The nonprofit empowering the Sarasota and Manatee Latino population is celebrating its belated 10th anniversary with an event that aims to celebrate the union of culture and tradition.
What happens when you take a classical art form and merge it with something equally distinctive from a different culture?
They make beautiful music together.
That’s the lesson UnidosNow has been preaching for 12 years as it seeks to level the playing field for the Latino population of Sarasota and Manatee counties, and it’s the recipe for success that it designed for its long-delayed 10th anniversary celebration.
NocheUnidos, held over two days at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and Venice Performing Arts Theatre, will merge the talents of an orchestra and a world-famous mariachi band. Kelly Kirschner, the co-founder of UnidosNow, said he had seen a similar performance a decade ago with Mariachi Cobre and the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra.
Now, it’s Mariachi Cobre and the 72-piece Venice Symphony combining their talents.
“From the moment we saw it, it generated goosebumps,” said Kirschner, the mayor of Sarasota from 2010-11. “When you think about it initially, it’s like, ‘How in the heck is that going to work?’
“But then when it happens, it’s just such a rich sound. For us, as an organization that seeks to integrate our immigrant community into the fabric of our region culturally and politically and economically, it’s really such a beautiful metaphor of our work.”
UnidosNow was born to confront a simple reality: The Latino population of Sarasota and Manatee counties was exploding, but representation was not moving along with it. Kirschner said he initially was moved by the 2010 census, which showed that the local Latin American community had grown by 300% over a 20-year span.
And as far as Kirschner could tell, there was no nonprofit dedicated to nurturing that demographic.
UnidosNow filled that niche, and it has assisted more than 3,000 students over the past 12 years. It’s helped its students earn more than $8 million in scholarships to higher education, paving the way for a generational shift in Sarasota over the coming decades.
“If you look downstream at where we’re headed and the future of this community, many of the Manatee County elementary and middle schools are already at majority Latin populations,” says Kirschner. “High school is getting that way. As a community, we have to start looking at that and make sure that this is not an isolated and segregated community.
"We have to make sure we’re working very closely with them to push engagement across all sectors.”
It isn’t just about education, but that’s an important place to start. One of the signature achievements of UnidosNow is its Future Leaders Academy. Kirschner said that it’s like a college prep program that prepares students for their lives at a major university and beyond, and he hopes that many of its alumni will someday come home and pay it forward.
For Christina Unkel, the honorary chair of NocheUnidos, that’s an amazing development.
Unkel, a local attorney, said that her parents immigrated to America with the hope of giving her a better future, and UnidosNow is providing a road map to success for the next generation.
“It’s knowing what opportunities are out there and how to go about those opportunities,” she says. “When I learned what UnidosNow is doing with all their programming and helping to fill those gaps, I was like, ‘Shoot, my family could’ve used that. Families now can use that. Families moving forward can use that.’ This can launch our current generation and our next generation to do so much more and to truly have a seat at the table. If you see someone that looks like you succeeding, consciously or subconsciously, you believe you can fill that position at some point in the future. You can be that person.”
Unkel, a groundbreaking soccer referee in her spare time, said that phenomenon was hammered home for her at an event sponsored by The Florida Bar.
That event, Law Day, takes students and exposes them to practicing attorneys who tell them about their career. The first question that day, says Unkel, came from a young Hispanic boy who didn’t know that Hispanic women could be lawyers. The teacher looked mortified, says Unkel, and then a young Hispanic girl spoke up and said that she too didn’t know about that possibility.
“That’s when it hit me. For me, I’m just doing my thing,” says Unkel. “This generation of kids — and they’re probably now 10 or 11 years old — didn’t know Hispanic women could be attorneys because their moms and aunts are working jobs in the service industry. They’re not seeing women in professional capacities; they’re only seeing men in professional capacities. ... I want to make sure those kids get it. And do it. And then there’s another generation behind them. That’s what UnidosNow is really doing. When I learned that there was not just their mission but truly what they’re practicing, I wanted to be a part of it.”
That same mindset — wanting to be part of the change in the making — is what inspired artist Yulner Diaz, who designed the poster for NocheUnidos. Kirschner says that Diaz arrived in Sarasota as an undocumented immigrant with a dream of making it as an artist. He attended Ringling College of Art and Design and ultimately moved to Europe, but he’s been active in Sarasota’s community and was thrilled to be a part of NocheUnidos.
And his poster, which fuses the elements of the upcoming performance, speaks volumes.
Kirschner went through just a few of the images portrayed; there’s the Sarasota Bay at sunset, and the iconic Ringling Bridge. Then there’s a piñata, shaped like a cello, flanked by mariachi band members and an image of guest conductor Michelle Merrill.
The cello is emblazoned with the colors of the American flag, and the knot fastening it consists of red and blue threads symbolizing political divisions in America.
But the hope behind it all, says Kirschner, is that these disparate elements all strengthen each other.
“Immigration can be additive,” he says. “It’s not a zero sum game that it steals jobs and leads to issues of crime in a community. It builds upon what a community already has. You have that Old World genre of music in your classical orchestral music, and you have this New World genre of the iconic Mexican music that’s celebrated all throughout Latin America. You’re bringing them together to create something that’s really new. It has both aspects but is something unique and beautiful."
At root, says Kirschner, NocheUnidos is all about improving access and strengthening the community.
He hopes this festival will become an annual tradition, and over time, he wants to help Sarasota and Manatee counties do a better job of strengthening the figurative knot portrayed by Diaz.
“What I think will be really unique and rewarding is to see the diversity of the audience,” he says.
“What we saw in Orlando — and what we expect to see on May 20 and 21 — is a wide range of our Latin American community that will be there. But we also hope that the people who love orchestral music and go to Sarasota Orchestra or the Venice Symphony will attend as well. On the stage, it’s going to be a reflection of that rich diversity. But hopefully it will also be one in the seats in both the Van Wezel and the Venice Performing Arts Center.”
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