La Joven Guardia seeks to create better humans through theater

La Joven Guardia seeks to create better humans through theater

The program teaches children to channel different emotions and encourages them to achieve their dreams
Published: November 15, 2022
José Miguel Hernandez-Hurtado and Ahitana Garcia-Rodriguez stand on an empty black stage, with Hernandez-Hurtado motioning a stage direction for Garcia-Rodriguez.
Director José Miguel Hernandez-Hurtado teaches student Ahitana Garcia-Rodriguez about stage cues.

The eerie sounds of Cuban artist Abisay Puentes’s “Lamento Numero 2” welcome the audience as they enter the Black Box Theater, setting the tone for the play they are about to watch.

As the music plays and audience members settle in, the voices of children can be heard behind the curtains, singing songs, most likely to ease their nerves, ahead of their first performance of the weekend on Oct. 20.

The students of La Joven Guardia del Teatro Latino (The Young Guard of the Latino Theater) are adapting “The Iliad” in celebration of Latinx Heritage Month, and many in this young cast are taking the stage for the first time.

It’s not just about the acting; it’s also about these children becoming better humans, said José Miguel Hernandez-Hurtado, founder and director of La Joven Guardia del Teatro Latino, moments before his students stepped onto the stage.

When Hernandez-Hurtado moved to Syracuse from Cuba in 1997, he noticed many kids in his community were dealing with the stress that comes with immigrating from Latin America to the United States.

“I asked myself, ‘What could I do to help and contribute to my community?’” he said.

Two years later, he was approached by the director of La Liga — The Spanish Action League of Onondaga County, who had been wanting to start a dance and theater group and was hoping Hernandez-Hurtado could help. Thus, the theater group was formed.

Over the 23 years since La Joven Guardia began, Hernandez-Hurtado has always wanted his students to focus on the process rather than being perfect.

Through an arts education, these children learn to understand and experience different emotions with each rehearsal and performance, he said.

“The arts make an individual sensitive. It makes one human,” Hernandez-Hurtado said.

He’s created a community of support in La Joven Guardia, encouraging students from ages 7 to 21 to achieve their dreams — even if those dreams aren’t in the arts.

At the first meeting of La Joven Guardia, held on a soccer field at Fowler High School, he was shocked when students shared how their teachers would say that they weren’t going far in life and that college wasn’t for them.

“I was focused on helping these kids out as much as I could to help them achieve their dreams,” Hernandez-Hurtado said.

Luis Figueroa, who joined La Joven Guardia as part of the founding cast when he was five years old, sees the theater group as family.

“One of the biggest lessons I learned was to have a voice,” Figueroa said. “La Joven Guardia raised me.”

He added that if it weren’t for La Joven Guardia, he doesn’t know where he’d be, and that if he had the chance, he would do it all again.

Not only is Figueroa an alumnus of the theater group, his 8-year-old daughter Rosely is following in his footsteps. As a father, Figueroa says he notices changes in his daughter as she continues to participate in the theater group.

“She’s still a little timid, but she’s been wanting to do other activities like gymnastics after joining [La Joven Guardia],” Figueroa said.

Emely Dominguez-Lambert and Michael Alberti stand on a decorate stage and act out a scene from a play
Students Emely Dominguez-Lambert and Michael Alberti perform a scene from "The Iliad."

Much like Figueroa’s daughter, Ahitana Garcia-Rodriguez was shy about performing when she joined the theater group, but now she loves it.

The 9-year-old says she likes being at rehearsals because she gets to speak more Spanish, which she can’t do much at school. La Joven Guardia performs only in Spanish.

While the thought of performing a piece like “The Iliad” makes her nervous, Garcia-Rodriguez is determined to put on a good show.

The bond between Garcia-Rodriguez and her castmates grows every moment they are together. Any time these kids are given a break, they’re immediately doing cartwheels, giggling at jokes and running around the stage. And when one of their own forgets a line or stumbles on the pronunciation of a word, they have each other’s backs, encouraging one another to push through — even whispering or mouthing lines to one another.

“Having my friends here makes [performing] more fun,” said Emely Dominguez-Lambert, who joined the theater group after her friend’s mom suggested that she join.

Garcia-Rodriguez said the different roles she has in “The Iliad” are dramatic, and she has to act strong and independent on stage. She added that while learning and memorizing lines is hard, she will be happy once everything comes together for the performance.

By the end of their adaptation of Homer’s classic, the young actors stood proudly in front of the audience, ready to tackle the rest of their performances. Hernandez-Hurtado stands alongside his students with a proud grin on his face as they take their final bow for the night.