Mariachi singer Lily Cortes records a song for her recent album, “Mi México.”
LARGO – Lily Cortes’ transition to the United States has not been a smooth one, and her reception at the Largo Cultural Center, unfortunately, was no exception.
As a member of the Coalition of Hispanic Artists and Tampa Hispanic Heritage Inc., the mariachi singer contacted the center to ask if the city was interested in a performance in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month. She wanted to make the presentation a free event, open to the public.
“We don’t do that here,” Cortes said a representative told her.
There weren’t any plans to celebrate the month. In attempts to keep the venue more self-sustaining, the city only books performers that can bring in ticket revenue.
Hispanic acts don’t sell tickets. Cortes was invited to rent the space for $2,500.
“Lily was pretty upset,” said her husband, Tim McCarthy, a 12-year Largo resident retired from the U.S. Navy. “Art in any society is a reflection of its people. If there’s no Hispanics represented in the Cultural Center, therefore, there must be no Hispanics in the community.”
According to 2010 census data, 9 percent of Largo’s residents identify as Hispanic, 0.5 percent higher than Pinellas County’s 2012 projection of its Hispanic population.
Cortes admits that perhaps she didn’t understand the concept of the Largo Cultural Center. Back in Mexico, it was a “casa de cultura” where she learned how to sing in the style of Italian opera, training that laid the groundwork for professionally performing the mariachi songs she grew up with.
“Upon arriving here, we thought to do the same,” Cortes said in an interview spoken partially in Spanish; the relatively recent immigrant to the United States is still mastering English.
The couple know that other civic venues offer reduced fees for nonprofits, for as much as half the price Largo offered.
“We don’t want everything free, no, no,” Cortes said. “When automatically you go to some places, they look at you because you’re Latin and say, ‘OK, she’s coming to ask us for money.’”
McCarthy emailed the city mayor and commissioners to ask why the center “had a long standing reputation for ignoring its Hispanic community.”
Mayor Pat Gerard explained in a response that a service helps the center forecast performance bookings. Previous Latin artist brought in “lackluster ticket sales,” she wrote.
“Since we have limited funds to hire talent, we have to make selections very carefully,” she explained.
The city has scheduled a meeting with the McCarthys on Jan. 14 to address their concerns. Gerard said she was eager to hear what they had to say. The city did not intentionally stop scheduling Hispanic performers.
“It’s not something we talked about before. We schedule things that are going to draw people,” she said recently.
Over the years, and especially since the city has been financially restrained, the city has been under pressure to subsidize the Cultural Center less and less, Gerard said.
“It’s never going to break even. We want to make sure we’re not just pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into it every year.” she said.
Most organizations approach the city about potential shows or performances; city staff doesn’t recruit many acts. Very few of those organizations pull in a profit from their Largo shows, the Eight O’Clock Theatre being one of them, Gerard said.
On a yearly basis, the city reviews requests for city sponsorships, which will result in a lower cost for certain bookings in the center or the surrounding park, but the city can’t waive all fees, she said.
“As you probably already know, our biggest success with the Hispanic community has been in our parks,” she wrote to McCarthy. “Hispanic families are the dominant group in Largo Central Park nearly every weekend and participate in many of our special events for families. We are anxious to expand their participation.”
Cortes was offended by the offer. She wasn’t asking for an event in a park, she said.
“I’m good for the dog parks, I’m good for the sidewalks, and I’m good for the grass, but I’m not good for the inside of the building,” she said.
The city’s policy creates a discriminatory effect, a concept a civic rights activist recently explained to McCarthy, he said. Because the population who would be interested in a Hispanic show at the Largo Cultural Center might not be able to afford the tickets there, the resulting effect is economic discrimination, if nothing else, he said. And the center was built with local taxpayer funds, meaning that it should be more open to the residents who helped pay for it.
The McCarthys hope to work with the city to develop a Hispanic outreach program, modeled after the one the city of Clearwater has. At this point, a token Hispanic event meant to appease their complaints won’t be enough, McCarthy said.
“Lily’s not going to perform there,” he said. “No one is going to show up, because it has a reputation in the area for not welcoming Hispanics or not having Hispanic events there period. Lily’s not going to fix that.”
But an ongoing effort to reach out to the Hispanic population might eventually bring a more representative mix of artists to the Largo Cultural Center.
“We have nothing to gain from this,” McCarthy said. “The reason why we’re pushing this is we may have children some day, and who do they have to look up to?”
