Feel the rhythm and the beat of the bongos, the bass and the maracas. Pair that with couples dancing samba, cha-cha and salsa, and you’d probably think you’re walking down the streets of Peru, Colombia or Mexico. It might come as a surprise then that this scene can be found on the streets of Provo.
While Provo is only 15.2 percent Latino, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, Latino culture is celebrated with groups, organizations and events such as the BYU Salsa Combo, Centro Hispano and Festival Latino Americano.
Percussion performance major Grant Taylor, music education major Zoe Jorgenson and commercial music major Jorge Murcia Gomez are three of the 10 members that make up the BYU Salsa Combo — a newly-formed band that has performed on and off campus.
“We have been trying to get the salsa band together for a long time,” Jorgenson said. “This winter semester is the first semester since I have been at BYU that it has really worked out.”
Jorgenson worked with Ray Smith, director of BYU Synthesis, to bring the Salsa Combo to life. Students in the School of Music, like Taylor and Gomez, were placed in the combo.
“I auditioned for combos and ended up being put in the Salsa Combo, and I’ll be honest, I was kind of annoyed,” Taylor said. “I wanted to do drum set, not Latin percussion, which is very different.”
However, once Taylor and his fellow band members decided to really commit and put everything they had into the band, things started to change.
“We started loving the music and really trying to get involved in the culture of things,” Taylor said. “We took things into our own hands and started falling in love with the music, the culture and everything about it. It has turned out to be one of my favorite bands I have performed with at BYU.”
Taylor, Jorgenson and Gomez have performed in a variety of BYU performing groups, including Synthesis, Guitar Ensemble, BYU Philharmonic and Percussion Ensemble.
For Gomez, a Columbian native, being part of the BYU Salsa Combo has helped him connect to his Latino roots.
“I’ve learned a lot of the cultural patterns that are found in the music,” Gomez said. “I’ve really enjoyed learning the style of music that I listened to when I was growing up. Whenever my family had a party, there was always salsa, merengue and marchate playing.”
Taylor and Jorgenson also have ties to Latino culture, having served missions in Peru and the Dominican Republic, and they said one of the main purposes of the BYU Salsa Combo is to celebrate Latino culture and the Hispanic members of the Provo community.
According to the American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2015, 11.5 percent of Utah County’s population was made up of Hispanics and Latinos, and according to City Data, in Provo there was a four percent Hispanic and Latino population increase from 2000 to 2015.
“There is a strong Latin community here in Provo,” Taylor said. “We really want to honor it and get involved. (The culture) is beautiful, full of fun and passionate music. We love it so much.”
BYU alumna Alexandra Melendez and her fiance, Jose Alarcon, a computer science major, attended one of the combo’s off-campus performances this summer.
“It was so awesome,” Melendez wrote in an email. “I even came out educated about the instruments that are required to make the wonderful music we grew up with. It definitely helps celebrate our culture and invites people of all ethnicities and ages to come together to learn and appreciate the culture for what it is.”
Though the salsa band is still in its infancy, the members said they recognize the combo’s potential and have high hopes for the future.
“It is good to learn another culture’s music and really immerse yourself in it,” Jorgenson said. “I am hoping it continues here at BYU and gives people an opportunity to learn about other cultures and appreciate music from other places.”
These BYU students are not the only ones looking to bridge the gap between the Hispanic community and the overall Provo community. Centro Hispano, established in 2002, is a non-profit that provides services to the Hispanic community and works to “promote cross-cultural understanding,” according to the organization’s website.
“It started off being run by volunteers who saw the need to bridge the gap between the Hispanic community and their new home,” said education program coordinator for Centro Hispano, Abraham Hernandez. “Because of the cultural and language differences, they were not connecting.”
Centro Hispano originally started out as a referral service for immigrants. The organization helps with the transition by helping immigrants find free clinics, loan services and places for food and shelter.
Today Centro Hispano has grown significantly, offering more services, such as a low-income tax clinic, a health and education promotion department, and legal aid.
“The original focus was helping the immigrant population,” Hernandez said. “However, as we have grown, it is really a community service — anyone is welcome to use our services. They do not have to be Hispanic. All of our services are bilingual, so we can help whoever walks through our door.”
Aside from the services it provides, Centro Hispano seeks to celebrate and introduce Latino culture among its community members through a variety of events. One such event is the Festival Latino Americano — a three to four-day festival on Provo Center Street, which happens every Labor Day weekend. This year’s festival will mark its 16th anniversary.
The president of the Festival Latino Americano, Edgar Zurita, is a Bolivian native and BYU alumnus. He said his BYU experience as a minority was one of the motivating factors for starting the festival.
“I am a musician. I love art, music and my culture,” Zurita said. “There was plenty of that at BYU, but outside there was nothing for the community. I wanted to create a means for the interaction of the Hispanic community to the overall community of Provo, and I wanted to showcase our culture because it is so beautiful — so full of traditions, music and food. Our community should benefit from it.”
Zurita and Hernandez said the festival started out small, and although it was initially separate from Centro Hispano, to become a true fundraiser, it needed to be under the umbrella of a non-profit organization. Thus, the partnership was formed.
Centro Hispano assists the festival committee with finding vendors and sponsors and promotes the festival on social media. Along with the aid from Centro Hispano, many volunteers help with the execution of the festival each year.
“No one gets paid for doing this festival,” Zurita said. “I think that is what makes this festival so wonderful, because the people that come and work the festival do it with pure intent. They are not looking for the monetary benefit. I get to benefit from just seeing people attend with big smiles on their faces, enjoying their families. It is an amazing sight.”
Since its beginnings, the festival has evolved from a single day event with roughly 300 people in attendance to an entire weekend celebration.
“This festival has exceeded our expectations,” Zurita said. “I never thought it was going to get this big.”
Additional festivals and events presented by Centro Hispano include El Dia de Los Reyes (Three Kings’ Day) as well as raffles and toy giveaways for children.
“We are not just inviting the Hispanic community to enrich and maintain their own culture,” said Zurita. “We are inviting non-Latinos to learn about our Latin culture.”
To learn more about Centro Hispano and the Latino festival, visit the Festival Latino Americano website.