The stories that placed these three women in Halifax are different. But the desire to gather and celebrate the cultural heritage of where they were born and raised led to strong friendships and mobilized them to start the Latispánica Cultural Association.
“Latispánica is a way to teach my children where they come from,” says Patricia Belleza.
Originally from Peru, Belleza arrived in Canada in 1994, following her older sisters who had come years before to work for families as a live-in nannies. The families often travelled between Ontario and Nova Scotia, with the sisters following along.
The two years that Belleza worked for a family, they were based in Sudbury, but by then her two older sisters, Mariella and Roxana, had left their families and established themselves in Halifax.
“There’s no comparison between Halifax and Ontario—Halifax is the best,” says Belleza, repeating the initial feedback she received from her sisters. They liked everything about the capital city of Nova Scotia. Being a city by the sea, it reminded them of their birthplace in Lima and they wanted to live somewhere quiet.
With such good references, Belleza moved to Halifax as soon as her contract with the family in Ontario ended. She did all kinds of jobs until she could put her Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Payroll Compliance Practitioner certificate to work in Canada and do what she was trained for. Since 1999, she has been an administrative assistant at Highway 104 Western Alignment Corporation, a Crown agency that oversees the operation of the Cobequid Pass.
Belleza has two children, Andres and Isabel, both born in Canada.
Ruth Pérez Calderón is a chemist who arrived to Canada in 2006 after looking for a country where she could find the support for scientific research that she was missing in Peru as well as a safe place for her daughter’s education.
Pérez, her husband and daughter applied for a permanent residency permit for Canada.
While the application was being processed, Pérez worked in a laboratory similar to the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), so she started building up a network of connections early on, which served her well. Once her application was approved, the NRC initially offered her a visiting worker position. She accepted and moved here alone, with her husband and daughter following a few months later. After six months at the NRC, Pérez was offered a short contract followed by the full-time position that she holds to this day. In 2010 she became a Canadian citizen.
Like Belleza, Pérez loved the fact that Halifax was a city by the sea. Also like her, she started looking for other Hispanic people to connect with once she settled in her new home. “A colleague from work, who is from Chile, gave me some phone numbers and the first person I contacted was Magali.”
“The common language connects you, you feel safer with someone that speaks your same language and has similar or the same background and values.”
Magali Dam-Mazzi is the acting president of the Latispánica Cultural Association. She arrived in Canada in 1989, escaping the armed conflicts that terrorized Peru in the 80s, landing in Toronto with her husband and year-and-a-half-old baby. They choose to come to Canada to provide a better future for their daughter.
In Toronto, the couple worked different jobs to provide for their daughter and became Canadian citizens three years later. As things in Peru changed, life brought them back to Lima for seven years in 1994, and then economic difficulties brought them back to Canada in 2002.
The re-introduction to Canada came with challenges, including their 14-year-old daughter being separated from friends. Dam-Mazzi’s husband also struggled to find employment in the Toronto area, but he ended up getting an offer at Acadian Seaplants in Dartmouth, so the family relocated in the East Coast.
In Halifax, Dam-Mazzi identified many universities teaching Spanish and saw an opportunity. She introduced herself to all the university Chairs, with her Mass Media Communication degree and a master’s in Spanish Culture and Language from Salamanca, Spain, in hand to land a teaching position. Eventually, she was hired at various universities and worked her way up to her current role as a professor in the Department of Spanish and Latin American Studies at Dalhousie University.
“The common language connects you, you feel safer with someone that speaks your same language and has similar or the same background and values,” explains Dam-Mazzi when sharing how she met the other members of Latispánica.
An association to celebrate Hispanic cultural heritage
Latispánica Cultural Association originated with Pérez and Dam-Mazzi while having breakfast with a friend, also from Peru. Most of their gatherings would end up with them dancing to traditional Peruvian music. “Ruth loves to dance,” says Dam-Mazzi.
“At the beginning of 2000, there were only 900 Spanish speakers in Nova Scotia. It was unusual to hear someone on the street speaking Spanish in Halifax. The cultural diversity was limited. There was not an organization that promoted or celebrated the Hispanic culture in many of their manifestations. So, we said, ‘Let’s start one, let’s unify efforts in one organization and celebrate together our diversity and our culture’,” Dam-Mazzi explains.
The initial idea was to gather for the July 28 Independence Day in Peru to celebrate not just Peruvian but all the other Latin American cultures. Dam-Mazzi reached out to her connections at Dalhousie to find a venue and the event was a success.
It was the seed from which Latispánica Cultural Association bloomed, officially registering as a non-profit organization in 2012.
The founding group had about 10 members from Peru, Mexico, Colombia, Cuba, Venezuela and Costa Rica. The group focused on traditional dances first, expanding later to workshops, movie events, cooking classes, poetry workshops, crafts and traditional festivities that characterize most of the Latin American countries, showcasing something other than the ballroom dances that Latin America might be better known for.
“We wanted to distant ourselves from groups teaching ballroom dances like salsa, bachata and merengue, we didn’t want to stereotype the Latin American culture but to open people’s minds and show there’s much more,” Dam-Mazzi explains. “For our children, who grew up in Canada, to understand where they were coming from, what is their heritage, to build a connection, and also to educate the Haligonian population who, for the most part, not generalizing, didn’t know anything about the vast variety of Latin American culture.”
Latispánica also has an important fundraising element in order to support those in need in both Latin America and Nova Scotia. In the 10 years of activity, the association has hosted Gala Latina, raising funds for different NGOs that support children who suffer from economic and social difficulties in Peru, Mexico, Guatemala, Argentina and also here in Halifax.
Pérez says the organization has been well received by the local community. “From the foundation of Latispánica, we became better known and we are always invited in most of the cultural events in Halifax to perform our traditional dances. That is also an activity that we do during the year.” Their performances include dances like the Colombian cumbia La Pollera Colora, the Paraguayan Pájaro campana, the Mexican Jarabe Tapatío, the Nicaraguan Palo de mayo, the Bolivian Saya or the Peruvian Marinera that they performed at The Top 25 Immigrants In The Maritimes gala in 2017.
“We didn’t want to stereotype the Latin American culture but to open people’s minds and show there’s much more.”
The future of Latispánica
The association is run by volunteers but the lack of new volunteers has ended the annual galas. “Unfortunately, in the past year, we had no Galas. We have fewer volunteers who can remain with us during the year, making it challenging to continue doing the Gala,” Dam-Mazzi says.
A partnership with the Halifax Public Libraries freed them from part of this organizational burden and they found the space and support to offer cooking classes, craft and poetry workshops or to celebrate the Día de Los Muertos and Carnival in 2019.
For 2020, Latispánica and the library were planning a big event at the Central Library celebrating the Latin American Heritage Month in October but it was cancelled due to the pandemic.
The future of Latispánica depends on bringing in new volunteers with new ideas.
“Latispánica is an association of volunteers, we are not paid but we work for the love to promote culture. That’s where I want to put the emphasis. We are looking for people who love the culture and are looking for work on promoting it voluntarily,” Belleza says.
“We are grateful for all these years Latispánica has worked in Nova Scotia to promote and celebrate the Hispanic culture, diversity, and integration. It has been wonderful years. We had also supported other cultural organizations in these years and NGO who work for the well-being of children in need. The organization’s future might be uncertain, but we have to be proud of what we have done in all these years. We hope we can continue, reinvented and energized with new members. Let’s move forward!” Dam-Mazzi concludes.
If you are considering getting involved in Latispánica, contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.