4 Unexpected Places to Learn More About Latino Culture in the US

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo, unless otherwise noted
Miami, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles.

New York City has long been a welcoming home for Hispanics, but it's being joined by more affordable second-tier cities.
New York City has long been a welcoming home for Hispanics, but it’s being joined by more affordable second-tier cities.

These are a few of the obvious places where you can experience Latino culture in the United States; after all, they’re among the cities that have the largest Hispanic populations in this country. In any of these urban centers, you can find more than Latino restaurants and night clubs; you’ll see Spanish-language bookstores and movie theaters, celebrate Hispanic holidays like Three Kings’ Day, and enter neighborhoods where no “Se Habla Espanol” sign is needed because everyone knows that’s the default language.

But what about the many other American cities and towns where the Latino population is growing? The Pew Research Hispanic Center reports that while two-thirds of Hispanics live in five states– California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Illinois– five other states have seen the largest Hispanic population growth since 2000: South Carolina, North Carolina, Minnesota, Kentucky, and Arkansas.

Increasingly, so-called second-tier cities are the preferred places to call home for Latinos; they’re more affordable and often offer more opportunities for work and quality education. As the number of Latinos in second-tier cities increases, so do the cultural offerings of their communities.

Here are four unexpected places to learn more about–and experience–Latino culture in the US:

1. Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Fort Lauderdale. (Photo courtesy of Fort Lauderdale Visitors and Convention Bureau).
Fort Lauderdale. (Photo courtesy of Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau).

“Everyone thinks ‘Florida-Latinos-Miami,'” says Alfredo Gonzalez, vice-president of tourism and international business for the Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, “but more and more Latinos are moving to Fort Lauderdale and tourists are coming here because they want to experience Latino culture.”

Those “people” include some big names, like Grammy-winning American songbook crooner Tony Bennett, who recorded his latest album, Viva Duets in Fort Lauderdale, inviting renowned Latin American musicians like Gloria Estefan, Ricardo Arjona, Chayanne, Juan Luis Guerra, Marc Anthony, and Thalia to sing with him. In addition to recording most of the album’s tracks at the nearby Cutting Cane Studios, many of the music videos for the album were filmed around Fort Lauderdale.

Bennett and his singing buddies have come and gone, but Fort Lauderdale is giving special attention to its Hispanic heritage this year, participating in the “Viva Florida” celebration, a commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Juan Ponce de Leon’s exploration of Florida. The city will be hosting a number of events that tie together its Hispanic history and its contemporary Latino communities. Gonzalez hopes that the celebration will be an opportunity for visitors to realize that Miami isn’t the only hotbed of Hispanic culture in Florida.

2. Seattle, Washington

Seattle (Photo via Flickr Creative Commons).
Seattle (Photo via Flickr Creative Commons).

“While Latinos are only 5% of the total population, [Seattle] has been growing significantly over the past decade–62% according to census data,” says Hope Nardini, a writer and recent transplant to the city. Nardini, who has worked at an immigration clinic in the city, says that many Latinos she’s met moved to Seattle to work on Alaskan fishing boats or at berry farms and apple orchards. The city’s big tech firms, like Amazon and Microsoft, also recruit internationally, so Seattle’s Latino community is culturally diverse. “I’ve met people from Mexico, Colombia, and Panama who have moved here for job opportunities,” she says.

Nardini, who loves salsa dancing, says the diversity of Seattle’s Latinos has given rise to a large and active community of musicians and dancers. “There is a place to go out dancing every single night and all types of Latin dance,” she says, from bachata and kizomba to rueda and reggaeton.

Her favorite spots? She recommends Century Ballroom in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, which she describes as “the hub of the social dancing scene. They have salsa, bachata, tango, and a few other ballroom style classes and social dances,” she says, adding that “Latin nights” are held on Thursdays and Saturdays, with $7 and $10 cover charges, respectively.

Her other picks include Babalu, which has live bands on Wednesdays, Cellars in Belltown, which features live samba, and the social dance nights of dance studios like SalsaNSeattle, Salsa Con Todo, and Belltown Dance Studio. 

