Passing Taller’s Torch
For 22 years, Carmen Febo San Miguel led Philly’s largest Latino arts and culture org to new heights.
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Dr. Carmen Febo San Miguel doesn’t remember the exact year, but estimates it was either 1975 or ‘76 when she first crossed paths with Taller Puertorriqueño.
It was at a concert being put on by the young Puerto Rican-centered organization at a church in North Philadelphia and featured Antonio Cabán Vale — one of the island’s many musical heroes.
San Miguel had heard about the concert through a classmate, who she thinks heard it from one of her patients.At the time, San Miguel was a young doctor learning the ins-and-outs of family medicine at Hahnemann University Hospital, and later, a clinic associated with the hospital on Spring Garden street. At the time, the neighborhood was the center of Philadelphia’s Puerto Rican community, and its members made up a large portion of San Miguel’s patients.
That contact helped the doctor-in-training to better adjust to a city that, despite its nickname, had trouble accepting outsiders.
“I wouldn’t say hostile, but you could see immediately the levels of racism that become very apparent, and very early,” said San Miguel of Philadelphia, “and that was a little bit shocking.”
It was out of facing that hostility that many communities of color in the city began establishing organizations to plant their flag and demand respect in the urban landscape. Much like the Young Lords did in New York City and Chicago, Taller Puertorriqueño followed suit in Philadelphia alongside orgs like Congreso de Latinos Unidos (Congreso), Asociación de Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM), Concilio, and more.
“If we don’t establish our own institutions, we’re not going to be able to get a hold of our ability to help and connect our community in different ways,” said San Miguel of the movement.
For Taller, that connection was brought with art and culture, hence the invitation extended to ‘El Topo’ to perform on that mid-70s night in North Philly.
The experience was a magical one for San Miguel.
“The rhythms, the sound, the music… I immediately felt attracted to the concept of having this space to celebrate our culture, and our togetherness,” she said.
It brought her back to the long car rides of her youth, going to visit relatives in Ciales, Puerto Rico. San Miguel and her four siblings got used to piling in their car with their mom and dad to make the two-hour trek. An activity that often rose to the top as a way to pass time was singing, and her father was the chief proponent.
“We all shared in those songs,” said San Miguel. “Many of the songs, those old songs that I know today, were from learning them in that process.”
Her mother was also a literature teacher, bringing more of the written Puerto Rican tradition to a young Carmen.
“Culture has always been a very close part of who I am,” she said.
Add all that personal history to the traditional food and dance moves served at that first Taller concert she attended, and San Miguel soon had the urge to get involved with the growing organization.
A firm grounding in youth enrichment has remained at its core throughout its 40-plus year existence. When San Miguel first joined in the early days, that meant teaching the Taíno history of Puerto Rico, and schooling them to be talented graphic artists through that unique lens. Taller’s attached store would then sell the items made in its graphic arts classes.
“It’s the connection between the art, strengthening your self, and cultural identity,” said San Miguel.
Some of the early funders in Taller’s first five years were a combination of big progressive donors, the city of Philadelphia, membership dues, and of course, tickets for events and what was sold at those events.“We all talk about selling bacalaítos and alcapurrías in different events,” San Miguel said of the early days.
Her early contributions of time and money to the organization, and position as an important doctor in the community, allowed San Miguel to rise fast in Taller. She was appointed to its board of directors in 1978.
Two years later, in 1980, she returned to Puerto Rico for four years to pursue more medical passions before coming back to Philadelphia and Taller in 1984.
The organization she returned to was in upheaval and financially strapped. It wouldn’t be the first time in San Miguel’s time there that such a situation lashed the organization.
She credits its previously-mentioned multiple streams of income and calculated spending as to why the organization has been able to survive for so long and through many economic downturns.
At around the 14-year mark of San Miguel’s time on Taller’s board, the organization was coping with yet another downturn that characterized the late 90s and early 2000s. Only this time, the organization was also on the hunt for a new executive director after the departure of Johnny Irizarry.
Due to the poor economic situation, Taller could not pay its new executive director enough to entice someone to take the role. Instead, San Miguel, then a longtime board member and chair of the board, took the position in a part-time capacity and supplemented her income with salary as a physician.
“I stepped in as a part-time director thinking that I could do it for two or three years, things would get better, and that was the end of that,” she told AL DÍA. “Well, this is 22 years later.”
In that time, San Miguel initiated and completed a 12-year process that would change the fortunes of the organization for good.
A couple years after taking the executive director role, her and Taller’s other leaders recognized the need to have a much bigger space for the organization. At the time, it was operating out of two buildings in North Philadelphia. Beyond the logistical challenge of organizing work across two spaces, some of the organization’s offerings were falling short of what leaders wanted them to be.
For one, the art gallery was housed on a narrow second-story floor in one of the buildings, and left much to be desired when it came to showcasing work.
After some initial deliberations, the plan was to construct an approximately 32,000 square-foot building at a cost of $10 million.
It is at this point that San Miguel was able to draw on her then more than 20 years at the organization to get initial support from the state and city. She credited people like Mayor John Street, Councilmember María Quiñones-Sánchez, and State Rep. Angel Cruz with being her advocates in government and getting a flexible initial grant of $1.5 million.
In the end, the entire building was 24,000 square feet and came in at a price of $11.5 million. It opened to the public in 2016. With the new space, San Miguel says the organization has enjoyed relative financial stability since its construction.
That even includes during the COVID-19 pandemic, where the city utilized the space for 22 kids to attend virtual school with supervision.
“It has also allowed us to survive the pandemic,” said San Miguel.
The building’s completion also brought the initial conversations around who would replace the longtime Taller leader.
“Part of the difficulty is thinking about longevity, and knowing and understanding that there is a time when this transition is gonna happen,” said San Miguel. “You can either plan for it or it’s gonna happen no matter what.”
However, when it did happen, she also did not want to leave an irreparable, gaping hole.
After four years of prep to avoid that reality, a successor was named in Nasheli Juliana Ortiz González.
San Miguel called her the “ideal executive director,” to lead the organization to new heights, but did say that there were still things she needed to learn from her.
“For a little bit of time, until Nasheli feels that she knows everything that she needs to know — there’s a lot of details that are unfortunately in this brain that need to transfer to the new brain,” said San Miguel.
That process is ongoing, as Ortiz Gonález assumed leadership on Dec. 27, 2021.
Given her newfound free time, San Miguel hopes to be able to travel and spend more time with family in Puerto Rico.
Beyond a much-needed return home, Morocco, Scandinavia, Brazil and Argentina are on her bucket list.
However, she also did not leave out a potential return to Taller in an advisory role if possible.
“We’ll see,” is all she offered.
“Taller is tied to me because I am tied to Taller,” and what she’s left in North Philadelphia will last longer than all of us.