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Kids Rediscover Culture Of Kin

An arm of the Puerto Rican government is helping Puerto Rican kids preserve their heritage by holding year-round cultural events.


August 15, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.

To Manuel Benitez-Gorbea, it's important that his kids know what a plena and a bomba are, what a pastel is, and how it's made.

Unfortunately, many kids of Puerto Rican descent growing up in the States don't know that the first two are traditional island song styles and that the third is a popular food.

Benitez-Gorbea, region director of the South Florida arm of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, wants to change that.

For the past three years, he has run a one-week summer camp out of the agency's Coral Gables office at 800 Douglas Rd., where kids of Puerto Rican descent are immersed in the culture -- its sayings, its foods, its songs.

Last week, a native artist taught about 26 kids how to paint El Morro, a famous lighthouse in San Juan, and the national flower, the amapola, or hibiscus to us in the States.

''I think it's a test in focus, to have like eight conversations at once,'' said their teacher, Elizabeth Erazo Baez. ``But I enjoyed it very much.''

Erazo Baez said she was proud of her culture and was glad they picked her to help share it.

A few kids, like 11-year-old José Lopez, already knew about some of the things they were painting.

''I was in Puerto Rico a little while ago,'' he said Wednesday.

But he wouldn't trade the camp for anything, he said, and he wants to come back next year.

''I like it a lot, because they're showing us a lot about Puerto Rico. And they show you how to express yourself through painting,'' he said.

Eight-year-old Amanda Silva said her favorite of the week's paintings was the amapola.

''It's fun painting, getting all messy,'' she said.

The camp is free to children of Puerto Rican descent, but space is limited.

Each year, Benitez-Gorbea wants to try a new theme, all with the goal of making sure the kids don't forget their heritage.

''The school system doesn't teach much Puerto Rican culture,'' said the director, whose sons were in the camp this year.

The office, an arm of the Puerto Rican government, gives Puerto Ricans in the United States a place to network for business and social purposes, and to get help finding housing or a job.

''We do a lot of social services here,'' he said.

They hold seminars on different subjects throughout the year and help business owners both in the United States and Puerto Rico, who might want to start businesses in either place.

The office does other things to promote Puerto Rican culture. Every June 23, for example, they celebrate the ''night of San Juan,'' where everyone bathes at night at the beach.

Here, they have gone to Key Biscayne to show the kids what it's all about.

Then they have the asaltos navideños, which, literally translated, means ''Christmas attacks,'' but is really a custom where people go from home to home on Christmas Eve singing Christmas carols, drinking and gathering more people for the traveling party at each home.

Some kids have no clue what their parents are talking about when they describe those events.

''They don't have the understanding because they haven't lived it,'' he said.

With their help, they will live it here, Benitez-Gorbea said.

The agency sends out newsletters throughout the year and acts as a resource for Puerto Ricans in the United States. To get on the distribution list, log on to their website at, or call 305-448-5145.

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