Arts committee honors Paso Nuevo

If you ask Christian Sanchez, a 16-year-old from Columbia Heights, where he’d be right now if he hadn’t joined Paso Nuevo, the after-school arts workshop at GALA Hispanic Theatre, eight years ago, he would not have said “the East Room in the White House.” But that’s exactly where he was Tuesday afternoon, accepting an award on Paso Nuevo’s behalf.

Paso Nuevo was honored by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities with the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards, which recognize excellent after-school and out-of-school arts programs that foster creativity among underserved children. It is the nation’s highest honor of its kind. A dozen programs are rewarded annually with a $10,000 grant, a year of support and a ceremony at the White House at which representatives from each organization accept the award from the first lady.

GALA’s program, which is more than 20 years old, targets at-risk Latino youth in the D.C. area. In each of the three main cycles — winter, spring and fall — a group of 25 students meets four times a week to study the work of Hispanic authors and write their own material: poetry, short plays, songs, monologues. All classes are taught in Spanish and English. At the end of each session, the students perform their work on GALA’s main stage, as well as participate in the backstage end of production by working on lights, sound, design and publicity, and they each receive a stipend. Those who have a passion for music that doesn’t extend to theater can join the Paso Nuevo band, EsLatin, which recently recorded a six-song demo CD.

What would Sanchez’s answer have been to that “where would he be now” question? Prison.

“Honestly, I think I would be probably sitting behind bars,” he said. “I see a lot of different people on my way to GALA. I see young teenagers with drugs and getting themselves into trouble that they don’t need to be in. A couple days ago, I saw a 10- or 11-year-old I knew who was getting locked up for having marijuana on him. And I was like, what if I never joined GALA? What if I was out here, outside on this street? I think GALA saved me from a lot trouble.”

First lady Michelle Obama congratulated the dozen honorees and the educators who lead them. “You make this happen on shoestring budgets . . . to give these kids opportunities worthy of their promise.”

She spoke to the “labor of love” it has been to “make the White House a showcase for America’s rich cultural life,” and said she and the president “are looking forward to another four years to do even more.”

Rebecca Read Medrano, co-founder and executive director of GALA, said this is the third year that Paso Nuevo has applied for the honor. As for why 2012 was “the magic year,” as she put it, she cited “the changing environment of Latinos. People are realizing the contributions [of Latinos] and that the demographics are changing. One in every four kids in this area is Latino now. There’s an awareness that they need to have a voice.”

Medrano said that teenagers who complete the Paso Nuevo program graduate high school at a 15 to 20 percent higher rate than teens who don’t participate. “The important thing is, are these kids able to survive in a city like this where they might be on the streets in gangs?” she said. “The arts are able to turn that around. That’s a huge contribution to society and to these kids.”

Obama wrapped up her remarks with a call to action. “If [these students] draw on their own talent, courage and creativity . . . then they can truly make something extraordinary of their lives. Because that’s what we expect — extraordinary.”

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