Two Bronx Arts Programs Win $35K Awards

Two Bronx arts organizations are $35,000 richer after being named winners of Union Square Arts Awards.

BombaYo Youth Project, which started in Fordham, promotes Afro Puerto Rican dance and music was awarded. The other recipient – Young Urban Christian Artists (YUCA) is a Highbridge-based free graphic design program for high school students.

They were among six organizations from across the city to be recognized with the Union Square Arts Awards, which are given out each year to arts organizations that work with youth and families in low-income communities.

For all the students BombaYo has helped, co-founder Jose Ortiz said the program actually saved his own life 12 years ago.

“I was depressed and I was going through a lot of stuff, so I wanted to do something for myself and when I thought about that I decided I wanted to drum,” Ortiz said. “I had always wanted to do that, and it was a transformation.”

Ortiz was a supervising school aid at P.S./M.S. 279 on Walton Avenue, so instead of taking up the instrument on his own, he started a drumming group with the school’s students. That became the basis for BombaYo. By 2004, Ortiz was taking students throughout the borough, and the city to perform.

“People kept calling us and asking us to play,” Ortiz said. “A lot of older people were very appreciative. They said ‘you really remind me of Puerto Rico’ and they really enjoyed seeing a lot of young people playing traditional music.”

Ortiz met BombaYo co-founder Melinda Gonzalez while playing a concert at Hostos Community College. In 2006, they officially formed BombaYo, as a program for high school students. Participants are selected through an audition process and receive a $2,000 stipend for playing with the group throughout the summer.

Ortiz also gives free drum classes for senior citizens at the Betances Community Center on St. Ann’s Avenue every other Wednesday night. He lives in Belmont, but BombaYo does not have a set home. So Ortiz plans to use the award to find a permanent rehearsal and teaching space.

YUCA was started in 2006 at Harvest Fields Community Church on East Tremont Avenue by William Acevedo, a professional graphic designer. His thesis at Pratt Institute was on how companies market to youth through images, and the social responsibility that goes along with that.

“I was thinking we could use our skills for selling more than soap. Along with selling products we can use this to really transform communities and bring people together,” Acevedo said. “I was attending that church and it occurred to me to do some art classes there.”

By 2010 the program had outgrown that space, moved to the Highbridge Community Church on Ogden Avenue.

Students participate in four ten-week cycles throughout the year, with about 25 students per cycle. They learn about painting, screen printing, drawing, as well as consumer-oriented graphic design. Students come from all over the Bronx, and many have gone on to attend Art and Design High School in Manhattan.

“We’ll always take the money,” Acevedo said about the award. “But it’s really the recognition.”

Bill Weisbrod can be reached via e-mail at or by phone at (718) 742-3394. Follow him on Twitter @bweisbrod

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