These amazing individuals, chosen by community members from our Steering Committee, have demonstrated meaningful service and commitment to El Barrio and Latino communities throughout New York City.
JESÚS “PAPOLETO” MELÉNDEZ
Poet, Playwright, Performance Artist and long-time El Barrio resident
Long considered one of the original founders of the Nuyorican Movement, Meléndez addresses political, intellectual and linguistic topics in his work that remain relevant today. A New York-born Puerto Rican award-winning poet, playwright, teacher and activist, he began his career nearly 40 years ago as a poet-facilitator in public schools, working at workshop programs in California and New York. In 1974, Meléndez’s play, “The Junkies Stole The Clock,” was the first Latino play produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival, The Public Theatre’s Nuyorican Playwright’s Unit. Over the years, Meléndez has performed his poetry with his musical group “Exiled Genius,” with Eugene Mingus on piano, and M’Chaka Uba on bass, a trio that combined the tradition of jazz spontaneity and precision with the natural melody of the poetic voice in poetry/jazz collaboration.
J.W. Cortés is an award-winning actor, Marine combat veteran, singer, filmmaker and philanthropist. Born and raised in Sunset Park Brooklyn, to inspiring Puerto Rican parents, he developed an interest in the arts along with a desire to serve his community and country. Recognized for his drive, talent and positive attitude, Cortés has become one of the most respected prime-time Puerto Rican actors on television today.
Actor and Writer
Sonia Manzano has affected the lives of millions since the early 1970s, as the actress who defined the role of “Maria” on the acclaimed television series Sesame Street. Sonia has won fifteen Emmy Awards for her television writing. Manzano’s new book is a memoir, Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx (Scholastic) which was distinguished as a Notable Book of 2015 / NYTimes. Manzano is also the author of several picture books, No Dogs Allowed, A Box Full of Kittens and most recently Miracle on 133rd Street(Simon and Schuster). Her first novel, The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano(Scholastic), was a 2012 Pura Belpré Honor Book and a Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2012. People magazine has named Sonia one of America’s most influential Hispanics. She lives in NYC.
Musician and Educator
Arturo O’Farrill is a world-renowned, Grammy Award-winning pianist, composer, and educator. In 2002, he created the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra in order to bring the vital musical traditions of Afro Latin jazz to a wider audience and greatly expand the contemporary Latin jazz big band repertoire. In 2007, he established the nonprofit Afro Latin Jazz Alliance as a new institutional support for the Orchestra. A celebrated composer with a ground-breaking and forward- looking perspective, O’Farrill has received commissions from Meet the Composer, the Big Apple Circus, the Philadelphia Music Project, Symphony Space, and the Bronx Museum of the Arts. He is currently on the faculty at Brooklyn College and the Manhattan School of Music. O’Farrill is a Steinway Artist and Artist-in-Residence along with the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra at the Harlem School of the Arts and a member of the Board of Governors of the New York Chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
Dancer and Choreograppher; Co-founder of the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance
An award winning New York-Rican dancer and choreographer, Arthur is the recipient of several awards including a Bessie Award, an Arts and Letters Award from Bard College, the Creative Artist Image Award from NYC Comptroller Bill Thompson and the Mayor’s Award for Art and Culture. He is founder of Arthur Aviles Typical Theatre (AATT), which serves as the basis of the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance.
DR. THOMAS HOWARD, JR.
Executive Director of Boys & Girls Harbor
With more than 25 years of experience in the field of education, with particular focus in working with students and teachers to put education innovations into practice, Thomas has served as the Executive Director of Boys & Girls Harbor since 2010. He has a great interest in youth & education in East Harlem, and works closely with the Berklee City Music Network, a Harbor partner that has provided a number of students with summer arts program scholarships at the Berklee College of Music.
KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD
Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Activist, scholar and author, Khalil is director of Arturo Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture which today serves as a powerful cultural bridge between Harlem’s Latino/a and Black neighbors. He is the author of award-winning book “The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America.” Khalil is now working on his second book, “Disappearing Acts: The End of White Criminality in the Age of Jim Crow,” which traces the historical roots of the changing demographics of crime and punishment so evident today.
JOSE ORTIZ (DR. DRUM)
Musician, and Co-founder and musical director of BombaYo!
A Bronx-native, Jose is a self-taught percussionist of Afro Caribbean rhythms. For the past 15 years he has taught at numerous schools throughout NYC and has developed original curricula for teaching percussion to young people. As co-founder and musical director of BombaYo Afro-Puerto Rican Youth Project, Jose’s work helps youth members develop a strong sense of identity and responsibility through actively exploring their cultural roots. He sees this art form as a vehicle for self-discipline, cultural affirmation, and healing.
Democratic District Leader for the 68th Assembly District in East Harlem
Committed to community service from a young age, Johnny organized a successful protest at the age of 16, demanding that local elected officials stop blocking state funds to renovate an abandoned building to be used for affordable housing. This accomplishment won him the New Yorker Award from the Citizen’s Committee of New York City. Since then, Johnny has held leadership positions at Harlem RBI/DREAM Charter School and Mount Sinai Medical Center. Most recently, he was elected as the Democratic District Leader for the 68th Assembly District in East Harlem.
