Born in Puerto Rico, Tere Paniagua has put down roots in Syracuse while working to bridge the Latino communities in Syracuse and on the SU campus.
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By Tania Ortiz
Tere Paniagua thought she had left winter behind when she graduated Syracuse University in 1982. “That was it – no more snow, no more shoveling,” she thought. “I’m done with this. And I’m going back to my tropical paradise.”
And she did return to her native Puerto Rico, but Syracuse drew her back in when the opportunity to head a new cultural organization, La Casita, presented itself in 2011. Since then, Paniagua has worked to provide educational and artistic programs to the Latino community in Syracuse and to bridge the Latino communities of Syracuse University and Central New York.
She had a few other stops on her journey back to Syracuse, living in New York and Los Angeles and working as a news correspondent.
“I was a little bit of gypsy at one point,” she said. “I was working as a reporter then an editor, it was mostly print media. At one point, I wanted to make a change in my career. I had three children that I was raising by myself, and I needed to have a more flexible schedule. And the opportunity opened up for me to come to Syracuse and teach in the Spanish program in the Department of Languages. I designed a course … (Hispanic Journalistic Practices), which is a journalism workshop. I never imagined that I would be teaching.”
La Casita came into the picture in 2011, and created the opportunity for Paniagua to become the executive director of the Office of Culture Engagement for the Hispanic community.
The Stand talked to Paniagua as part of a series on leaders of color in the Syracuse community. To nominate someone for a future Q&A, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s more of our interview:
Q: How was the transition from being a reporter/correspondent to working with the community and in academia?
A: I feel that the work that I did in journalism really prepared me for what I do now. In a very special and interesting way. When you train as a journalist, you become a good listener, a good communicator, and I had that managerial experience as an editor managing multiple divisions. I think I had the opportunity to gain skills and experience in management of a large department of work, where people are working on many different things simultaneously. So, I’ve always thought that this background in journalism is something that prepares us for anything for anything and everything.
Q: Tell me a little bit about what La Casita does for the Latino community on and off campus?
A: The idea has always been to establish a cultural connection between the Latino community of the university, the academic community, and the city surrounding the university to have more of a presence in the city of Syracuse. … It’s really a collaboration with the community in addressing concerns. It’s something that has always been at the center of every program and activity at La Casita; to have an active participation of the community in determining a programming design, themes we’re going to examine through art exhibits and cultural programs.
There’s definitely been a gap in terms of cultural representation that I think La Casita helps to fill for the Latino community. La Casita is located off campus, we are in the near West Side of Syracuse and there’s a significant concentration of Latino families. The reason why the center is established here is because there is a community here that we want to support, and we want to engage. The center brings artistic and cultural events/programs. It also has educational programming for youth, an after school program. Every afternoon this place is full of kids and they’re learning music, dance, and art making.
Q: Is a lot of the programming at La Casita inspired by what you hear from the community, what you hear from students?
A: Even before the center first opened in 2011, a group of scholars and community members working together spend almost two years—I have documentation that goes back to 2009—where they were hosting meetings, focus groups in different community centers, schools, and really engaging with a community and collecting from the community their interests, their preference. “How do you feel about having a center like this? In your community? What would you like to see in a center like this?” That certainly indicated very clearly that one of the main areas of concern and that the community really wanted to have a safe space and learning space for children. Youth programming really became an extremely important part of our work here, based on what we were perceiving and what the community was communicating.
La Casita is truly the one and only Latino cultural center of its kind in this entire region, not only in the city of Syracuse. We try to be very intentional about making them a cultural representative of Latino heritage and exploring identity. I think that is part of what has really brought the center to be like an intergenerational dialogue that these programs are generating.
Q: Which programs at La Casita have been the most popular among the community?
A: There’s been programs for years that have been consistently offered. In terms of big events, there are several events throughout the year, which we do every year. We have the opening of the Fall exhibit, it’s like the official start of Hispanic Heritage Month—which is usually when we have the attention of the media. In terms of regular weekly programming, the reading circles have been part of our program since the start in 2011. We have a dance program too.
Q: Have any community members shared any experiences with disinformation or scams within the community with you?
A: A recurring conversation here is how the media in general tends to make us [the community] front page news everytime there is a shooting, everytime there is a violent incident. Everytime something terrible happens: “Oh, it’s on the West Side.” But you never, ever, ever see stories about the courage and the work that pulls these families through incredibly challenging situations. These are amazing stories and these are amazing people. And it’s not just La Casita, there is a lot of work being done in the community.
Tania Ortiz is a master’s student at the Newhouse of Syracuse University. Her work for The Stand is supported by the Knight Center and its Combatting Disinformation in Communities of Color grant program.