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Posted on Mon, Nov. 04, 2002  on the Philadelphia Inquirer

Center hopes to alter tone of Fairhill
A Latin music school seeks to build a new cultural mecca.
By Anthony S. Twyman
Inquirer Staff Writer

Jesse Bermudez has a vision for a vacant lot in the barrio in North Philadelphia. He also has raised $4 million, and counting, to make it happen.

While others see a city-owned parking lot at Fifth and Huntingdon Streets, Bermudez envisions a music and cultural center with a 400-seat banquet hall, a 500-seat performance center, a Latin music school for children and adults, and a large kitchen for catering events.

Children will learn from instructors such as Cuban pianist and composer Elio Villafranca. Tourists will come and learn to dance salsa and merengue.

Latin artists will perform for weddings and banquets in the performance hall. Chefs will prepare Latin culinary dishes.

"We feel that you can't separate the music, the dance and the food," said Bermudez, the executive director of Asociacion de Musicos Latino Americanos, a 16-year-old, nonprofit Latin music school and promoter of about 200 area Latin bands and artists.

AMLA's plan is to replace its small, existing home on Sixth Street near Lehigh Avenue with a state-of-the-art, more than 40,000-square-foot facility that will offer more amenities.

"We want to bring this area back to being called the Fairhill section of North Philadelphia and not the Badlands," Bermudez said, referring to the name police coined for the neighborhood in the 1980s because of crime and drug-trafficking problems.

All that stands in AMLA's way is an additional $8 million and the city's pledge not to sell the city-owned lot, which is used as a parking lot by a nearby school.

City Council appears ready to take care of one obstacle. On Tuesday, Council's public property and public works committee unanimously approved a bill that will reserve the city-owned vacant lot for the use of AMLA for two years. The full Council is expected to vote on the bill Nov. 14.

Now, the group's challenge will be raising another $4 million to start construction of the center next year. A total of $12 million would fully complete the facility with all the amenities that the group desires.

Bermudez is gearing up for a new capital campaign and has gotten many of the city's businesses, politicians, and Latino community leaders to help.

Ed Rendell, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate and the city's former mayor, is chairman of the group's capital campaign. When he was mayor, Rendell allotted $1 million in city economic-stimulus money for the cultural center project and helped the group raise another $1 million in federal empowerment zone money.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge kicked in $2 million more in state funds when he was governor.

"For a long time, we've been talking about creating a cultural arts district in the barrio. It's our Avenue of the Arts," said Councilman Angel Ortiz, a member of AMLA's capital campaign advisory board, referring to Center City's rejuvenated theater and cultural district on North Broad Street.

Councilman Richard Mariano, who represents Fairhill and introduced the bill reserving the vacant lot for AMLA, said the timing of the center and its location are perfect because it is the gateway to the Golden District, the name used to describe a rapidly growing commercial corridor on Fifth Street.

"Latin music's hot right now," Mariano said.

Computer images put together by the project's architect, Larry Goldfarb of AP3C Architects in Center City, who helped design the Prince Music Theater on the Avenue of the Arts, give a glimpse of things to come.

The Fifth Street side of the building will be framed by an orange terra-cotta roof, under which will be colorful murals. Draped like a ribbon around the roof at the front entrance on Huntingdon Street will be the name Asociacion de Musicos Latino Americanos.

"The Prince gave us a lot of preparation for this," Goldfarb said.

AMLA now trains about 375 children, teens, adults and senior citizens in music. Jessica Rosa, whose two daughters attend the school, looks forward to the new addition to the neighborhood.

"That will be great," Rosa said. "It will be a bigger place and hopefully they could have more children."

Contact Anthony Twyman at 215-854-2664 or


Jim Smith - El Hispano's January 21, 2003, edition.

Philadelphia ”From atop the Wyndham Franklin Plaza several hundred guests were elegantly feted on a feast of ideals and experiences, Saturday evening, January 18th, 2003, by an Aspira organization, that for four decades has nurtured and encouraged student leadership; and not only to strive for the top and achieve "dreams"; but, also to share, and according to a former Aspirante, be aware of the "cultural and developmental needs of our communities." 

The 11th annual event attracted numerous political, community and educational dignitaries, including, Ida Castro, a cabinet member of New Jersey's Governor James McGreevey; the Delaware River Port Authority's Efrain Feliciano; from Temple University's Community Affairs Department Juven cio Gonzalez, and Professor of Puerto Rican History, Victor Vazquez; former Deputy Mayor Manny Ortiz; City Councilman Angel Ortiz; the Principal of Roberto Clemente Middle School Patricia Mazuka, and former head of Eugenio de Hostos School and current Chief Executive of the Lighthouse Community organization, Johnny Irizarry. The emceeing of the evening's more formal ceremonies were shared by Ms. Lydia Hernández-Velez and Aspira's Executive Director Alfredo Calderón. 