A young artist who uses poetry and spoken word to address issues of gang violence, child trafficking, hip-hop culture and self-worth, Nene has been the recipient of the Nelson Mandela “Community Activist Award” and others. Through her spoken word and music, she continues to uplift people.
Family and Community Engagement Coordinator, The Renaissance for Innovation Charter High School
Striving to empower families while connecting them to community resources, native East Harlemite Elsie, takes great pride in representing her diverse community and working towards its empowerment. Most recently, she began teaching a Young Women’s Leadership class to strengthen the leadership skills of at-risk girls at Innovation. Previously, she served as Director of Youth Services for Council Speaker Melissa Mark–Viverito, where she worked with District 4 schools in Manhattan. Currently, she is the Chair of the Education Sub—Group of the East Harlem Steering Committee, working to enhance opportunities for schools in the district.
SANDRA MARÍA ESTEVES
Poet-The Godmother of the Nuyorican Poets / Artivist (Artist-Activist)
Bronx-native Sandra believes that creativity is the antithesis to violence. Focused on transformation and empowerment through reflection and analysis of real life issues, she has published several poetry collections, including Bluestown Mockingbird Mambo and her first book, Yerba Buena. Previously she served as Executive Director/Producer of the African Caribbean Poetry Theater. In addition, she has been a teaching artist for more than thirty-five years, and taught creative writing workshops for the New York City Board of Education, El Museo del Barrio, and many more.
Artistic Director, Bronx Music Heritage Center, and Director of City Lore
For nearly twenty years, Elena has been a Folklorist at City Lore, and has been Co-Artistic Director of the Bronx Music Heritage Center since 2012. She co-produced the documentary, From Mambo to Hip Hop: A South Bronx Tale, which aired on PBS in September 2006. She is also a producer for the forthcoming documentary, We Like It Like That: The Story of Latin Boogaloo, which premiered at the SXSW Festival earlier this year. In the visual arts, Elena served as Assistant Curator for the exhibit, “Nueva York: 1613-1945” at El Museo del Barrio in 2010. She has been awarded a 2013 BOROMIX Puerto Rican Heritage Award and Comité Noviembre’s Lo Mejor de Nuestra Comunidad 2013.
Author and Activist
Self-professed “Ivy League homegirl,” Sofia is a writer, producer, activist, educator, and speaker. Under the pen name Black Artemis, Sofia has written several hip-hop novels for adults including “Explicit Content,” “Picture Me Rollin,’” and “Burn.” Under her real name, she has published the award-winning young adult novel “Efrain’s Secret” and numerous short stories and novelas. Her latest novel “Show and Prove” is set in New York City in the summer of 1983 was called a “powerful and thought-provoking… homage to a climactic hip-hop era.”
ELI S. ALVARADO
Former President of La Casa de la Herencia Puertorriqueña
(d. – January 30, 2015)
An accomplished visual artist, poet, and the author and artistic director of various play productions, Eli was also one of the most ardent proponents of our Puerto Rican culture. His paintings reflect the love he had for Puerto Rico, and many aspects of his life and culture. Eli devoted more than 20 years of his life to the development and preservation of La Casa de la Herencia Puertorriqueña.
LOUIS FELIPE NUÑEZ
Former ASPIRA Director
(October 31, 1931 – April 30, 2015)
Born in East Harlem to a Puerto Rican mother and Peruvian father, Louis was a staunch advocate of educational and economic opportunity for Puerto Ricans for more than three decades. After graduating from Morris High School in the Bronx and City College with a degree in business administration, and a short stint in the Army from 1953 to 1956, he went on to serve on New York City’s Board of Higher Education; as national executive director of Aspira, a leadership development and educational counseling agency; as staff director of the United States Commission on Civil Rights; and as president of the National Puerto Rican Coalition. Louis served on the civil rights commission in various roles for nine years, including acting director during the administration of President Richard M. Nixon. He retired as president of the National Puerto Rican Coalition in 1994.
CARMEN M. PIETRI-DIAZ
Former Executive Director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe
(d. – July 17, 2015)
Former executive director of the world renown, Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and co-administrator of the Pedro Pietri Benefit Fund, Carmen was publicly honored with the title of executive director emeritus of the Nuyorican Cafe in 2008. e metropolitan area. Pietri-Diaz sat on the boards of various cultural organizations, including the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center and the Federation of EasShe continues to be active in community and cultural affairs and was President and CEO of Zero Budget Productions.
ANITA VELEZ MITCHELL
Founding Member of La Casa de la Herencia Cultural Puertorriqueña
(February 21, 1916 – July 10, 2015)
A long-time advocate and protagonist in the arts, Anita performed the role of Anita in the 1963 production of “West Side Story” and coached the Sharks gang members a decade later in the Lincoln Center revival directed by Lee Theodore. She culminated her performing career in April 2015 at the age of 99, giving a stunning video performance in the Off-Off Broadway production of “Comida de Puta,” a new play by Desi Moreno-Penson. Anita is also the subject of the multiple award-winning documentary, “Anita Velez: Dancing Through Life,” by daughter and TV journalist Jane Velez-Mitchell. Her body of work is in the archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, Hunter College, CUNY in New York City. As a cultural arts representative, Anita addressed the UN General Assembly over nine times to protest the U.S. Navy’s bombing maneuvers on Vieques, Puerto Rico, which has resulted in birth defects and ecological damage to the island and its phosphorescent sea.