A day after returning from a visit to her hometown of Aibonito, Puerto Rico, Margarita Espada is out in the summer sun in Central Islip, directing a corps of 20 paint-brush-wielding volunteers.
Their mission this breezy Sunday morning: sprucing up the lot behind Central Islip's fledgling Yerbabruja Arts Center and thus helping to transform a former local eyesore into a community garden and cultural plaza. Soon, in a space once occupied by wrecked cars and other junk, there will be theater and dancing under the stars.
"Be sure you paint all of the sides, including the corners," says Espada, 49, a local resident who founded the center and serves as its executive artistic director. The children, who are members of the El Teatro Rodante Hispanico dance group in Brentwood, have joined the volunteer effort and are adding brightly colored paint to a large wooden planter -- part of the planned community garden, where local residents will be invited to grow tomatoes and vegetables.
Espada next checks on the Boy Scouts from Central Islip's Troop 277, who are kneeling under a shade tree ringed by discarded truck tires, which they're painting pastel colors.
The tires will be filled with flowers and arranged around the plaza trees.
"I'm very happy to come back -- this support is incredible," says Espada, who is also pitching in, helping a trio of adult volunteers paint a fence made from recycled wooden pallets. She's dabbing the pickets with a rainbow of colors representing the national and ethnic backgrounds of residents in Central Islip, Brentwood and Bay Shore: Hispanic, Irish, Italian and others.
When more volunteers arrive, carrying recycled tires donated to the planter project, Espada marvels: "People want to be a part of this . . . This is a community changing through art."
Adding to the parade
Turning 50 can be a time to check your bucket list, but for Espada, an actress and dancer who will reach that chronological milestone in February, it's also a call to double down on her record of community activism. Four years ago, she took over organizing the annual Puerto Rican Hispanic Day parade in Brentwood, which had struggled financially. In June, with $25,000 in funding from the county and state, the parade drew 3,000 marchers and thousands of spectators. Now Espada, a sometime artistic provocateur, is building on that success in her crusade to "reimagine" Central Islip's downtown as a cultural magnet.
Espada was born in Aibonito, a mountain town in the Spanish style, with a plaza in its center. She founded Yerbabruja there as a performing arts group 30 years ago. She moved to Long Island 20 years ago, and revived the arts organization here a decade ago. (Yerbabruja, which Espada refers to as her "brand," is derived from the name of a hardy plant with healing powers.) In addition to organizing the parade and running the new arts center, which opened in December, Espada writes and produces plays under the Yerbabruja name.
One of Yerbabruja's most visible -- and controversial -- projects was a performance piece titled "What Killed Marcelo Lucero?" which Espada wrote and directed, based on the 2008 hate crime killing in Patchogue of Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero. Espada, who had attended Lucero's funeral, says that Patchogue officials urged her not to perform the play in their community because she says they didn't want to reignite tensions. It was performed about 20 times on Long Island from 2008 to 2012, with a cast of nonprofessional actors including undocumented immigrants, Stony Brook University graduate students and community theater players. In 2012 the play was part of a conference on theater and community at New York University in Manhattan. Espada has also lectured about the production on college campuses.
"I saw a lot of people screaming, but no conversation," Espada says, explaining why she wrote the play. "I'm a different artist after that experience."
Espada has a master's degree in fine arts in dramaturgy -- the art or practice of dramatic composition -- from Stony Brook University. She is divorced, with two children; Mariana, 23, a student at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan, and Malcolm, 16, who attends Central Islip public schools. Paid an arts center stipend -- the center received a $7,000 grant from Suffolk County for the cultural plaza project -- Espada also earns a living teaching theater and Latin American studies courses at Stony Brook and freelancing as an artist, consultant and researcher.
She also takes pride in her street smarts, which she says came in handy when she needed to confront men who had been gambling and using drugs in the alleyway next to the arts center.
"I used my girl-from-the-barrio moves," Espada says, adding, "I really had strong conversations with them, to explain the concept that, 'You need to move.' "
Security cameras now monitor the alley, which runs the length of the building and is bordered by a private home and vegetable garden.
Suffolk County police credit Espada with positive changes in the neighborhood. "At one point, sometimes there were bad things going on in that alley," but Espada is changing that, says Officer Peter Rivera of the Third Precinct Community Oriented Policing Enforcement unit. Rivera, who met Espada while arranging security for the parade, and has volunteered at the community garden, says, "Since she's back there so much, they [illegal substance users] don't go back there anymore. There are only families."
A cultural hub
This summer, inside what used to be a cellphone store, the center's art gallery displayed watercolors and other works by three local artists. In a large room at the rear of the building, a large space had been created to host open mic nights and other cultural events. And on a wall of the formerly troubled alleyway, a mural was beginning to take shape.
"This alley will be an alley of art," Espada says.
Her vision for the arts center is shared by Candido Crespo, 30, a professional water colorist who teaches at Mulligan Middle School in Central Islip. Crespo is one of the artists Espada recruited to work on the mural. Espada's visions and "the directions she would like to move in is a breath of fresh air," Crespo says. He is working with Jaime Aqueron, a soft pastel artist, and Andres Galardo, who works with spray paint and stencils to make outlines for the mural.
The "community-based mural project," will be finished this month, in time for a Sept. 20 festival celebrating the completion of the cultural plaza [see box]. Crespo, who also runs the arts center gallery, says, "We'll invite people from the community to add the colors in and bring it to life."
After giving a tour of the center, Espada, who comes to work seven days a week, took a break. She relaxed with friends at a small table in a corner of the gallery. They snacked on fresh-baked potato empanadas and discussed their hopes for community change. In its first eight months, the arts center has hosted arts events, classes and even a domino tournament.
"This is like a big living room, where people can come out and refresh themselves after a hard day," Espada says.
She expanded on that statement two weeks later, on the day of the volunteer painting effort, saying she hopes people from diverse backgrounds will come to the arts center's programs. "This is a welcoming community," Espada says of Central Islip. "We embrace everyone. This isn't only a Latino center, it's a center for everyone."
Join the celebration
WHAT A festival celebrating the completion of the Yerbabruja Arts Center cultural plaza, 63 Carleton Ave., Central Islip
WHEN Sunday, Sept. 20, noon-6 p.m.
INFO There will be drumming and an open mic for performers; traditional foods from Puerto Rico and other Latin-American cultures. Free admission; $5 suggested donation for food tasting. Call 631-626-3603.