one that was really put forth by young people.
Celina Miranda: Yeah, no, definitely, and when you think about sort of the history of it, right, there was an effort by adults, before the young people got involved, to actually get the neighborhood recognized as Boston’s Latin Quarter, and the efforts were there. The energy was there, but then everything kind of fizzled, and then it was the young people, prompted by what was going on politically at that time, which was felt in a lot of untaught [ph?] immigrant sort of narrative that was going on nationally, our young people felt the need to make sure that they spoke up and that they started talking about the importance of having a place to call home and a place that recognized their strengths and their assets.
Anita Walker: So before we talk about the how they went about doing this, first we should probably give just a bit of an overview of the program.
Celina Miranda: Sure. So, Hyde Square Task Force has been around for 30 years, almost 30 years now, and we started as a effort by neighbors to come together and address what was going on in the neighborhood, and at that time there was a lot of violence and a lot of drug activity in the area, and people were feeling unsafe, and so neighbors came together and said, “We must do something,” and very early on, thank goodness, they realized that young people and the voices of young people were powerful in the transformation of a neighborhood. So, ever since then, our young people have been central to all the work that we do and using the arts as a way of get– engaging young people. But it’s more than just the arts. It’s about really raising social consciousness and the agency of young people to realize that they can make a difference.
Anita Walker: I love the way you say that, because I have the privilege of talking about our creative youth development programs all over the Commonwealth, and we support about 70 right now. A lot of times people think, “Well, these are arts programs, arts activity programs,” and while the arts is powerful in these programs, it isn’t about making a young person a better painter or a better dancer or a better musician. It’s something about the power of culture that really unleashes agency. These are not broken kids that need to be fixed. These are kids who are literally transforming our world, and they do matter and can make a difference.
Celina Miranda: That is correct, and I’ve seen the power of it whether it’s on the individual level– right? It’s the young person who comes in. They’re very quiet, kind of shy and off to the side, and then over the course of weeks they realize that– the power of their voice, right? It’s not that they didn’t have a voice. It’s the volume of their voice that they discover throughout the process. From an individual level, I can advocate for myself, etcetera, and then there’s the group process that happens to recognize as they’re immersing themselves in their art form, and they’re discovering more about themselves and their history and their neighborhood on how they can make a difference and use the arts as a way of communicating.
Anita Walker: And make a difference in their community. So we now come to the cultural district program, as you said, a lot of fits and starts getting that going.
Celina Miranda: Yeah. That’s right.
Anita Walker: We wanted one in the Latin Quarter, and, lo and behold, the young people at Hyde Square Task Force looked around. What made them think about a cultural district as being something important there?
Celina Miranda: Well, initially it was working with the city council, right, in Boston, the city, to get them to recognize this neighborhood and its history. But then as they started to uncover more and learn more about the Commonwealth and the cultural districts, recognizing that there was more they can do to even get our neighborhood recognized not only at the local level but at the level of the state, and so as they started to learn more, they’re like, “There’s something here that we can do,” and we would love that kind of recognition that then would elevate sort of the importance of the neighborhood beyond the local and really think about– for those immigrants families who have been pushed out of Boston to have a place to come home to, to be– to feel like they could come, eat their food and experience sort of a piece that they left behind in their home country, and so that became very important to them as they started to think and understand what cultural districts can do.
Anita Walker: So what I love about this story, and I should share with our listeners that what I love about the cultural district program is that I get to go on the site visits.
Celina Miranda: That’s right.
Anita Walker: … to every single community that applies to become a state-designated cultural district, and I will say that the most common– actually, 100 percent of every applicant except for the Latin Quarter usually comes to us, and when I say, “Why do you want to be a cultural district? Why do you want to create a cultural district?” there’s usually an economic imperative in there. Usually, “We want to attract more visitors, more tourists. We don’t have enough restaurants downtown. We want to sort of revitalize a sleepy area of our community through arts and culture,” with sort of an economic agenda behind it, and so when I came to your organization for our site-visit meeting with all the young people and everyone else who was involved in putting forth the Latin Quarter as a cultural district, as we went around the table and I was listening to people, nobody mentioned anything about economic impact. Nobody mentioned anything about attracting tourists and spending more money. It was all about preserving the authentic culture of this neighborhood and a concern that– we know Boston with real estate scarcity, gentrification– a worry that this neighborhood could lose its authentic culture.
Celina Miranda: That’s exactly it, and it’s been something that’s been hard to communicate to folks and to– for folks to understand while the economic vitality of the neighborhood is important, and we know that by increasing foot traffic, etcetera, the businesses will do better, right, they will have more customers– and, in fact, whenever we have cultural events, that’s exactly what happens. But while that’s important, it is not the primary reason. The primary reason is really about having a place to call home and also the meaning from an immigrant perspective– I’m sort of first generation growing up in the United States, and as an immigrant, as somebody growing up, home becomes wherever you are. That’s home, and so to think about how important it is to be able to hear your language, to be able to get access to familiar foods and to listen to music, etcetera– and also now that I have– I’m a mother, my daughter, and to be able to immerse my daughter in the culture that, where we live, we can’t find, and so that becomes critical and really thinking about, how do you make sure that a city like Boston, who has had a long history of Latinos in the city, are able to uplift that culture and that history and recognize it in a very symbolic way, right, a sense of place and recognize it and name it as important as the North End.
