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'NocheUnidos' fundraiser melds new and old worlds

Mariachi Cobre will perform with the Venice Symphony at the Van Wezel to benefit nonprofit UnidosNow.

Mariachi Cobre will perform with the Venice Symphony on April 28 in a performance to benefit UnidosNow.
Mariachi Cobre will perform with the Venice Symphony on April 28 in a performance to benefit UnidosNow.
Courtesy photo
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The U.S. has long been described as a “melting pot,” but UnidosNow Board Chair Kelly Kirschner has a different metaphor: He sees a country founded by immigrants as a “fruit salad.”

Kirschner, a former mayor of Sarasota who helped found UnidosNow in 2010, sees another metaphor in the "NocheUnidos" performance that will take place at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall on April 28.

The benefit for UnidosNow will bring together superstars Mariachi Cobre and the 72-piece Venice Symphony for an evening that combines music from the New and Old Worlds. "People are surprised when they hear that a mariachi band is playing with a symphony," Kirschner says, "but for me it's a metaphor for the U.S."

Kirschner, the dean of the division of executive and continuing education at Eckerd College, was motivated to co-found UnidosNow after 2010 U.S. Census figures showed Hispanics made up 20% of the population in Sarasota, surpassing Blacks for the first time. After Kirschner dug deeper into the statistics, including city data, he learned that only 2% of Sarasota's Hispanics were registered to vote and just a third of this group went to the polls.

According to its website, UnidosNow's mission "is to elevate the quality of life of the growing Hispanic/Latino community in the Manatee and Sarasota region through education, integration and civic engagement."

Toward that end, one of the nonprofit's initiatives is a college prep program that has sent local Hispanic students to Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Yale, state colleges and technical institutes.

The late Hector Tejeda will be memorialized at a Van Wezel concert April 28 to benefit UnidosNow.
Courtesy photo

One dynamic part-time worker and volunteer in this program was the late Hector Tejeda, a retired Merck executive who moved to the Sarasota area. Tejeda, who died unexpectedly in September 2022, will be celebrated during the "NocheUnidos "concert, which is the main annual fundraiser for UnidosNow. 

"Hector's legacy embodies the hopes and aspirations we have for all of our local Hispanic and immigrants youths," Kirschner wrote in an op-ed piece in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on April 20.

Tejeda, a graduate of Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.,  became involved in UnidosNow after he saw an ad on Craigslist for a part-time job working with Hispanic high school students in the college-prep program, which was just getting started at the time.

"Not willing to risk his resume being ignored via email, Hector went directly to the nonprofit's office and told the small team why he was the ideal candidate for the job," Kirschner wrote. "He was hired on the spot and over the ensuing eight years as a woefully underpaid employee — and then as a dedicated volunteer — Hector influenced the lives of thousands of students and families."

Kirschner and Tejeda shared a connection to Guatemala. Kirschner was a Peace Corps volunteer and later a U.S. Agency for International Development employee in the Central American country in the late 1990s. Tejeda, who was born in Guatemala, was brought to the U.S. by his single mother in 1956, shortl before the beginning of the country's long-running civil war.

Kirschner is excited about "NocheUnidos," not least of all because the guest conductor will be Ismael Sandoval, a first-generation Mexican immigrant who came to the U.S. at the age of three. Sandoval is currently the assistant conductor of the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera in Tennessee.

"The mission of UnidosNow is to help students achieve their American dream," says Cintia Elenstar, executive director of UnidosNow. "Ismael serves as the perfect representation of the event and UnidosNow as a whole. He's an individual that has surpassed so many odds and expectations to become a nationally recognized conductor."

"We're extremely excited about bringing together so many incredible collaborators for this event," Sandoval said in a statement. "It is bound to be a night full of incredible energy with an emphasis on building bridges with other cultures and traditions. We hope that this night will bring a lot of positivity and light to the community and to everyone in attendance." 

Known as the "Rolling Stones" of Mariachi music, Mariachi Cobre is a 52-year-old band originally discovered by Walt Disney. The band has performed with the Boston Pops, Julio Iglesias and Linda Ronstadt among others. 

"NocheUnidos" is presented by Gulf Coast Community Foundation and Czaia Law. All funds raised from the event will go to UnidosNow. 



Monica Roman Gagnier

Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

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