by Maximilian Eyle
La Casita Cultural Center and Punto de Contacto (Point of Contact) are two of the foremost Latino cultural institutions in Syracuse. Point of Contact is celebrating its 42nd year of showcasing Latin American contemporary art and literature, while the newer La Casita has blossomed into an active community center that provides educational opportunities, historical awareness, and cultural exhibitions. A peek behind the curtain of each reveals the tireless work of Tere Paniagua, Executive Director of Cultural Engagement for the Hispanic Community at Syracuse University – an educator of Puerto Rican descent who has been a driving force in Syracuse’s art and culture community for over 15 years.
Tere is a slender, energetic woman with long silver hair and an ever-present smile. Before coming to Syracuse, Tere spent over 20 years working as a journalist profiling artists and literary figures in Puerto Rico and Los Angeles. She earned her degree from Syracuse University, Class of ‘82 and developed a strong connection to the city where she has now raised three children. In 2002 she started work at SU’s Latino and Latin American Studies program (LLAS) and the Department of Languages, where she began teaching and designed her own course in Spanish titled Hispanic Journalistic Practices. One of her colleagues was Point of Contact founder, Pedro Cuperman. She began helping him out and working with him during her extra time and soon fell in love with the gallery’s projects.
Today she is Point of Contact’s Executive Director, working to further the gallery’s role as a platform for showcasing visual artists and literary figures from Latin America. “People often have a preconceived notion of what Latin American art is,” Tere explains, “Point of Contact allows us to break many of those stereotypes.” One of the most important things that the gallery does is shine light on new artists, drawing attention to emerging voices in the arts community. Currently, Point of Contact is working with Abisay Puentes to plan a show for next year. The Cuban-born painter is known for his dual approach of presenting his visual work with a corresponding orchestral soundtrack.
Tere’s second project, La Casita, opened in 2011 with a distinct mission: to focus on the local community, to work with Syracuse youth, and to provide educational programs that integrate with the life of the community. La Casita presents opportunities for students that have a special interest in Syracuse’s Latino community to work as volunteers, mentors, and instructors. They exhibit visual arts, music, and dance – including monthly Argentine tango events. Tere says the goal is to choose “exhibitions that document the traditions and the life of this community.” Exhibits often include historic photos, memorabilia, and other artifacts that tell family histories among Latinos in Syracuse.
There is also an archival element to the work of La Casita. In 2017, they featured a beautiful collection of traditional musical instruments from Caribbean cultures that examines the history of that musical heritage. Before that, there was an exhibition telling the stories of Latino veterans and documenting the experiences of local and campus Latino families who had members in the military, with interviews exploring their experiences. Two years ago, La Casita entered into a partnership with the Smithsonian Institution to engage in a project that would showcase community collections. The theme of the project is “Latinos in Baseball”, presenting a view of Latino baseball culture “from the barrios to the big leagues.” The Smithsonian project now includes nearly 2 dozen partner galleries and cultural centers across the nation and will culminate in an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. in 2020 before becoming a traveling show.
“The scope of these projects would not be possible without the help and support of Syracuse University and the College of Arts & Sciences,” Tere explains. But the benefits are not one sided. While the community is nourished by the many cultural resources provided by La Casita and Point of Contact, the University is rewarded with a wealth of opportunities for student involvement, experiential learning and career advancement. Speaking to the future of Latinos in Syracuse, Tere reinforces the importance of these cultural institutions. “We ought to feel very proud of this community,” Tere says, “It is essential that we expose our youth, our students to our proud history, to our rich traditions, and to the art of our people.”
The Point of Contact Gallery is located at The Warehouse Building, 350 W Fayette St, Syracuse, NY 13202
La Casita Cultural Center is located at 109 Otisco St, Syracuse, NY 13204
Maximilian Eyle is a native of Syracuse, NY and a graduate of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He works as a media consultant and writes each month about a variety of issues for Spanish-language papers across New York State. Maximilian has a love of Hispanic culture and learned Spanish while living in Spain where he studied and worked as an English teacher. He can be contacted at email@example.com.