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Culture and Creativity: Festival de Bellas Artes showcases local youth talent

As a Spanish-language choir teacher, Anne Marie Strangio found out there were hardly any venues where her students could perform.

“The choir festivals were really designed around western European arts, and we couldn’t find a home,” she said. “We were unable to get adjudicated at the existing festivals. So I decided to take my toys and start a new festival. … They were kids that did not have a traditional music background and kids who didn’t have fancy matching dresses, just kids that wanted to sing the songs of their people, songs that their parents had taught them and songs that were in their language and represented their culture.”

Strangio, who is now principal of Lew Wallace Elementary School, eventually joined forces with Albuquerque Public Schools Fine Arts, Title I and the National Hispanic Cultural Center to create the Festival de Bellas Artes, which celebrates a decade of performances this year. The festival offers workshops and features performances by elementary, middle and high school groups showcasing music, dance and more from a variety of cultural backgrounds.

Forty performing groups made up of 1,500 students are part of this year’s festival.

“We really are not as much about performance and more about the sharing of culture,” Strangio said. “So some of our groups, they won’t be participating this year, but the Pow Wow Club from La Mesa every year comes, and they’re not doing their dances and their drumming for an audience. They’re doing it for their culture to express a message, and we just get to be there to witness and to participate in their gracious sharing of their culture. So it’s really less oriented about performance-ready or polished performances and more about how we change the world by sharing our cultures through arts.”

Students will participate in workshops beginning on Tuesday, Feb. 5, that run the gamut from mariachi music and folklorico dance to taiko drumming, African dance, Korean pop dance, belly dancing and more.

“When we started, we were really a primarily Hispanic culture festival, even though we called ourself a multicultural festival, so it’s been really exciting to open ourselves up to Native art, to African arts, to broadening our understanding of what Hispanic arts look like,” Strangio said. “Students will be taking workshops this year in Haitian dance and African movements. We have an aboriginal woman from Australia who will come and share some music. We have an artist from Bolivia coming to share music. Mariachi workshops all over the place. So not only do they get to express their own culture, but then they get a chance to learn a broader sense of what it means to be part of a multicultural society by studying other culture’s arts.”

The public will get to see the students shine during open performances by elementary students on Thursday, Feb. 7, and middle school and high school students on Feb. 8 in the Albuquerque Journal Theatre at the National Hispanic Cultural Center.

“The kids get on the stage that first day, and I think there’s nothing else I could do,” Strangio said. “It is so amazing I cry every single year, and I’m so excited that we’re at 10 years. When we started this, it was me and my three friends who taught mariachi and folklorico, and we did this cool little thing and I thought that would be the end of it. It never occurred to me that it would turn into this massive, integral part of multicultural music in Albuquerque. It’s pretty cool.”