Anita Walker: And celebrate it.
Celina Miranda: … and celebrate it, yes.
Anita Walker: To your point about your own child, I remember as we were touring– and we got to step into a number of restaurants, but we didn’t get to eat at all of them, which was one of the big demerits, because it is wonderful, authentic food that you can’t find anywhere else. So the smells coming out of the restaurants and the chicken and all the other things, and you could list all the things. I can’t remember. I can still smell them, however. They were so delicious-smelling. But we also went into a neighborhood daycare center, and the person who was running the center told us that people from all over Greater Boston bring– drive out of their way to bring their children there so they can be immersed in the sights, sounds, smells of their native land.
Celina Miranda: That’s exactly it, and you see it whether it’s in that– sort of the daily– right, sort of in this case in terms of the child care, right? You’re daily coming into the neighborhood, because you want to make sure you get grounded and are part of the neighborhood in that way. But there’s also sort of the folks that on the weekends, as you’re running your errands, and I hear this all the time sort of from members of my own board who are Latino. They’re first-generation, second-generation Dominican, and they are like, “Well, yeah, I know I can go to all these other places to go get my hair done, but I want to come back to the Latin Quarter, and that’s where I run my errands. That’s where I do everything I need to do, because I can find the things that I’m looking for,” and so it’s this ongoing influx, right, of folks who are coming in and experiencing the Latin Quarter from a very different perspective other than just, “I’m a tourist, and I’m coming in, and I want to see what the Latin Quarter’s all about,” which we welcome. Of course we want that, but it’s also– it means something else to those who are having– or sort of the taste of home, that peace of home and being grounded from a cultural perspective.
Anita Walker: So, the Latin Quarter was designated– what is– been a year or so. How do the young people feel about their accomplishment?
Celina Miranda: They were ecstatic, because one of the things, right, that is hard as young people learned advocacy, organizing, etcetera, is that oftentimes things take time, and this was a journey that had been going on for two years before we got the official designation, but they were so pleased. Many of them were sophomores or freshmen in high school when this got started, and for them to see this as their capstone project, if you will, as they’re finishing up their time with us and going on to college, many of them sort of recall that moment as we were taking pictures in front of the church that’s right on Center Street and how just pleased they were to actually get to that point and see their hard work pay off.
Anita Walker: What a confidence-builder. What a sense of meaning just in terms of the accomplishment but also the certainty that they can go out and do more. Speaking of that, what’s next on tap for the young people at Hyde Square Task Force?
Celina Miranda: Yeah, so never a dull moment. So most recently they started working on a campaign to increase the arts– to increase access to the arts for high school students in Boston. So Boston has done a fantastic job at increasing access for younger students, so elementary grades and also middle grades, but high school access lags behind, and so our young people have started building a campaign around that, and they’re going to be soon talking to the school committee about sort of– one, testifying on the value, their personal– sort of how they have personally benefited but how they would like their peers to have access just in the same way that they are, not only some of them in school but also in the out-of-school time at Hyde Square Task Force. So they have been building this campaign and working very hard to ensure that the district recognizes the good work that they have done but that there’s still room for growth, right? There’s more to do for the high school students.
Anita Walker: There is something especially powerful about the voice of a young person. What is that?
Celina Miranda: Well, oftentimes I think in our day-to-day– and I think of adults. We don’t stop to listen authentically to what young people have to say, and when you listen to them, you realize that their priorities are very much aligned with what we as adults say they need and they want, right? But it brings sort of a level of authenticity, and they’re able to uplift sort of the things that are– matter most to them and really sort of let us know how we can be supportive in what they need as adults, and I think it’s critical to how their voices– for them to tell their stories of how for them– in the case of this campaign, the arts, I realize how multifaceted their rationale for why the arts are important is to them, right? Part of it is making sure that they are able to celebrate, uplift their culture. They don’t want just the arts. They want the arts that reflects them, right, so they’re very specific around that. But also for many of them, they struggle with mental health issues, and so having a medium, a way of expressing themselves and relating to the world that is not sort of your more traditional academic way of doing it is powerful. Sort of the changes that they have, they’re able to articulate and talk about that I think allow us to understand more why we should be looking at a young person from a holistic perspective and not narrowly focused only on the mechanics of whether it’s writing, reading, etcetera, or math, which are all important..
Anita Walker: Test scores, yeah.
Celina Miranda: Exactly. All of that is important, but at the same time we have to pay attention to the development of young people and what they’re saying they need to feel supported and to be able to grow into productive and healthy adults that we want them to grow into but really that they’re looking for more than just sometimes the traditional things that we think are important as adults, there’s a lot more– and the power that the arts has, and they can tell their story better than we can.
Anita Walker: They also realize, and they tell us, they matter, and they can make a difference in their community.
Celina Miranda: That’s correct.
Anita Walker: Celina Miranda, another one of our creative minds out loud.
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