3. Baltimore, Maryland

Simon Bolivar statue in Fell's Point neighborhood, Baltimore.
Simon Bolivar statue in Fell’s Point neighborhood, Baltimore.
Baltimore’s Fell’s Point neighborhood has a large Hispanic community that’s growing exponentially.

As a result, the neighborhood has become the hub of Hispanic life in Baltimore, sponsoring the Cinco de Mayo Festival and National Hispanic Heritage Month activities.

Visitors can learn more about the past and present of Baltimore’s Latino community by taking a food, sightseeing, or immigration history tour; all three of these reference Fell’s Point’s Hispanic heritage.

While sightseeing, keep an eye out for statues honoring famous Latin American heroes, including Simon Bolivar (pictured here) and Jose Marti.

When you’re done learning about Baltimore’s Hispanic history, you can experience the city’s nightlife at Latin Palace or Havana Club, two music and dance clubs that are favorites among locals.

4. Philadelphia

Taller Boricua in Philadelphia.
Taller Boricua in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia’s so committed to promoting itself as a destination to learn more about Latino culture that it created an entire department of its tourism board to promote “Latino Philadelphia.” It’s not just a marketing scheme, though; of the places on this list, Philadelphia’s my personal favorite for experiencing Latino culture.

The city has a curated list of “Latino Philly” destinations that can be visited any time of year; you can read and print the list here. They also maintain a list of events and celebrations the city hosts throughout the year, including a summer concert and theater series and festivals like the Puerto Rican Day Parade and Mexican Independence Day Festival.

What are your favorite Latino cultural experiences in the US? Share your tips in the comments below.

The Crazy Dream of Crazy Horse

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo
“Dreams, if they’re any good,” said Ray Charles, “are always a little bit crazy.”

And some are a lot crazy, like the dream of the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota, which has been under construction since 1948.

Current state of Crazy Horse Memorial.
Current state of Crazy Horse Memorial.

That’s a full 65 years of dreaming… and the memorial still isn’t done.

In fact, there’s not even a projected date of completion. “The project is all privately funded, so progress depends on money,” says Pat Dobbs, the memorial’s media director. “That and weather.”

It also depends upon the ability of 86-year old CEO Ruth Ziolkowski to inspire donors and keep 200 staff members moving toward a goal that seems, at times, frustratingly elusive. But Ziolkowski knows a thing or two about persistence; the widow of sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who started the monument, has been on-site since 1947 and is largely the reason that progress on the monument has continued since the sculptor’s death in 1982.

According to Dobbs, Ruth works 7 days a week, from 6 AM until midnight. She isn’t just raising money for the construction of the memorial, although that’s a significant part of her work. She also makes sure that the large visitors’ center and its range of educational and artistic programs run smoothly. And since 1978 she has sponsored a scholarship for Native American students; to date, the scholarship has awarded $1.8 million.

But ultimately, Ruth’s mission, shared by the blasters, carvers, and other staff at Crazy Horse, is to finish the monument, which was proposed by Chief Henry Standing Bear in 1939 as a memorial to Crazy Horse, chief of the Oglala Lakota. Crazy Horse was, Chief Henry Standing Bear said, a great hero of “the red man,” admired for his courage in taking up arms against the US government to fight against territorial encroachment. He also led the group that won the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Chief Henry Standing Bear wrote to Korczak in 1939 to invite him to come to South Dakota’s Black Hills to carve a memorial to Crazy Horse. The chief learned of Korczak after the sculptor gained some renown for winning a prize at the World’s Fair. Korczak didn’t hurry out to the Hills; he first served in World War II. When he returned, though, he made his way west; he and the chief selected a 6,500 foot tall mountain face on which the sculpture would be carved.

A Native American dance is performed at Crazy Horse Memorial's Visitors' Center.
A Native American dance is performed at Crazy Horse Memorial’s Visitors’ Center.
Nothing about carving the memorial has been easy. Korczak only had $174 to his name when he arrived in the Black Hills and finances, both personal and for the project, were never flush. The weather and conditions at the site can be brutal, and many accidents have occurred over the course of the project. Progress is slow, and when you look at the gap between the goal and what’s been completed to date, you can see that there’s still a very long way to go.

