An article by Chris Ladd titled “The Last Jim Crow Generation” set me thinking about my own journey as a Hispanic in this country. It reminded me that when I came out of Cuba in 1960 and spent a few weeks in Miami before relocating to Minneapolis and starting college things were tough. In Miami there were signs on houses that had rooms for rent that read: “No colored, no Cubans, no dogs.” Minneapolis was more welcoming.
At the University of Minnesota, where I started college as a Drama major in 1961, there were no Blacks in the department, nor were there any in my Romance Language classes at L.A. City College. Later at Juilliard, in the Opera Department there were five Blacks, a couple of Asians, and one Hispanic: me. At the College-Conservatory of Music, where I studied between 1967 and 1970, there very few Black students and not one Black faculty member that I recall until Sylvia Ogden Lee, the wife of conductor Everett Lee came to teach during my last year there. At CCM, as it had been at Juilliard and at L.A. City College and at the University of Minnesota I was the only Hispanic within miles.
Once I married Kimberly, my quintessentially Caucasian wife was bluntly asked more than once how her family felt when she married someone from another race. I too became the target of clueless comments and questions about my pigmentation and my accent. When Kimberly and I went for our graduate degrees at the New England Conservatory of Music, there were no Blacks or Hispanics in our class. And when right out of college I got a teaching position at Centenary College in Shreveport, LA., there were no Blacks or Hispanics in sight in either the faculty or student body. This was in the 1970’s.
When I later went to work at the New York City Opera, there were no Black or Hispanic members of the conducting staff, the staging staff, the administration, and, to the best of my recollection, the orchestra. Among the principal artists there were a couple of Hispanics (Justino Diaz and Pablo Elvira) and equally few Black artists.
When for several years in the late 70’s and 80’s Kimberly and I worked as a show act duo in supper clubs and cruise ships and in concerts, we never ever once appeared on the same bill with any Black artists, nor did we work with any cross-racially integrated band in America.
When in 1986 Kimberly and I co-founded the award-winning New Theatre in Coral Gables, FL., we made a color-blind casting policy intrinsic to our artistic mission. In the twenty years that followed we gave a stage to Black and Hispanic actors, and the South Florida audience saw artists like James Randolph and Robert Strain and Tara Vodihn and Carlos Orizondo and countless others in roles they would have never dreamed of ever playing before in their careers. We also provided an artistic home to playwrights of color, including Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz, whose play, “Ana in the Tropics” premiered at our theatre in 2002 and brought home the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, making Nilo the first Hispanic playwright to win that award. In simple terms we took the reins in our hands.
There have been quite a few changes along the way, since I came to this country as a seventeen-year old refugee in 1960. Artists of color no longer have to kick the door open to get a seat at the table. In our orchestras, dance ensembles, theatres and opera companies we are gradually seeing black and brown faces, more Asians, more women.
Change is not a finite thing, it morphs with the times. As artists of color we must claim what’s ours and forge opportunities for each other. We – all of us Americans of every ethnicity – must remain vigilant during these troubled times so that we do not regress but continue to keep America as a home for all its artistic children.