The Executive Director characterized this past year as "full of challenges," and of "drastic changes," that required the Aspira organization build coalitions and move to the "forefront," -often attending protests with various city unions and voicing objections to a mistaken policy direction on education being pursued by the state or city. 

The myriad of activities were all essential ingredients to Aspira's mission of ensuring that Latino youth have access to "˜quality' education. Ms. Hernández-Velez echoed Mr. Caderón's comments; noting, that while Aspira had to "take on," a more prominent role in the debate over school reform, it also continued the ordinary activities of "creating more (Aspira) clubs, in more schools, with more students." And asserted, that "It's about the kids, and that's the bottom line." 

By "giving to children," an exposure to their rich and ancient culture and heritage, "as in the Three Kings celebration," was the aspect of the Aspira work that particularly appealed to Maria Pajil-Battle, an official with Keystone Mercy, a major sponsor of the Gala. "We're proud to be part of that tradition, and to be here celebrating with Aspira," she said. 

An official with Peco Energy, Wimaria Gonzalez, praised the ideals and struggles for progress by the four decades old organization, emphasizing that it is essential to support those who "care about our children, youth and the Hispanic community's education, and that is what Aspira is all about." 

Noting that the Hispanic community is among the largest consumers of soft drinks, Mike Hagan, a spokesman for Coca-Cola, also stressed the importance of the corporate community's support, said, "It is incumbent on companies, particularly in the (Philadelphia) Delaware Valley, to give back;" adding, that Coca-Cola was "pleased to give back to this community and looks forward to many years of contributing." 

Aspira also recognized some of their other major supporters, among them, Telemundo, Wachovia and El Hispano Newspaper. Several leaders of the local Aspira Student organizations were given an opportunity to make brief remarks to the audience on their work with Aspira. 

A Senior at Mastbaum H.S., and Aspira Club President, Christina Rivera, extolled the diversity of experiences in the association, describing Aspira as "more like a family than an organization; who taught me so many things about leadership, responsibilities and reaching farther in my goals than I ever imagined." 

Further, Ms. Rivera recalled participating in the "fight against the Edison takeover." Noting, that she was "one of the students talking with political officials and Senators...fighting for our rights." In addition, the student President had occasionally shared her heritage on "trips to St. Christopher's Hospital, where we gave gifts out to kids," as part of the Three Kings celebration.

"Although this is my last year," (with Aspira Student Clubs), Ms. Rivera continued, " your stuck with me, I'm not going anywhere." While serving as President of the Aspira Club for students, Ms. Rivera also was a member of the Aspira Board of Directors- consisting of fifty percent students-allowing an opportunity to view how a deliberative body makes decisions. "We not only preach leadership, but we practice and believe in it," explained Director Calderón. 

The Treasurer of the Aspira Club Federation, attending Little Flower H.S. Stefanie Matos, spoke of her visit to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to participate in a "Youth Panel," at a Conference on Technology and Education. 

Along with being part of the "Aspira family," Ms. Matos expressed her gratitude to Mr. Calderón for giving her "as great an experience as any youth my age could have." While the two High School Aspira Leaders displayed an ample amount of polish and poise; two elementary school students at de Hostos school, with a mix of enthusiasm and embarrassment, also offered a few comments to the delight of the audience, one fourth grader eagerly relating her successful surmounting of a "thirty foot wall." "That's why we do it," said a laughing Mr. Calderón. 

"We take them to conferences and trips everywhere, to expose them to a different world and real world." Describing herself as a member of Aspira "since I was in pigtails and losing my teeth," an Attorney with ACE Insurance, Raquel Reveron talked of her lifetime "connection with Aspira and its impact," on her life. " Aspira, and "˜Dream;' and reach for something greater for your self and your community. 

And, educate yourself, and be proud of your culture, and acquire the tools that you need to succeed in the world," said, Ms. Reveron, explaining the message of the New York founder, Antonia Pantoja, and that has long infused the Spirit of this Philadelphia branch of the organization. During her years as a student and member of Aspira, Ms. Reveron noted, that while stressing achievement, Aspira also instilled a "great sense of cultural pride, that our youth do not get anywhere else."

Adding, that "the more you achieve on a certain level, the more important it becomes to know yourself and your culture." "Through each phase of my life,' and "through many difficult times," said Ms. Reveron, the "Aspira family was there."

So, "I encourage everyone here to build a relationship with Aspira and contribute every way you can, it makes a difference." The General Manager of Telemundo, Uriel Rendon, in addition to participating as a major sponsor for Aspira, also announced plans for a mentoring program.

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