But if you visit Crazy Horse Memorial, you’ll have the rare opportunity of witnessing a crazy dream in progress. Travel often involves seeing the completed versions of someone’s bold, wild dream; at Crazy Horse Memorial, you see what it means to keep on keeping on, even when the realization of a dream seems beyond the realm of possibility.

What can you expect to see if you visit? Apart from the memorial itself (depending on the season, you might see workers up on the mountain, blasting or carving away bits of mountain), you’ll probably be able to choose from a range of educational and artistic programs, including Native Americans performing traditional dances. You’ll also be able to walk through well-organized exhibits intended to educate visitors about Native American history, as well as the history of the Crazy Horse Memorial.

Just 30 minutes from Mt. Rushmore by car, Crazy Horse is a worthwhile add-on after you visit the national park that’s considered a must-see by most travelers visiting South Dakota. You’ll learn a bit about Native history and maybe even be inspired to realize your own crazy dream.

4 South Dakota Tourist Attractions Worth Your Time

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo
Francisco and I would like to describe ourselves as travelers who fall into the “We take the road less traveled” category, and most of the time, we do fit into that group.

Truth be told, though, we’re also pretty fascinated by the well-worn path, too; after all, people-watching at South of the Border is its own cultural experience, and getting the lay of the land from the top tier of the double-decker Turibus is probably the single-best way to understand and see first-hand just how big Mexico City is.

Besides all that, Francisco doesn’t have an eye for distinguishing the tourist traps that off-the-beaten-path travelers strive to avoid. There’s got to be a reason that Wall Drug has been advertised every five miles for the past 187 miles, right? We may only be in South Dakota once, he reckons, so why not stop and see what’s so special about a business that has such strategic billboard placement.^

On our recent road trip across South Dakota, Francisco managed to persuade me to visit every tourist trap between Sioux Falls and Rapid City. Here are the ones worth your time:

1. Mitchell Corn Palace

Of all the tourist traps on our trip across South Dakota, this was the one that incited the most anticipatory dread. The reviews of the Corn Palace were universally bad; not a single person on TripAdvisor or Yelp had put in a good word for Mitchell’s community center, whose exterior and interior murals are made entirely of corn.

Mitchell Corn Palace of Mitchell, South Dakota
Mitchell Corn Palace of Mitchell, South Dakota

I was pleasantly surprised to find that we’d rolled into town in the midst of the annual Corn Palace Festival; if the Palace itself disappointed, at least our daughter could tire herself out in the bounce house and then sleep for the next leg of our journey. She was thrilled to see kids and play on all the inflatables and we all actually enjoyed looking at the murals, which are impressive in their own way- they’re stripped down and created anew each year, and every exterior mural is made according to the annual theme (this year’s theme is youth sports). The murals, which are made with corn that’s grown especially for the Corn Palace, have been put up since 1893. The result is an admirable piece of well-done folk art that honors America’s agricultural history and upholds a tradition that’s now more than a century old.

Afterwards, I discovered the Corn Palace has some ardent closet admirers as a friend on Instagram confessed, “I would make a trip for the Corn Palace.”

2. 1880 Town

Even more tourist-trappy than the Corn Palace is 1880 Town, and I barely restrained a groan when Francisco made his case for stopping here. One point in his favor was that 1880 Town is just off the exit, whereas Corn Palace is a good five miles into town.

Still, I couldn’t help but let out an audible sigh when we pulled into the gravel lot and saw this sign, confirmation of we’re-almost-in-the-Wild-West cheesiness:

1880 Town
1880 Town

I’ve learned that you have to let your partner win sometimes in order to keep the peace, and if conceding to spend a couple hours at 1880 Town would make Francisco happy, well, then I’d take one for the marital team. Plus, 1880 Town was far enough from Mitchell and from our destination that it made a good “Get this child out of the car and get her running outside” stopping point. He forked over the cash, we palmed our “1880 Town Sheriff” stickers onto our shirts, and started exploring.

