For Carmen Febo San Miguel, former executive director of the arts nonprofit Taller Puertorriqueño, her 22 years at the organization’s helm can be divided into two periods: before the building of El Corazón Cultural Center — a 24,000-square-foot community hub in Philadelphia’s Fairhill neighborhood — and after.
The latter chapter is a much more stable one for Taller, whose mission is to connect Philly residents, most of whom are part of Puerto Rican and Latino diasporas, to their cultures through the arts.
Despite financial rough patches in the early 2000s where grant money and donations fell short, Taller’s programming has been vital to Fairhill, the predominantly Puerto Rican section of the city where the organization is located. Its influence has only been further cemented by the 2016 opening of its new headquarters, after more than a decade of planning and fund-raising.
Through it all, Febo San Miguel, 73, is largely credited as the driving force willing Taller’s future into existence.
“She really had that grit to say, ‘Maybe I don’t have that money right now’ or ‘I don’t know where it’s going to come from, but I know it’s going to happen,’” said Yolanda Alcorta, cofounder of Raíces Culturales Latinoamericanas, another arts organization and frequent collaborator with Taller.
The Taller of today isn’t dealing with that sort of uncertainty. It has a proven track record and is in a strong financial position. It’s in this new era of stability that Febo San Miguel retired after 36 years with the organization in various capacities. Monday was her official last day after agreeing to stay a couple of months to help her replacement in the transition.
“I’m gonna take the opportunity to travel more, to spend more time in Puerto Rico with family,” said Febo San Miguel. “Then stay connected to some issues that affect me and are very close and dear to me, and probably continue to support Taller in some way or another.”
To fully absorb Febo San Miguel’s contributions and Taller’s significance to Fairhill, it’s important to understand that getting people to believe in the vision Febo San Miguel and her colleagues had for Taller was near herculean.
Taller’s building, which prominently displays sculptures, photographs, paintings, and mangas made by the children and teens who take part in the organization’s programming, was hard to imagine back in the late 2000s.
Febo San Miguel was pitching a cultural center at West Huntingdon and North Fifth Streets complete with an art gallery and gift shop that would feature books written by Black authors and other writers of color.
According to census data looking at the years 2014 through 2018, Fairhill had a poverty rate of 55%, the highest in one of the largest poor cities in the country. Just as it is today, the disinvestment in the community was visible blocks east and west of the proposed location by way of abandoned lots.
Febo San Miguel would shore up the organization’s finances over time and eventually raise the $11 million needed for the cultural center through a mix of city and state grants, as well as philanthropic donations. But even as the organization’s fortunes turned, there were still those with doubts.
Febo San Miguel recalls a Department of Commerce representative telling her as much in a meeting. At the time, Taller was asking to be a beneficiary of New Market Tax Credits, a federal program that helps bring investment to low-income communities.
“That person was challenging our ability to put all of these finances together to push the project forward,” she recalled, withholding the individual’s name. “It was just a statement telling us: ‘I wouldn’t trust you to be able to complete this project. Therefore, why would I invest in it?’”
For parents like Dalila Bedoya, who has girls ages 9 and 12 in Taller’s after-school programs, access to the facility’s multiple classrooms where children can take part in Homework Club, the sleek stage where children can put on a talent show, and outdoor play space are certainly a draw.
But more important to the family with ties to Guatemala is the chance to consume all the diversity Philadelphia has to offer in one place, instead of taking in the city’s cultural tapestry piecemeal.
“I was seeing the girls being in a bubble being in a school with the same ideals, same customs,” said Bedoya. “When I saw the opportunity, they could learn from other cultures and embrace them, I was sold.”
Bedoya’s girls, Fatima Benhadjali, 9, and Aasya Benhadjali, 12, have now been a part of Taller’s after-school programs for about five years. In that time, they’ve made friends of all ethnic backgrounds and increased the amount of Spanish they speak.
To Febo San Miguel, Taller’s growth is a response to a need felt by families like Bedoya’s. People can call Philadelphia their home and still yearn for a connection to their roots.
It’s a feeling Febo San Miguel knows all too well.
