Tere Paniagua has been a humble force in Syracuse’s Latinx community for nearly 15 years
Stacy Fernández | Feature Editor
Editor’s note: In recognition of Latino/Hispanic Heritage Month, this three-part series spotlights local figures working to increase the representation of the Latinx community in Syracuse and beyond.
Ask Tere Paniagua about herself, and she’ll tell you how wonderful her staff and volunteers are. Ask about her impact on the Latino community in Syracuse, and she’ll say she couldn’t have done it without them.
Paniagua is the executive director of the Office of Cultural Engagement for the Hispanic Community at Syracuse University. She’s responsible for the direction of La Casita Cultural Center, SU’s Latino cultural center, the Punto de Contacto, Point of Contact art gallery and teaches a three-credit course at SU.
With La Casita’s annual “Balcón Criollo” exhibit kicking off Latino/Hispanic Heritage month Friday, Paniagua has entered her busiest time of the year. From dawn till dusk, she’s writing proposals, grants and emails, meeting with students and engaging with her community — often times forgetting to take a lunch break.
“You would never know,” said Alicia Torres, an SU student and one of La Casita’s volunteers. “She’s just so full of energy and so focused on taking care of everybody around her.”
Torres first met Paniagua while volunteering at La Casita. She was there as part of a community service requirement and wasn’t expecting much. In her experience, volunteers show up and are given their tasks. Their connection with the organization ceases when they’re finished.
“You never hear from them again,” Torres said.
But Paniagua, with her warmth and a sense of optimism behind every word, was different.
“She just wants to get to know you, and that says a lot about somebody,” Torres said.
At the end of Torres’ first volunteer session, she caught up and asked her to come back. When she said it, there was a sincerity that came across, Torres said.
Now Torres is a regular volunteer, working with the center’s dual-language reading circle, and sometimes Paniagua will pick up a book and join in.
Paniagua took on La Casita a year after its inauguration. Since then, it’s been her goal for the center to become an interwoven piece in Syracuse’s Latino community.
The strength in Paniagua’s leadership lies in three parts: connecting the university and local community, coming in with a clear direction and loving the work, said Myrna García Calderón, a member of La Casita’s advisory board and director of Latino-Latin American studies.
“She came in with a vision and gave the program a clear direction,” García Calderón said.
La Casita hosted a panel with Latinx baseball players last year. Most of the audience members were from SU. But, immediately after the “academic” panel a group of kids trailed in, García Calderón said.
It was their turn to ask the questions.
“She had that foresight to make the speakers and the program accessible to both audiences,” García Calderón added.
Paniagua’s vision has gone beyond management and programs, and that vision is reflected in the center itself. Photos and knick-knacks fill the shelved wall. All the cultural artifacts, including photos, miniature homes and ceramic dolls, were donated by or are on loan from community members.
“People want to feel represented,” Paniagua said. “They want to feel that who they are and the culture they come from is valued.”
In her five years with the center, its name has become a reflection of its role in the community. For many it feels like another home, she said.
On any given day Juan Cruz, a local artist, will stop by, set his hat and bag on a table and make his way to the kitchen yelling out, “¿Aye café?” and “Is there any coffee?” If there’s none, he’s welcome to make his own, or Paniagua will brew a pot to share. On other occasions, sometimes in the middle of a staff meeting, one of their regulars will stop by with a friend because she wants to show off the gallery or an artifact they donated.
“Give me a moment,” Paniagua will tell her staff, getting up to show the person around.
That’s what she does, said Monica McLean, programming coordinator in the Office of Cultural Engagement. She’ll get to know a person, their family and their needs.
“When she’s speaking with a person, she doesn’t look over their heads to see who’s behind them,” McLean said. “In that moment it’s all about the person in front of her.”
Those one-on-one moments are Paniagua’s magic touch.
Some of the people a few blocks down from La Casita weren’t even aware it existed. Others were apprehensive about coming in. Earning the trust of the community has and will continue to take time, Paniagua said, but getting to know people’s names and having conversations helps get people through the door, one family at a time.
“If we didn’t have the engagement with the community, this would just be another beautiful space for students to hold events,” Paniagua said.
Now, five years after Paniagua took over, La Casita’s programs are regularly full, sometimes overflowing in attendance. During their annual Latino/Hispanic Heritage month opening hundreds of people pass through the space.
Paniagua often tells her colleagues, “this project that began six years ago is a success and you should be bragging about it.”
While Paniagua will sing praises for her cultural centers you’ll be hard-pressed to hear her praise herself.
“I love the work that I do, and I couldn’t do it alone,” she said.
Published on September 14, 2017 at 1:15 am