Traditional Latin music helps to keep Baltimore’s Hispanic community alive

835 words

By Sarah Rowan

On a Tuesday night in March, high school Spanish teacher Guillermo Brown stands behind the soundboard at Morgan State University’s WEAA 88.9 FM to host “Fiesta Musical” for what feels to him like the millionth time.

As the clock counts down to 8 p.m., Brown lines up the show’s theme song, Tito Puente’s “Para los Rumberos,” slips on his headphones, and presses a button to start the song.

The fiesta has begun.

“The format of the show is called classic salsa, Latin jazz,” Brown said. “Sometimes we extend that, but it’s pretty much in that area. I started doing themes featuring perhaps an artist, looking at birthdates, anniversaries of death, keeping those in mind.”

Along with his co-host Gary Elter, Brown hosts the weekly program from 8 to 11:30 p.m. on Tuesday nights. It was founded in 1997 by the late community leader Jose Ruiz, and is currently the longest running Latin jazz program in Maryland.

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Guillermo Brown. (Photo by Sarah Rowan)

Brown teaches Spanish at the Institute of Notre Dame, a Catholic, all-girls high school located in downtown Baltimore City. He took over the program in 2006 when Ruiz was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

“Fiesta Musical” was just one of Ruiz’s many influences in Baltimore’s Hispanic community. He founded Education Based Latino Outreach, EBLO, in 1980, which works to improve the lives of Hispanic youth and their families with educational opportunities and cultural programs.

“He had kind of an incredible passion for the community,” Brown said. “He was incredibly passionate about kids maintaining their culture. That was key to him.”

The Baltimore City Hispanic Commission reports that while Baltimore’s overall population decreased by 4.6 percent from 2000 to 2010, the city’s Hispanic population increased by 134.7 percent.

The population is made up of a diverse mix of people, many coming from states in southern Mexico such as Guerrero and Oaxaca, as well as other countries like Puerto Rico, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

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The WEAA 88.9 FM studio. (Photo by Sarah Rowan)

One of the largest Hispanic communities in the city is located in Southeast Baltimore, within areas such as Upper Fells Point, Highlandtown and Broadway Avenue. The communities expand farther east into Patterson Park, northwest to Park Heights and even farther, toward Anne Arundel County.

“That’s just been kind of a sign of not only the fact that the Latino community in Baltimore has grown, but it’s grown in its diversity as well,” Brown said.

A key way of bringing such a diverse population together is through music, and one of Baltimore’s premier venues for Latin music is LatinoFest, held every June in Patterson Park.

Founded by Ruiz in 1980, the same year he founded EBLO, the festival features live Latin music like salsa, merengue, bachata and cumbia. It also features dancers, bomba performances, Latino cuisine and art displays. On average, LatinoFest draws around 8,000 people per year, according to Brown.

Among the festival’s previous performers is the Baltimore-based Latin band Son Tres y Mas.

The band performs both traditional and popular music of Mexico and Latin America throughout the Baltimore area, not only at LatinoFest, but at sites like the National Aquarium and the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

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Gary Elter. (Photo by Sarah Rowan)

Son Tres y Mas percussionist Juan Pablo Gómez grew up in Upper Fells Point with a Spanish father and an Ecuadorian mother, and is trained in Afro-Cuban percussion. With the band, he performs mostly covers of traditional Mexican music fused with Cuban rhythms and beats.

For Gómez , events like LatinoFest give validity to the community’s diverse cultures, and serve as a reminder to people of where they came from.

“Just having something to validate your identity, to say that you have something to contribute, that you’re worth something, is important,” Gómez said. “Especially when your culture is kind of being attacked, I think it’s important to hold on to it at that point even more, because it gives it validity.”

However, Baltimore’s Latin music is continuously evolving, and, according to Gómez , many of the city’s Hispanic youth have not seemed as interested in the traditional styles of music that older generations grew up with.

“Music is like culture,” Gómez said. “It changes. If it stays in the same place, it stagnates. It needs to change. It needs to move.”

Elter, who grew up in the Bronx borough of New York City, spent his adolescent years listening to a mix of rock ‘n’ roll and salsa. Like Gómez , he sees the evolution of music as inevitable.

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The WEAA mic. (Photo by Sarah Rowan)

“I think that everything eventually evolves,” Elter said. “We love it, and we’d like to see it stick around, but the younger people have different ideas and they’ve got different tastes.”

For both Brown and Elter, however, traditional Latin music is the common denominator that ties Hispanic communities together and defines how they communicate and express themselves.

“It’s part of the culture,” Brown said. “It touches on something besides just songs…Saying it’s part of the culture sounds very cliche, but it’s kind of an expression of who we are. I think that’s key.”

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