Culture / Education

Casita Maria marks 80 years with famed alumni

Natalie Lally

Benny Bonilla receives his conga shaped birthday cake at Casita Maria’s 80th anniversary party.

Musicians and photographers help celebrate two big birthdays

As they say in the movies, there’s no place like home. And for hundreds of children over the past 80 years, Casita Maria has been just that: a second home. On Jan. 21, the arts education hub on Simpson Street celebrated its 80th anniversary by putting together an exhibition of distinguished alumni and their successes to show the community how the organization has shaped the lives of past “Casita Kids.” Benny Bonilla, the renowned percussionist, was also recognized and celebrated his 80th birthday at the event.

Casita Maria’s mission is to empower children through educational activities and art-based programs. Children of age 6 and up to college age can take advantage of these free after-school programs, internships and public programs. Casita Maria also offers special well-being programs such as drug rehabilitation, violence prevention, gang intervention, and teen pregnancy prevention.

Originally created to serve Hispanic youth in a disadvantaged neighborhood, it has become something much larger and more influential.

“So much talent came out of this place,” said David Gonzalez, an award-winning journalist for The New York Times, who was raised in the area and came to Casita Maria as a child.

Casita Maria’s journey began in 1934 in a small storefront in East Harlem. Its founders were two sisters by the name of Claire and Elizabeth Sullivan, cousins of television pioneer Ed Sullivan. Their goal was to work with Hispanic children through fun, educational programs so they could one day achieve the so-called “American Dream.” The organization also served as a settlement house, helping recently arrived families assimilate into their new communities.

In 1961, Casita Maria moved to Longwood. They now offer many arts and education programs after school, during summer and for all ages, including high school and college prep, music, and visual and performing arts.

With the help of a partnership with the New York City Department of Education, Casita Maria has a newly renovated 90,000 sq. ft. facility that shares space with the Bronx Studio School for Writers and Artists, a New York City public school. This new facility, which opened in 2009, made it possible to increase the number of children participating in its programs from 300 to more than 1,400.

The center also hopes to continue to grow with the help of supporters ranging from elected officials, government agencies and corporate and private donations.

In addition to Gonzalez and Bonilla, the 80th Celebration gallery featured photos and text on Alexander Acevedo, a historian and gallerist; Joe Conzo, Sr., a Latin and jazz music historian; Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez, the 65th Secretary of State of New York; Grandmaster Melle Mel, the hip hop pioneer; Tito Puente, the jazz composer known as the King of Latin Music; Tina Ramirez, the founder of Ballet Hispanico; Lynn “Lady L” Saunders, a hip hop artist and youth educator; Edwin Torres, an author and New York State Supreme Court Judge; and Dave Valentin, the famed jazz flutist.

Also on display were items that signified each honoree, such as Grandmaster Melle Mel’s signature studded jacket, photographs of Gonzalez during his New York Times overseas assignments, an authentic jacket of Lady L to show her style, a copy of Edwin Torres’ novels Q&A and After Hours, (which were both turned into films) and many more.

Attendees snapped pictures and socialized all throughout the evening. Rafael Salamanca, the district manager of Bronx Community Board 2, made an appearance with his wife and baby to show his support.

No celebration would be complete without a fiesta. Along with music, food, wine and party hats, there was song, when everyone sang happy birthday to Bonilla, who was then presented with a cake in the shape of a conga drum.

Bonilla boasted about the success of Casita Maria and how it had such a powerful impact in his life. “I want another building next door!” Bonilla joked, reminiscing on the day he stumbled upon the organization, which was just a storefront in East Harlem at the time. Bonilla said that the employees sincerely care about the well being of each and every child in their programs.

Grandmaster Melle Mel explained how the program kept him off the streets. He gives Casita Maria credit for the fact that he never had a mark on his record, and for helping him make his dream a reality.

“I was a Casita Maria girl, and I’ve been that way all my life,” said alumna Tina Ramirez, who spent time in both the East Harlem and Bronx locations. Ramirez became a dancer and choreographer after her years at Casita.

The alumni present were all certain that Casita Maria will continue its mission and make sure children have a bright future ahead. “Keep following your dreams,” said Lynn “Lady L” Saunders, a hip hop artist and youth educator. “Dreams are real, and they can come true.”

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