When we talk about women’s history and the legacy they leave behind, it always makes me feel proud to be one of the leaders that can share and highlight those who are part of my culture, my community, my family. In fact, I feel we are re-writing history, one Latina at a time. This month we share the story of one of the successful Latinas that have changed the lives of many young people in the Rochester community, especially Latinos. Nydia Padilla-Rodriguez, founder and artistic director of Borinquen Dance Theatre (BDT), has been raising the bar and opening doors for her community for over 36 years.

Nydia is one of 7 sisters and 3 brothers. She was born, raised and educated here in Rochester, New York. She earned both a Bachelor’s Degree in Dance and Elementary Education, a Master’s Degree of Science in Education and Administrative Certification at Brockport State University. She has been in this community advocating for children to be educated in a way that they can be successful and productive, especially with a focus on Latino students and any other student that has been oppressed because of their background, social and cultural differences; thereby, ensuring that there is a voice on behalf of our youth. Nydia currently works as an administrator with the Rochester City School District and uses BDT to follow her passion of working with youth, using arts as a vehicle.

A trailblazer since she first learned to dance at 6 years old, Nydia’s oldest sister was the one who actually thought her how to dance Salsa, Bachata and Cha Cha. Nydia was always fascinated with the Latino style of dancing and by age 13, she began to take ballet, modern dance, ballroom dance, etc. with John Gravascu Dance. She is an original member of Garth Fagan’s Bottom of the Bucket Dance. She began to travel all over the world when she joined. That exposure and being part of that cultural group opened her eyes to realize that there are so many resources out there that many of our young people and their families, especially Latinos do not have access to or they don’t even know that these resources exist. She feels that she has a responsibility to expose our community to those resources. Seeing the high drop-out rate of Latino students in high school, Nydia decided to use the arts as a vehicle to try to get them to understand that education is a key ingredient to their success but using the arts as a way for them to get collected.

I think that dance was always a way for me to heal, it its kind of spiritual. If I was upset about something or had fear or not content with a specific situation my way of dealing with that it was through dancing. I just feel that it is part of my spiritual and what God put me in this earth to do. For me it was very instrumental in sharing that with others, to use that skill as a way to work with others,” shares Nydia.

Nydia does not like to talk about herself since she is the kind of person that does what has to be done, and never does it for recognition. As a humble person, she believes in working hard. She comes from a family where values and morals were installed in her, and she proudly carries that legacy of what her parents did for her. She has successfully run  Borinquen Dance Theater since its inception in 1981, not only educating young people about our history, but also educating the rest of the community and our own Latino community about what “Borinquen” is, about Puerto Ricans. A lot of people do not know that “Borinquen” was the original name of Puerto Rico.

Nydia says, “A lot of the kids do not understand why is it that some of us may look black, Tainos, white, European. Even the customs represent the fusion of African, the Tainos, the Spanish European that makes us so unique. My goal is to change the negative image some people have about Latinos in a way that they can just learn about us, embrace us, embrace diversity and understand why we come in all colors and why we believe we are rainbow people. And that we do not want to deny our roots and our ancestry. And for that reason, I just believe that everything I can do to continue to expand that vision not only in the Rochester community, but wherever we travel is important. We need to share the history of where we come from in a non threatening way using dance, poetry, theater and the arts.”

Nydia also talks about having plans A and B in life. Sharing with her students that she loves dancing, but in order to be successful in life she needed to have options A and B. She chose to go on to teaching and then became an administrator, but still having that passion to work with young people, using the art as a way to connect them to education. Ultimately, her goal is to expose those young people to real life situations. It always amazes Nydia to see her students come in being very shy and soon after they develop that sense of belonging, improve their self esteem and see themselves as the beautiful human beings they are, and at the same time know that they have work hard for what they want.

BDT starts them as young as 8 years-old and goes up to 24 years-old. The program is set up that once they meet the criteria of keeping their GPA at 2.50 or higher, their school attendance is good, and they learn at least 7 or 8 dances, then they receive little stipends. This way, they also learn and understand work habits, the importance of being on time, to get along with others even if they may have differences. They build team work, understand group dynamics, and learn how to spend their money. Nydia feels proud that these young people also build their portfolio so that when they do transition to college, they have something to show: the discipline they were able to create, the balance of keeping their academics in check, as well as, the involvement with the performing arts company. Not only that, but they are representing Rochester as a role model because when BDT travels to perform, they are representing Rochester in a positive manner.

Nydia says, “One of the things that I admire is that many of our dancers when they graduate from BDT and move on to college, they stay in contact and they come back and serve as either peer instructors, or work with me during the summer to help out with the younger group. This is something that I admire because it shows that they are giving back in a way that is positive. And they can use that skill to make some money while they are pursuing their college degree. They always want to come back, especially when they are on break or in summer vacation.”

“When I see them grow from being 8 years-old up to college and witnessing that emotional, social, personal development, that’s why I continue doing what I do. That in itself, makes me feel that I am doing something right,” says Nydia with pride.

Nydia has been recognized and BDT has received many awards. She is very grateful and honored when she receives those awards, but she shares with us: “In all honesty, those awards are a piece of every single student who have participated, parents who are also part of supporting what I am doing, the board members, many volunteers from the community that have always been there giving their time and support, “Borinquen” and the funding sources that make it all possible. For me, they all deserve a piece of those awards and that’s how I embrace those awards – with the understanding that is not just about me, it is about all of us coming together unified as a community supporting this program.”

Nydia has received numerous recognitions for her work with Rochester’s children and youth, from local organizations such as Geva, Ibero, to the New York Council on the Arts and the President’s Council on Arts and Humanities. According to her husband, John, there are two recognitions Nydia seems to enjoy most, when a student overcomes a personal challenge and she sees it on stage, and when she receives an invitation to one of their college graduations, and they have attended many over the years.

Being part of the history of Rochester and the Latinos there is something that Nydia takes pride in. Some time ago, the Rochester Museum of Science received a grant to focus in the Latino archives in Rochester, NY. She was approached because she was the only professional Puerto Rican performing art in upstate New York. They decided to submit programs and information about how they started their vision. Nydia excitingly shares: “Now, we are part of the Latino archives in Albany, actually that was very important because that allows me to keep the legacy going, whether I am here or not. For those that might be interested to learn more about the history of Rochester, NY and how Latinos have contributed in Arts, Legal, or Education, Government, or any other profession, this is important to us to make sure this is very well documented. We submitted as much information as possible to ensure that we are part of the history of Rochester NY.”

At the 36th Anniversary Community Performance, Nydia and her crew gave a very interesting program since the political climate has made some of her dancers concerned. It is creating some fear in the kids, but she is trying to address that by, again, using the arts. This major event will take place on April 29 and their theme is Together We Dance, United We Soar (borinquendance.org). “The purpose of that theme is to try to get not only our young people to think how important it is for all of us to come together regardless of our race, or religion, or color, or our beliefs, it is to show them that when we come together and we unifiy as a community, we can overcome the fear that has been imposed on many of our Latinos,” says Nydia. She is hoping that everyone from upstate New York and the surrounding areas will come in to support.

All year-round, Nydia looks for that support by having community members volunteer, even if it is just to support BDT the day of their big performance or to serve on their board, or to help with fund raising events or to be a costume designer, or do photography, or marketing. Whatever skill that anyone has and they are willing to be part of what Nydia does, she is open. “We always need that kind of support to sustain what I am trying to do for our young people,” says Nydia, who is also constantly recruiting and looking to change our young peoples’ lives. For Nydia, leaving this legacy is what gives purpose and meaning in her life.