From hip hop to salsa, the South Bronx is known for its rich diversity and culture. This June, Casita Maria will be celebrating the community that uplifts Bronx culture. Bronxites can look forward to Casita Maria’s 11th annual South Bronx Culture Festival, during which attendees can enjoy three days of music, dance, and food.
“This year’s theme, ¡Yo Soy La Salsa! literally translates to, ‘I am the Sauce,’ but is understood to mean, I am the root, the rhythm, the beat, the spice, the music,” says Casita Maria on their website. “If each individual is the ‘sauce,’ then collectively the community that attends the Festival is the culture we uplift and experience joy with through music, dance and visual art.”
The festival will take place from June 3 to June 5 at Father Gigante Plaza in front of St. Athanasius Church. Headliners include Brenda K. Starr, Eddie Montalvo, and BronX BandA featuring Arturo O’Farrill, in addition to numerous other free outdoor performances by musicians and dancers.
The Casita Maria Center for Arts & Education, an organization based in the South Bronx, aims to support the Latinx community in the South Bronx. Casita Maria presented the first South Bronx Culture Festival in 2011 and has continued to do so annually since then, rain or shine. A labor of love that takes anywhere from 14 to 16 months to plan, the festival hopes to bring light to the vibrant cultural and arts scene in the South Bronx.
“Casita Maria is really focused on changing the narrative of what people think of the South Bronx,” said Gail Heidel, director of creative arts programs at Casita Maria. “The South Bronx has a rich cultural heritage: it’s the birthplace of hip hop, it’s nurtured salsa. We want people to know about its history, but we also want people to know that it’s still living and growing and creating.”
In addition to the entertainment, Bronx Night Market, a Bronx company run largely by females, will be providing food from 12 Bronx-based vendors. All events for the festival will be free to the public, as well as available for viewing through the BronxNet Television broadcast. The festival is supported and presented by Councilmember Rafael Salamanca, Jr., a Bronx native born to Puerto Rican immigrants.
While encompassing different themes each year, the overall goal of the festival is to celebrate the cultural richness of the South Bronx, which is reflected in this year’s three-day lineup, food, and events. Simply put, the festival is a culmination of South Bronx cultural preservation.
“I think it’s important for people to see that their culture is being celebrated and highlighted,” said Nicole Perrino, the founder of Bronxmama.com, a site that draws awareness to free local events in the Bronx for families. “And to just be able to come together and enjoy, you know, the things that are part of who they are and their upbringing.”
Last year’s theme was “Together Again,” to acknowledge the healing power of the arts in the South Bronx following the COVID shutdowns from the previous year. In 2020, most of the festival was held virtually, a decision that was made in lieu of canceling the festival altogether because of how important it was to the South Bronx community.
“It was like 90 degrees or 95 degrees with the sun shining. I know the pandemic was still happening, but we thought it was over then,” said Heidel. One of her fondest memories was when the music ensemble group Bronx BandA and the New York Philharmonic performed together. “It was one of the first times we had joined together and folks weren’t wearing masks and feeling fearful of one another. It was a really, really joyful day.”
In previous years, Casita Maria hosted the South Bronx “Culture Trail,” a similar initiative that aimed to establish a trail of cultural points. Events would take place throughout May and June in significant cultural areas throughout the Bronx. Following a rebranding, the festival has dropped the “trail” and will instead take place in one area.
“This year, 2022, it makes sense to have a single place event where a community can come together again. To really see their faces again, to really interact with each other again,” said Javier Gómez, a Bronx-based actor and journalist and this year’s festival MC. “To say hello to each other again, to see who’s getting a little older, what child is now in a higher grade. And also to give each other a hug and see who’s missing among us now. It’s a completely different world in our communities.”