Carmen Febo San Miguel
Healer is the word that best describes Carmen Febo San Miguel. As a physician, she concentrated for years in serving predominantly poor Puerto Rican and African American families in Philadelphia. As a cultural healer, she has put her knowledge and energy in creating a place where Puerto Rican and Latino cultures thrive. Febo started volunteering at the Taller Puertorriqueno in the late Seventies, eventually becoming its Executive Director. Her commitment to the city and its people, Febo says, is rooted in the cultural and social activism she learned at home.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, our family was no different than so many others. My parents got married after my father came back from being stationed in the Dominican Republic when the war ended. They, both professionals, where struggling with the hard economic realities of raising a family. But, somehow, there was always nurturance and time to cherish those cultural values that shaped our everyday lives. We celebrated every birthday, every graduation, all holidays, with music and dancing, typical foods and friends and family. When we visited our family in the country side, a trip that took 2 hours in an unconditioned car, with 5 children fighting as to who would get a window, or the front seat, we would break out in song, and some how the trip would turn into fun. We would sing fun children's songs, but also beautiful love songs, songs about the love of country, many times not even understanding the meaning of the words. These words have been imprinted in my brain and have become a source of inspiration and of solace in moments of crisis.
When I was 9 years old, my father took me to a classic music concert as part of the Pablo Casals Festival. I can't remember what we heard, I can't remember who the artists were. What I do remember is asking my father why he came and why he brought me. He answered, "You know, Carmencita, I really do not understand this music, but I know I like it. I come, and I listen and I feel". This statement taught me 2 important lessons, one, to be honest and unpretentious, the other, that art is not only about knowing and understanding but perhaps more importantly, about feelings.
I came to Philadelphia for the first time in 1973 to do a residency in Family Medicine after attending medical school in Puerto Rico. I remember the many hours of work, facing issues of life and death, confronting the stark social inequities and issues of poverty and race. These were all aggravated by my feeling of cultural isolation. An important turning point of my life happened one Saturday night in 1976 - I attended a concert of Puerto Rican singer and composer Antonio Caban Vale - "El Topo." It was held at a small performance space in a church in the heart of the Puerto Rican community in North Philadelphia. The room came alive, the music reverberated my familiar rhythms, the words spoke to my heart. I had found a space to express, celebrate and share my culture in Philadelphia. The organization sponsoring the event was Taller Puertorriqueno.
Cultural knowledge and identification create the basis by which human beings develop a sense of self as well as of connection to others, thus art and culture are powerful and unifying forces in the life of a community. I believe in the transformational power of art as I see it everyday in the impact Taller has in the children and families that participate in its programs. I believe in the right of cultures to coexist in a society where diversity is seen as an asset and not as a disadvantage. I believe in the right of individuals to be free of domination from others. As a Puerto Rican, I am a mixture of races, I am a mestiza, with indigenous, black and European influences and I believe in my strength because of this. And, when I see a group of boys and girls perform the traditional Puerto Rican bomba and plena (traditions that have been passed on for generations) with passion, pride and fervor, I believe in race, I believe in the human race.