Hispanic Heritage Month: Community service through the arts

When people think of serving their community, it often takes the form of serving a neighborhood’s immediate needs. But for Annette Ramos and her mentee Justin Delinois, it means serving their community creatively.

“I come from a family of leaders, and I knew I wanted to be a leader but I knew that my leadership looked different than the kind of hard public service or not-for-profit service that my family had done,” Delinois said.

The 26-year-old met Ramos when he was a sophomore in high school. He’d seen a play that his aunt had performed in. It was part of Ramos’ recently-formed Rochester Latino Theatre Company (RLTC).

“[RLTC] is the only dual language theater company in Rochester,” Ramos said. “For the Latino community to hear our stories in our language, to understand the challenges of being biracial or mixed or even Nuyorican — these are the challenges of identity that we portrayed in our original stories.”

It’s something that spoke to Delinois.

“Negotiating my identity of being Caribbean, of being Black and Puerto Rican, and these intersections was something that I could not find great space to explore,” he said. “When I saw the play and I saw the work that they were doing to kind of create that for people like me, I immediately took the opportunity.”

When he first reached out, Delinois did so cautiously. He said he’d hoped for a tech role, or something else small behind the scenes.

“Her response to me was, ‘Great, I have a show in a couple of months, let’s get you in!’” Delinois said, laughing.

After being pushed into the spotlight, he started to get involved more and more. And, as he did, the unique program began to grow into community programming. This was a strong spot for Delinois, who eventually became vice president of community outreach.

“Slowly and surely Annette was confident in my abilities and who I was as a person and saw my potential,” he said. “[She] just kept saying yes to every time I would ask to take a risk, I’d be like’ ‘Can I do this?’ and she’d be like, ‘Sure!’”

Part of what made taking those risks so easy as a teen was that Ramos always had his back.

“If there was anything that ever happened, right, I could run to her and say ‘Mom, I don’t understand this, I’m confused by this,’” he said.

Ramos said it was an easy choice to take on any of Delinois’ ideas. And while she’s taught him the ins and out of art with an impact, she says it’s gone both ways.

“He really has his finger on the pulse of his generation but not as an observer but an emerging leader, what is not being said, who is not being heard,” Ramos said. “He will come to me and he’ll say, ‘Mama Ramos let me tell you, I have this notion, I have this view’ — that always expands my view.”

The Rochester Latino Theatre Company at an event in the community. (Courtesy Annette Ramos)

For Ramos, broadening viewpoints is what the company is all about. While their theatre is meant to share the stories of countless cultures in a common language, the company does much more, she said.

“It’s also about advancing artists in the community and all the avenues that we serve in,” she said.

In the past, they’ve worked towards this goal through their community partners. RLTC has teamed up with the University of Rochester, Rochester Institute of Technology, and the Memorial Art Gallery to put on performances, highlight Latino artists, and generally celebrate Hispanic culture.

Delinois said that when it comes to understanding other cultures, especially a set of cultures as massive and diverse as those of Hispanic people, art is vital.

“Because you can allow people to shift their perspectives,” he said. “View it in a different way, provide context to it so they can see the full picture of who we are.”

To learn more about the RLTC, visit its Facebook page here.