Puerto Rican celebration draws hundreds

Spreading the Puerto Rican culture in Dunkirk has never been easier than with Saturday’s party-like atmosphere at the Clarion Hotel for the Boys & Girls Club of Northern Chautauqua County’s Celebration of Puerto Rican Traditions.

There was barely space to move in the hotel’s Lighthouse Ballroom due to a massive crowd for much of the evening, which included music, dancing, arts and crafts, art and musical instrument displays and vendors.

Valerie Walawender, the arts program consultant for the Boys & Girls Club who helped put on the event, said she was pleased with the turnout and estimated more than 300 people came out.

“This event was the realization of a vision I had for the community,” she said.

“As I became more familiar with folk arts, I realized that promoting them was really a way to promote family closeness and healthy community relations. Infants, children, teenagers, adults and seniors came together for this and celebrated together. We’ve become disconnected from one another in today’s world, especially within families, and this was a way to bring people together through cultures and traditions. To see that alive in the Puerto Rican community of Dunkirk is precious,” she added.

The celebration was divided into two sections: children and family events from 5 to 7 p.m. and traditional music from 7 to 11 p.m. Traditional foods such as empanadillas (meat-stuffed dough pockets) and arroz con dulce (coconut rice pudding) were available to hungry audience members.

The music entailed songs from the orchestra “Grupo Escencia,” singer Jose Claudio (who emceed the celebration in Spanish), cuatro/guitar player Orlando Santiago and female singing trio “Piel K-Nela.” The orchestra included the cuatro, bass, congas, bongos, maracas, guiro and other traditional instruments.

“This event raised community awareness of our Puerto Rican traditions,” Claudio said. “People from all over came out for it. It’s gatherings like these that help keep the heritage alive and empower children and families.”

“The club was happy to sponsor such a great event,” Boys & Girls Club Executive Director EJ Hayes said. “We enjoyed the opportunity to share all the wonderful Puerto Rican traditions with the community and our kids enjoyed working and performing with Mr. Claudio on all of the traditional songs.”

Hayes said working with Walawender has been “wonderful.”

“She has great enthusiasm and it’s really contagious and it’s been fun working with her,” he said. “We look forward to a partnership for many years to come.”

“The Boys & Girls Club staff is very dedicated and is working with limited resources and creating beautiful things in the community for families,” Walawender said. “I’m proud to be part of that.”

The celebration was part of a series of events for the Folk and Traditional Arts Program of the Boys & Girls Club. The Celebration of Native American Traditions on Sept. 29 was part of that program.

The program is made possible through local sponsorships and a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, which Walawender said is very competitive.

“We have a two-year grant … so we will be doing either two of the same events or something similar next fall,” Hayes said.

The Boys & Girls Club is a United Way community partner.

Comments on this article may be sent to gfox@observertoday.com