What is 1880 Town, anyway? It’s a collection of about 30 buildings–a saloon, post office, real estate agency, hotel, church, firehouse, school, and bank among them–that are intended to give a sense of what life was like on the Dakota prairie in 1880.

The costume rental option at 1880 Town in Murdo, South Dakota.
The costume rental option at 1880 Town in Murdo, South Dakota.

Surprisingly, it actually succeeds, especially when a carriage rounds a corner with visitors who have decided that the period costume rental option sounds like a fantastic family vacation memory-maker. Mom and the girls are in dresses and carry parasols and satin purses that dangle from their wrists; dad is decidedly more casual in a chaps, cowboy boots and hat, sporting the requisite bandana and gun holster. He tries to use his 21st century DSLR camera discreetly in order to capture the moment.

The exhibits at 1880 Town are a bit chaotic and some of them could use some closer attention and care, but much of the ephemera is fascinating and at the end of the visit, I didn’t regret our stop. I only wished the 1950s era diner that’s also on the property had been open for a snack.

Mt. Rushmore

Mt. Rushmore is THE reason many travelers visit South Dakota, but as an indie traveler, it’s easy to dismiss this national memorial: “Yeah, yeah, yeah; four presidents’ heads carved in stone. Gimme a place where I won’t see any fanny packs.”

There is an abundance of fanny packs at Mt. Rushmore, along with lots of hyper-patriotic clothing, but close-up, those carvings are impressive and learning the backstory of how the memorial came to be is fascinating, especially after you’ve listened to some anecdotes told by Nick Clifford, the last living member of the carving team. (He’s in the gift shop nearly every day).

But if you really can’t bring yourself to pay the entrance fee to the memorial itself, then at least consider driving around the memorial because the views are absolutely incredible. US 16-A is especially beautiful, particularly as the sun is setting, as you can glimpse the monument through the many tunnels on this two-lane road.

A native dance performance at Crazy Horse Memorial in Custer, South Dakota.
A native dance performance at Crazy Horse Memorial in Custer, South Dakota.

Crazy Horse

The entry price here may seem a bit steep ($10 per adult or $27 per carload)^^, until you’re inside and learning about the decades of work and nearly obsessive dedication that have been devoted to making the dream of a Crazy Horse memorial a reality. And it’s not fully a reality yet– nor is there a timeline for completion of this ambitious monument, which, when done, will be the world’s largest carving on a mountain.

Besides being able to witness the progress on the monument, which is dedicated to “honor the culture, tradition and living heritage of North American Indians,” particularly as it was embodied by Lakota leader Crazy Horse, the memorial has a number of museum-quality exhibits, and hosts dance, music, and other performances. It also has a number of Native American artisans on site who sell their pottery, jewelry, textiles, and other handcrafts.

Have a favorite place in South Dakota? Tell us about it in the comments.

^Wall Drug does NOT make our list of tourist attractions worth your time. Many of the shops on the Wall Drug strip seem to be closing permanently and the ones that remain open are hawking overpriced souvenirs.

^^Admission is “always free for Native Americans, military personnel with active-duty ID, Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops in uniform, and Custer County, SD residents.”

5 Things to Do in Sioux Falls, South Dakota

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo
The common lament among South Dakotans in the eastern part of the state is that visitors just pass them by.

South Dakota Sunflowers
South Dakota sunflowers.

They step on the gas, watching the speedometer tick past the legal 75 miles per hour, their eyes fixed on the attractions of the western part of the state: the Badlands, Wall Drug, Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills, Crazy Horse.

All of those attractions are incredible (yes, even Wall Drug, in its own over-the-top, touristy way), but there’s no reason to overlook the east. Sioux Falls and the nearby Brookings, De Smet, and Mitchell are worth a visit, too. Though their beauty isn’t as dramatic as western South Dakota and their history isn’t as visibly grandiose, the pleasure of the east is rooting out what’s worth seeing and doing.

Here are five things to do in Sioux Falls and the surrounding areas:

1. Take a trolley ride.

Sioux Falls operates a free trolley whose route runs a circuit around the downtown area. The driver will point out historic and interesting sites along the way, and the more you express interest, the more tales he’ll be likely to tell. You can step on and off at any stop.