A lack of representation in the arts is just the tip of the iceberg, McCarthy said. As a white American, McCarthy said he didn’t believe the type of discrimination his wife was subject to when she first moved to Largo with him four years ago. The work stories she told him seemed far-fetched, not typical of what he understood to be the American experience.
Cortes had a good career in Mexico, as a counselor for an equivalent department of children and families and working at a radio station on afternoons and weekends. She had a recognized degree in her native country, something she has to reprove in the United States.
The couple met in Playa de Carmen, Mexico, right before midnight at a party celebrating Mexican Independence Day in 2006. He was on a diving vacation with his best friend, having just left the Navy. A friend dragged her to the salsa club. Both were unprepared to meet anyone to settle down with.
“I was singing Mexican music. I didn’t expect my (American) husband on Sept. 16,” Cortes said.
The two started exchanging emails, which they had to run through respective translators because neither spoke the other’s language. Cortes thought they might just be friends, and at first didn’t even believe him when McCarthy asked her to be his girlfriend.
Cortes was “a mess” when she finally moved to the United States to marry McCarthy.
“She cried every day. It was a very traumatic experience to go to a foreign country,” he said.
Cortes enrolled in an English class as a Second Language course and began to apply for jobs. Because she said she was Mexican, people assumed she had come for the housekeeping jobs. She said she felt like her reception was, “Welcome to the United States! Here’s a mop.”
“That (didn’t) break my spirit,” she said. “My self was formed in another country.”
Still, it was hard. Cortes got a job working as a housekeeper in a nursing home, but wasn’t allowed to clean inside the private rooms. Whenever something went missing, the residents “automatically assumed it was the Mexican,” she said.
One of her co-workers, a European, told her to say she was Cuban instead and avoid some of the discrimination. Pride wouldn’t allow her to float the lie.
“I answered her, ‘Thank you, because you want to help me, but – I am Mexican,’” Cortes said. “They’re going to realize I am Mexican, and that’s it. I cannot tell them I am from another nationality.”
Things didn’t start getting better until Cortes found the Coalition of Hispanic Artists, a local group that helped her find hope in a foreign country. Through them, she started singing professionally again.
“Singing is my therapy. It’s my medicine because the people don’t like to see at my job (that) I am Mexican,” she said. “But when I am singing Mexican songs, I think, ‘(There’s) so much dignity and quality to this art.’”
But the group had their own troubles. Without much funds to book larger venues, the artists were left to find space to present their songs, paintings and dance at local restaurants looking to bring in more customers with live performances. Booking at private venues often becomes problematic, the couple explained. The artists have been extorted to pay more money at the last minute before their performance. One painter’s life work was stolen when an owner closed the restaurant suddenly, packed everything up and moved to Colombia.
Cortes currently performs on a regular basis at Casa Ramos in Tampa, one of a chain of restaurants whose owner believes in promoting and paying artists with the “dignity they deserve,” Cortes said. She’s happy there, but admits that her experience is rare.
Mariachi music is identified by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as a world heritage music.
“It’s identified all over the world, but it’s also in need of preservation,” McCarthy said. “There’s a need for education, a need for passing on to the next generation.”
But it’s a struggle to find a public place to showcase the art to a “community that lives in the shadows,” sometimes because they are undocumented or know someone that is, McCarthy said.
“Hispanics don’t really have the public spaces. They don’t have places to exhibit their art; they don’t have places to perform. They’re kind of excluded,” he said. “That’s how this started, with the whole Largo Cultural Center.”
Gerard said the purpose of the Cultural Center was to provide low cost, quality entertainment to Largo residents, an alternative to the bigger venues that only sell tickets at around $100. And the city always is looking for good acts. But the ticket sales are the catch.
“There are 400 seats in there. We’re not going to put something in there that’s only going to draw 25 people,” she said.
She said she does think that there are enough Hispanics in the greater Largo area “to draw in if we did something of quality.”
“I think we’d need help from the community,” she said, reiterating a desire to work with the McCarthys and any group that wants to spearhead a Hispanic showcase or other performance with the city. “I’ll be interested to see what we can put together.”
McCarthy emphasizes that he and his wife aren’t troublemakers. But the fight is worth pursuing, even if they have to file a lawsuit.
“Society is changing. There are more Hispanics in the community, but they still live in the shadows,” he said. “They still live in the dark.”