La Casita Cultural Center: Empowering Through Reading
On a chilly Tuesday afternoon, around 20 rowdy children pack into a small building in the Near Westside of Syracuse. After a long day of classes, teachers, and classwork, they just want a place where they can be themselves. This building is La Casita Cultural Center, a center started by Syracuse University’s College of Arts & Sciences, to promote and work with the Hispanic/Latin community in Central New York.
The children come to participate in the Dual Language Reading Circle, a collaborative effort between LA LIGA (the Spanish Action League) and La Casita Cultural Center, which helps local families transition to the neighborhood. The reading circle is a part of LA LIGA’s youth group and after school tutoring program. Once everyone’s homework is done, the group begins the month’s activities.
“This program helps [children] do better in school … and helps them feel proud about themselves.”
Every month the children will read a different story, usually one that highlights an aspect of Latin culture or of a Latin@ who has contributed to the U.S. in some way. They have read about Celia Cruz, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, about traditional festivals in Latin countries, and more. After reading each book in English and Spanish, the children reflect on their readings by journaling and doing a related activity. For example, after the children read Justice Sotomayor’s story, they wrote her letters and took pictures dressed as Justices. The goal behind these reading projects is to inspire the youth by showing them, through the examples of others, that no matter what their cultural background or their family’s economic status, they can achieve great goals in life.
Tere Paniagua, executive director of Cultural Engagement at La Casita Cultural Center, believes the Dual Language Reading Circle is vital to the Near Westside. “[It’s] a safe place, a learning place, a positive place,” she said. “This program plays an important role for the children. It is difficult adjusting to the area, to the schools, and to the language. This program helps them do better in school, make their parents feel proud and helps them feel proud about themselves.”
La Casita Cultural Center is located at 109 Otisco Street in the Near Westside region of Syracuse, and it functions as a gallery and a community center. Every month, a different exhibit showcasing different aspects of Latin culture is highlighted. In past years, La Casita has hosted a classical music concert, a Christmas festival, paintings by Latin artist, Abisay Puentes, a dance festival, and more. The events are designed to educate the community about the wide array of cultures across Latin America and to bring together the SU campus and the Hispanic community.
Currently, La Casita Cultural Center is partnered with 23 programs across SU to facilitate various programs and events. The Dual Language Reading Circle is not the only program geared toward youth. The center also hosts a dance group called Bomba y Plena, a style of dancing particular to Puerto Rico, a music program that teaches youth how to play the piano and violin, and a multimedia program for teenagers.
Since the reading circles began, parents and children have noticed a positive change in their lives. The children leave with feelings of empowerment and confidence in their own abilities. La Casita Cultural Center and La Liga have been accepted by the community as a refuge for families and a place where happiness and feelings of love toward one another are fostered.