MY LATIN THING: THE STORY OF JOSEPH RIVERA
By Natalie J. Maniscalco and photos by Chasi Annexy
The sounds of Frankie Ruiz stream through the summer air as a young city kid dangles his legs over the sticky fire escape of a Lower East Side apartment building. He rests his head on his mother’s shoulder who sits beside him swaying to the rhythm of the music. Cars pass by; sirens can be heard in the near distance, and all the while the beats of salsa hold steadfast.
Growing up, Joseph Rivera, co-founder of Baila Society, a leading NYC salsa school seemed like any New Yorican kid learning the ropes of the city streets and hearing old-school salsa while his mother and aunts danced on the front stoop. “Being Puerto Rican and growing up in the Lower East Side, Salsa music was the soundtrack for much of my formative years,” he recalls. “My parents were products of the 70’s when salsa was popular. My dad was a regular at Side Street and can even be seen in FANIA’s musical documentary, ‘Our Latin Thing.’” But Joseph, like many teenagers, rebelled against his traditional culture and clung to the ideology of American pop culture and music.
For Joseph, going away to school was an outlet and escape from a part of his home life that he never revealed to many of his friends. At the age of 12, he learned that both his parents had contracted the HIV virus. His father was fortunate enough to rid the disease, however, his mother developed full blown AIDS and died in the summer of 1995. “For so many years, I was ashamed of my mother’s illness,” he recalls. “I didn’t even tell any of my friends that my mother had died until college. I suppressed it for so long and became so bent on just continuing to succeed and excel in school.”
Years later, now a distinguished young man, graduate of Georgetown University with a degree in Business management and finance, Joseph often reminisces of his childhood memories. “Looking back, I always think about how cool it would have been to be able to dance with my mom and wonder what she would have thought to see me now as a dancer with a passion for Salsa.” It wasn’t until he graduated from college that he found himself drawn to the music and culture of his parents. “After college, you begin to understand how you want to be as a person,” he says. “I went to a salsa club and the music just put me over the top. I thought, ‘I need to remember who I am and embrace my culture and roots.’” For Joseph, learning how to dance Salsa became a way for him to reconnect with his family.
Today, Joseph continues to make moves both on the dance floor and in helping educate others about HIV/AIDS. In 2000, he raised over $3,000 for the annual AIDS walk in honor of his mother and was part of Cielo, the annual star-studded fundraising gala for the Latino Commission on AIDS, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS in the Latino/Hispanic communities. Most recently, with the help of his co-partners Ahtoy WonBorja and Daniel Enskat, Joseph organized a spectacular showcase of dance performances with over 480 people at the “Bailando por una Causa” dance event to raise funds and awareness for the Latino Commission on AIDS in New York City.
From performing around the world with Baila Society, working as an interactive design consultant, to growing up in New York City and studying at some of the country’s most prestigious schools, Joseph embraces his diversity and attributes his achievements to all of his life experiences, both good and bad. “You have to embrace who you are,” he says. “Don’t be ashamed of who you are because people will find a lot of value in meeting someone like you. It all ties back to your identity and your own confidence. If you don’t have one thing, it’s not the end of the world; something else in you will compensate it.”
For more information about Baila Society’s dance classes, performances and online dance academy please visit www.bailasociety.com/
Special thanks to our friends Ben, Boris, Greg and Mike at Neighborhood Barbers located at 439 East 9th Street (btwn 1st Ave & Ave A) for a fantastic haircut, shave and a place to take photos! For a good cut and friendly service check out www.neighborhoodbarbers.com/