Born in Ciales, Puerto Rico, Febo San Miguel was surrounded by art as she grew up. If Febo San Miguel’s mother, a Spanish literature teacher, wasn’t sharing her love of letters, Febo’s father was surrounding his daughter with the music of the island.
Though Febo San Miguel would grow up to study medicine at the University of Puerto Rico, arts and culture were always a key part of her life.
Febo San Miguel would choose a residency at Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital in 1973 to be in touch with the already large Puerto Rican community at the time. Treating patients at the Spring Garden Health Center during her residency, Febo San Miguel was able to treat a mix of Puerto Ricans, who made up much of the area’s population, and other Latinos.
Still, something was missing outside the practice. Febo San Miguel noticed a disconnect between Philadelphians with Puerto Rican roots and the island.
“Part of my shock was that cultural gap,” said Febo San Miguel.
Years later, Febo San Miguel found what she’d been missing at a concert held at church, hosted by a small Puerto Rican nonprofit started in 1974. It was Taller.
“Coming there, the songs, the smells, people talking Spanish — it was like wow, it felt like home,” said Febo San Miguel.
By 1985, she was volunteering as a board chair for Taller. Febo San Miguel took over as executive director in 1999 with the goal to help others avoid feeling that “cultural emptiness” she once had.
Building others up
In the 1990s Yolanda Alcorta and Michael Esposito founded Raíces Culturales Latinoamericanas, a nonprofit that teaches children about Latin American cultures through film, workshops, and stage performances.
At the time, Raíces wasn’t a federal tax-exempt nonprofit and couldn’t apply for funding from foundations without a nonprofit acting as a financial conduit; Taller was that conduit for Raíces at the time.
Early in that relationship, Esposito said, he showed up at Febo San Miguel’s door around 7:30 p.m. with a grant application that needed to be mailed immediately. If Esposito disrupted Febo’s night in any way, she didn’t show it.
“At the time I thought, well, she sits on the board, I probably won’t see her a whole lot again because oftentimes you don’t see board members,” said Esposito. “I had no idea she was going to get involved the way she did.”
Esposito’s first encounter with Febo San Miguel was an early indicator of the lengths she was willing to go to bolster other organizations aiming to help the community. Febo San Miguel would go on to help Raíces curate programming, offering the organization support as it broke into the neighborhood’s cultural scene.
Nilda Ruiz, CEO of Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha across the street from Taller, describes a similar collaborative spirit with Taller.
APM supports some 350 foster families through case management, behavioral health services, as well as financial services and benefits analysis. Ruiz said oftentimes, the children who come through APM’s doors have been removed from their homes. Having a relationship with Taller allows APM to “soften the blow” through art.
“We point to Taller as a resource to get the kids engaged so they have activities and something that can get them away from their day-to-day lives,” explained Ruiz.
A different type of leader
Febo San Miguel is a soft-spoken woman who is hands-on, but leaves room for pushback, and expects a similar courtesy. Those who have worked with Febo San Miguel say she’ll let you know when you’re in the wrong.
That leadership style is best seen on display in the way she’s handled Taller’s annual Feria Del Barrio, a block party filled with music and food from Latin America that brings the entire neighborhood together. Taller hosts the festival in partnership with other local organizations.
Yolanda Alcorta, the other founder of Raíces, said Febo San Miguel would start the planning meetings for Feria del Barrio well ahead of the event, so everyone was clear on what they’re doing the day of. The meetings were typically short and Febo San Miguel would follow up with people to ensure they’re comfortable with their assigned tasks.
“It wasn’t like Taller was doing all the work. They were leading the community groups and teaching all of us how to organize an event,” said Alcorta.
One year, Alcorta can’t remember which, Febo San Miguel was hospitalized the day before the Feria as she battled another round of breast cancer. The event went on without a hitch.
Febo San Miguel expects a similar result as Taller’s new executive director, Nasheli Ortiz González, begins the transition. Sure, there will be bumps in the road, but Taller touts credibility it could only dream of before, and Febo San Miguel will still be around to offer advice.
According to Febo San Miguel, that Commerce Department representative who doubted Taller could complete the center would later tell her: “You made me a believer.”