April 27, 2006
By MELISSA PIONZIO, Courant Staff Writer
The loss last year of an executive director and the space that housed its music and dance programs was almost the end of Guakia Inc., a Hispanic arts and cultural organization.
When the building that housed its former headquarters at 235 Wethersfield Ave. was sold, Guakia lost its lease and its ability to serve its students. Coupled with the loss of executive director Barbara Fernandez, who took a position in the governor's office, the agency was thrown into crisis.
But longtime supporters of the 23-year-old Hartford-based group said they weren't ready to call it quits.
"This crisis has made us stronger," said Marcelina Sierra,a Guakia founder who is its volunteer director. "Guakia is going to reclaim its place as a major cultural entity in the city."
After discussing various options, members of the agency took steps to avert a shutdown. Sierra agreed to take on the role of director, temporarily without pay, and Guakia moved to 75 Charter Oak Ave. in February. A new slate of board members was appointed.
Other members of the community pitched in as well. Josh Escalera of Dresca Construction Inc. helped to create an office area, storage closets and one big classroom. "He gave us $7,000 in materials and the job was done in four days," said Sierra. "We appreciate it so much."
Volunteers from Hogar Crea, a re-education program for drug addicts, helped paint the walls and clean the windows in the new space.
"It used to be just the board; now it's the whole community working together," said Sierra. "Guakia was established by people very aware of the problems in the community, the lack of cultural exposure and places to go, things to do that are healthy."
By March, the agency was up and running again, offering a spring schedule of classes that include instruction in piano, band, guitar, percussion, ballet, salsa and folk dancing. Guakia also has three performance groups: Guakisolfa, which plays traditional Latin music; Guakibomjazz, an orchestral jazz group; and Guakiplena for adults.
"It's working," said music director Ray Gonzalez. "There are limitations because it is smaller. There are less students here at the same time, but we are able to offer the majority of our programs."
During a recent lesson, Guakia's one big classroom reverberated with the sounds of conga drums. Six-year-old Ryan Burgos and 13-year-old Alex Rosado, both of West Hartford, sat side by side with their knees pressed tightly against 3-foot high drums while their teacher, Esteban Arrufatt, talked animatedly about rhythm.
"My hope for the future is when I'm not here anymore, somebody, maybe one of the people who learned here, takes the responsibility to teach those who come afterward," said Gonzalez, who has been involved with Guakia since the beginning. "That would be the best satisfaction for me, to know that Guakia is still going on after I'm gone."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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