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The Hispanic History Project Breathes New Life into Avenida San Juan

Author: Ray Young

Buffalo has become a cultural melting pot, with 75 different languages spoken throughout our neighborhoods. While Polish people celebrate Dyngus Day primarily on the East Side, and the Irish celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day downtown and in South Buffalo, the Hispanic community is doing its part to honor its heritage on the lower West Side.

Cas sits alongside J. Seward Johnson’s “Newspaper Reader” at Rich Renaissance – one of Niagara Street’s first public works of art

Recently, I had the chance to sit down with Casimiro “Cas” D. Rodriguez, the president of the Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York, to talk about some of the positive changes taking place on the Avenida San Juan (Niagara Street). During our talk, Cas described myriad inspirational installations that are currently underway in the district – projects that will complement the work that The City is doing to enhance the streetscape. Cas’s goal is to embellish the streetscape with historical information in an aesthetically pleasing way, to tell the story of the Hispanic migration to the Western New York area. Project designer for The Hispanic History Project is design architect Scott Alexander Wood.

Rendering – mural by artist Betsy Casañas

One of the objectives of the Hispanic Heritage Council is to foster awareness and understanding of the contributions made by the hispanic community. For those unfamiliar with such contributions, one such example would be Jaime Nuno, who emigrated to Buffalo and worked as an opera director after he wrote the music for the Mexican national anthem for president Santa Anna in Mexico in 1854. With the series of public works in the Hispanic Heritage District, Cas hopes to accomplish just that. These cultural amenities are comprised of garitas, a Verdin clock, banners, way finding signs, street arches and statues. Garitas are small, circular outposts on the corners of colonial fortresses in hispanic countries.

As Casimiro puts it, “This is a symbol of the fortress, or a gateway to a country, and where the people protected themselves from the enemy.”

Each garita has four cavities, and inside these cavities there will be pictures and narrative stories that articulate and define Hispanic history in the area. The garitas will be installed on the corner of Maryland and Niagara street, and on Jersey and Niagara Street, right across from the mural by Betsy Casañas. Another amenity installed will be a Verdin clock, the face of which will show flags of all 22 Hispanic countries. The clock will be displayed on the corner of Pennsylvania and Niagara Street.

Example of an informational sign

Along with the garitas and the Verdin clock, there will be banners strewn along the corridor recognizing national leaders in the Hispanic community, both living and deceased. At both ends of the Hispanic Heritage district, on Niagara and Elmwood to Porter and Niagara, there will be welcome signs featuring greetings in the seven most commonly spoken languages in the world. Cas knows the responsibility that his community has in being the gateway to the city, and the country for a lot of people, but he couldn’t be more proud of his role in it.

“Our community is very fortunate. Latinos play a big part in the community, we are the heart of the community in many ways. We’re very fortunate to be a welcoming point to the city of Buffalo. There are millions of tourists and folks that cross that Peace Bridge to enter the US, through Buffalo, who come down Niagara Street.”

Wayfinding sign in the Theatre District

In addition to the banners, the Heritage Council will also be installing wayfinding signs, similar to those found in the Theatre District. On one side of the sign, there will be a map illustrating the business community, and on the other, a timeline from 1860 to 2017, presenting the notable events that helped to shape the Latin-American community in Western New York. The signs will be installed on the corners of Niagara and Porter, as well as at the corner of Niagara and Elmwood.

On the intersections of Porter and Jersey and Virginia and Maryland, the council will be installing street arches, as well as interpretive signage explaining the meaning of the arches and the garitas.

The final installation that the Heritage Council is working on is a “Thank You” to all the people who made this project possible. On the median of Niagara and Virginia, right off the I-190, the Council will be installing life-size buffalo figures, along with interpretive signage that will talk talk about the significant history of the community, to acknowledge all of the contributors who made these projects possible. Some benefactors include First Niagara Bank, Key Bank, M&T Bank, and Rich Products.

These amenities are but a sliver of the enthusiasm and commitment that the Hispanic Heritage Council is bringing to Buffalo. Throughout my talk with Cas, he would stir in his seat with excitement while describing the steps he’s taking to better his community.

Street arch being fabricated by artist Aileen Gonzalez Marti – see video below

The man is bursting with passion for his city and the need to tell the story of his people. This is but a single segment of the city, but nonetheless culturally rich with overwhelming tangible and emotional pride. When you get a chance, take a stroll down Avenida de San Jaun and immerse yourself in the transformational surroundings of the Hispanic Heritage District.

Written by BRo Guest Authors

BRo Guest Authors

It’s not unusual for authors to come and go. Guest authors range from collegiate interns to writers who will be contributing for a short stint of time. Guest authors might also have a series in mind. Authors are encouraged to submit their ideas to BRO (Buffalo Rising Online), upon which time we will work with the writer towards a productive end.

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  • Wally Balls

    Avenida San Juan? Ummmm, Niagara Street.

    • Grey Gardens

      How many different names do streets need? It’s bad enough when they change them, let alone give them multiple names.

  • PaulBuffalo

    The proposed mural by artist Betsy Casañas looks incredible.

    I have never heard Jaime Nunó’s name mentioned in connection with Buffalo. He died in Queens but was buried in Forest Lawn. In 1942, the Mexican government had his remains returned to Mexico to rest in Panteón Civil de Dolores. It’s a very nice cemetery. Fascinating.

    I didn’t know the changes on Niagara Street were to include more than paving, sidewalks and lighting.

    I look forward to seeing more of Avenida San Juan on this stretch of Niagara Street.

  • A-BuffalLover

    The Hispanic Heritage Council should be named the “Puerto Rican Heritage Council” They do not support other hispanic and latino groups. They are primarily about Puerto Rico. And that is ok. The largest portion of the hispanic community in Buffalo is Puerto Rican. But they have shown time and time again, that Puerto Ricans are their priority and do not support other hispanic groups. Look at the board of directors, for example. They are entirely made up of Puerto Ricans (There is one Dominican).

    And this direction comes from Cas. He will not actively engage any other community groups unless they are puerto rican (it also helps if you are not female with Cas, since if you are, he will give you little credit).

    But Niagara Street looks great. And the HHC is part of that. So good job on that. But for this group to truly embrace hispanic culture, there needs to be a change in thinking and leadership.

  • Louis Tully

    The group that maintains that median does a nice job with a difficult plot. I’d prefer that whole stretch to be something better than a launching pad/landing strip for the 190 but they’ve made it nice given the conditions, and should be commended.

    Is there more on these arches? They look pretty cool but how do they meld with a prominent historical stretch of Porter, a block from Symphony Circle and at the border of an historic district? Will they span the street? Over a sidewalk?

    Also, where is this dubious Maryland/Virginia intersection?