Vanessa De Leon Joga founded Guardians of Traditions in 2019 to celebrate Dominican culture, which she does by “using the arts as a vessel to connect within the community. Dominican carnival is known for the creative and elaborated costumes, which always capture people’s attention.”
After visiting the Caribbean Carnival in Worcester, Vanessa was impressed with the event but also felt disappointed, “not seeing Dominican representation in the parade.” Vanessa began working with a group outside Worcester which enabled her to develop a program around her culture, which in turn empowered her to begin her own costume collection. Four years after visiting the Caribbean Carnival, Vanessa officially formed Guardians of Traditions.
The organization shares Dominican history and humanities through presentations and workshops in schools and at festivals, which Vanessa said has created meaningful connections. “We tell our story and encourage others to share theirs – we create an open and safe space. At the end of the day, what makes us different should not really matter. Can we accept the differences and move on? Can we be ourselves and still be accepted? We share a lot of commonalities, but a lot of times we focus too much on the differences.”
The physical distancing guidelines of COVID-19 has forced Guardians of Traditions to postpone, adapt, and improvise its programming. Social media has allowed the organization to continue sharing education and instruction, sparking creativity and inspiration, and, “helping our audience release some stress.” Recent programming has included instruction in how to make masks from materials found at home, historical presentations, and lessons on various styles of Latin dance. Guardians of Traditions have also offered Spanish and Portuguese translation services to the Worcester Mutual Aid group on Facebook. With the Worcester Caribbean American Carnival Association, Vanessa took to Zoom to host, “a civics engagement event where the contributions of African Americans, Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latinos to society and culture everywhere, were highlighted.”
A year into operating, Vanessa’s greatest need is reaching more people and improving representation in Worcester. “I passionately believe in representation. I believe that successful audience-building initiatives target a specific audience; it is hard to address attendance barriers or build a meaningful connection with people using a one-size-fits-all strategy.”
Learn more about Guardians of Traditions by following them on Facebook.