By Doug Maine
Since its founding 29 years ago, Guakía Inc. has been dedicated to promoting, preserving and celebrating Puerto Rican/Latino culture in the greater Hartford area but usually with a Sword of Damocles hanging over it.
Ray González, the non-profit’s music director and husband of executive director Marcelina Sierra, said it’s personal sacrifice that keeps the organization afloat. It only perseveres because its staff falls third in place behind rent and utilities. Teachers in the program haven’t seen their hourly pay increase in about 10 years. Without that assistance, Guakía would quickly become a faded memory.
Like many other nonprofit cultural and educational organizations, Guakía has had its share of near-death experiences in recent years. The first was in the fall of 2005, when the executive director resigned and Guakía lost its staff and Wethersfield Avenue quarters.
Sierra, who had been executive director from 1989 to 1995, returned to head the organization, with foundations, businesses and the City of Hartford providing support that enabled Guakía to reopen at 75 Charter Oak Ave., where it remains today.
Another close call came in 2010, when the Hartford News reported that the organization’s board of directors had voted to shut Guakía down due to a lack of funding. At the board’s subsequent meeting, a large group of parents whose children took classes at Guakía turned out to protest. At that meeting, Sierra invited some of the parents to form a new board; they accepted and quickly reversed the decision to close.
But it’s a decision that may not bode well for Guakía’s meaningful continuity. “it’s been difficult, a lot of sacrifices, to keep the thing running,” said Gonzalez.
Guakía serves about 500 youths each year, and indirectly reaches 2,500 children through presentations at area schools. The organization offers instruction in music, dance, theater, the visual arts and creative writing, and also has two performing groups, a dance troupe and a Latin jazz youth orchestra known as Guakibomjazz, for which students must audition, said González, a professional trumpeter, bandleader and recording artist.
Not all of Guakía’s students are Latino; nor are all of the Latino students of Puerto Rican heritage. “We also have Anglo and African-American students. They can share in our culture and we can understand each other better,” González said.
With reduced funding available from governmental and public sector sources as a result of the poor economy, the organization may still struggle to keep its doors open, but it’s a labor of love for Sierra, and González.
That love, and tenaciousness, will bear fruit this
Even an event like this Saturday’s sixth annual Ray González Latin Jazz and Salsa Festival doesn’t help ensure Guakía’s future. Gonzalez is getting about a tenth of what he might earn doing the same thing for a high-profile concert or club performance. “They named it after me, but it’s not my festival,” he said.
The festival will be held July 28, from 5 to 10 p.m. at the Mortenson Riverfront Plaza in Downtown Hartford. Performers will include Guakibomjazz; Plenabombé, a traditional music and dance ensemble; the Esteban Arrufatt Latin Jazz Ensemble; the Ray González Big Band, with special guests master percussionist Eguie Castrillo, singers Raúl Luis Santos and Jesús Pagán, plus singers Luis Cruz and Eddie “Temporal” Marrero, pianist David Yih and bassist Junior Clinton.
This year’s festival celebrates the bomba and plena, the two traditional rhythms of Puerto Rico, which have been significant ingredients in Latin jazz and in the international Afro-Latino popular music known as salsa.
“We want to pay tribute to those pioneers like Rafael Cortijo’s orchestra in the 1950s, which toured Latin America playing the bomba and plena,” González said. “We’re going to present it both ways, with the traditional instruments and with my arrangements for the orchestra, and end with a tribute to El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, which this year is celebrating its 50th anniversary.”
González, 61, a native of Gurabo, Puerto Rico, notes that the current edition of Guakibomjazz consists of the sixth or seventh generation of young musicians. “The youth orchestra I have now is 20 pieces. We have a big mix, Puerto Ricans, Colombians, African-Americans and Anglos, and they’re going to be opening the festival as they always do,” he said.
For more information about Guakía, call 860 548-9555 or visit guakia.org.
Photo courtesy of Riverfront Recapture