2. Visit Falls Park.

Falls Park, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Falls Park, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Even when the state is experiencing a drought, as it is this year, Falls Park with its eponymous falls is a beautiful, 123-acre outdoor recreation area where you can walk, take pictures, picnic, and visit the ruins of the Queen Bee Mill.

Every night during the summer, Wells Fargo hosts a free laser light show in the park, with a live narrator who tells stories about area history.

3. Shop downtown.

Like many small and mid-size towns across the United States, Sioux Falls’ downtown is actively trying to reestablish itself as the hub of city life.

Phillips Avenue has a number of independently owned shops, including The Book Shop, Child’s Play Toys, and Holsen Hus (a home goods shop featuring Scandinavian designs), all within steps of one another.

There are plenty of restaurants and cafes on Phillips, too; our favorite was Luciano’s an Italian restaurant on the northern end of Phillips, just before the entrance to Falls Park.

State Theater, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
State Theater, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

4. Take a self-guided art and architecture walk.

Phillips Avenue isn’t just for shopping; it’s also ideal for just walking and taking in local art and architecture.

The city’s SculptureWalk is a collection of outdoor sculptures that are exhibited on Phillips Avenue; the sculptures change each year. Bookending Phillips are two old theatres, the State and Orpheum, and between them are a number of points of interest, including the bank where the famous Dillinger robbery occurred in 1934.

5. Take a day trip.

Mitchell’s Corn Palace, De Smet’s Ingalls Homestead, and Brookings’ Children’s Museum are all popular attractions that are close enough to Sioux Falls for a day trip, and each gives visitors a better sense of what life on the prairie was like in the past, as well as how it is in the present.

Have you visited the eastern part of South Dakota? What sites and activities do you recommend? Tell us in the comments.

Thunderbird American Indian Pow Wow

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo
It may come as a surprise to you, but New York City’s Native American population is fairly large– 75,000– though it’s just 1.9 % of the total Native American population in the US– 4 million as of 2010, the date of the most recent Census.

It may also surprise you to learn that New York City has pow wows, intertribal social gatherings that are typically open to the public. The oldest and largest of the pow wows, the Thunderbird American Indian Mid-Summer Pow Wow, has been held for the past 34 years; this year’s gathering was held last weekend at the Queens County Farm Museum.

Music is an important part of the pow wow, though drums were more prominent than reed instruments.
Music is an important part of the pow wow, though drums were more prominent than reed instruments.
More than 40 Native groups participated in Thunderbird, among them, Hopi, Cherokee, Apache, Taino, Maya, Shinnecock, Kiowa, Ojibwe, Seneca, Navaho, Choctaw, Chickahominy, Mohawk, Seminole, Sioux, and Blackfoot.
More than 40 Native groups participated in Thunderbird, among them, Hopi, Cherokee, Apache, Taino, Maya, Shinnecock, Kiowa, Ojibwe, Seneca, Navaho, Choctaw, Chickahominy, Mohawk, Seminole, Sioux, and Blackfoot.
Men & women performed a variety of dances, including the jingle dress dance, shown here.
Men & women performed a variety of dances, including the jingle dress dance, shown here. The dances are social, not ceremonial or spiritual.
Dancers compete for recognition and prize money; this dancer is performing the shawl dance.
Dancers compete for recognition and prize money; this dancer is performing the shawl dance.
While performing the men's fancy dance, an eagle feather fell from this dancer's regalia. When this occurs, a special ceremony must be performed, as a fallen feather symbolizes a fallen warrior.
While performing the men’s fancy dance, an eagle feather fell from this dancer’s regalia. When this occurs, a special ceremony must be performed, as a fallen feather symbolizes a fallen warrior.
The eldest warrior retrieves the eagle feather. This man's regalia was stunning, hand-stitched with beadwork that included depictions of his war honors.
The eldest warrior retrieves the eagle feather. This man’s regalia was stunning, hand-stitched with beadwork that included depictions of his war honors.

All of Francisco’s photos from the Thunderbird American Pow Wow can be found in this set on Flickr.