Written by Tatiana Spiegel
In New York City, the weekend of July 20 is filled with performances, parades, and street food celebrating the spirit of Colombian culture worldwide. To mark Colombian Independence Day, people dance to the Latin sounds of Cumbia, and are hypnotized by the smells of melting cheese on arepas and sizzling chorizo on the grill.
Karla (L) and Valeria in the Colombian Green Worm Parade in Jackson Heights, 2018. Photo by Valentina Olaya-Flórez
Like many Colombian immigrants, Karla Florez Albor joins every year the Colombian Day Parade in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens. Immigrating to New York City in the early 2000s was never part of her plan. She was an accomplished dance teacher, movement researcher, and journalist in the city of Barranquilla, in Colombia’s northern Caribbean coastal region, when she met her husband, a Colombian working abroad in New York City. They fell in love, married, and had two daughters. After a few years of bliss with her new family, Karla was faced with having to leave her beloved country behind when her husband’s job asked that he relocate to New York City. Karla made the difficult decision to move her family to the United States, but she knew that she would continue her thriving career in dance education and research. Karla arrived with high hopes for her new American life, and promptly began researching how body movements were affected after 9-11.
Despite being a successful, strong-minded, independent woman, nothing could have prepared Karla for the difficulties of establishing a life in grueling New York City. During her first year, she struggled to acclimate to the language, US culture, and especially the brutal northeastern winters. Most days, she felt frustrated; she had always considered her English to be advanced, but to her surprise, she had trouble with comprehension in New York. She found solace only when encountering fellow Spanish speakers in the bustling streets of Jackson Heights, where she and her family lived.
Karla, Kike, and Valeria at a Cumbia presentation in Molinero, Atlantico, Colombia by African Dance School Palma.
Being so far from everything she knew, feelings of loneliness quickly rushed in. She often felt dispirited and isolated, and yearned for the warm sun of Barranquilla. One day, in an attempt to orient herself in new surroundings, and feel the comfort of her home country, Karla decided to share her Colombian roots with her two daughters. This is when her life began to change. Frustrated by the lack of programs or books available to help teach about Colombian culture, she started writing her own stories for her daughters. To make the tales even more interesting, Karla performed traditional Colombian dance while storytelling to her toddler and her newborn baby. One day, she performed at her daughter’s afterschool program. This rapidly led to Karla presenting her stories to different programs around the city.
Her unique style of storytelling had never been seen before in New York, and instantly became sought after. Organizations and establishments such as the Consulate of Colombia in New York, Queens Museum, Center for Traditional Music and Dance, Performing Arts Conservatory Of New York, Long Island and Queens Libraries, University of Evansville, and more invited Karla to perform. Her original works – including “The Green Inch Worm,” “Tamarindo,” and more recently, “We are Cumbia We are Family” – use distinct movements to tell Colombian folkloric tales and keep audiences enchanted.
Valeria, Karla, and Valentina at the English book launch for Karla’s book “We are Cumbia, we are family” during a FolkColombia Dance and Music event at Queens Museum, 2018. Photo by John Barragán.
Little by little, Karla found that she no longer fantasized about moving her family back to Colombia, but rather, she was happy about spreading Colombian culture in her new home. She started to build a life that she loved, on her own terms. Karla became more comfortable living in the United States as the years passed, and she never lost sight of what grounded her most: Spreading Colombia’s rich culture to all. As Karla’s research, storytelling, and dance performances became more popular, she felt more at peace with her decision to immigrate to the US. After years of being asked to perform, she finally decided to establish the Karla Florez School of Dance a decade ago. Since then, she has been teaching Colombian folklore and performing all around the world. Karla and her school regularly perform at the annual Colombian Day Parade in Queens and the Desfile de Hispanidad in Manhattan, rejuvenating her love of her home country while putting smiles on spectators’ faces.
Karla’s passion for dance and Colombian culture has served her even in the most difficult of times. She is proof that as an immigrant in New York City, you can always find a way to get in touch with your roots, no matter how far away you are from home.
Karla during Workshop Green Worm in the Colombian Consulate in New York City, 2018. Photo by Maria Margarita Gaitán.
This content was originally published here.