Para leer en español haga clic aquí.

On a sunny Saturday morning, a group of Colombian Clevelanders and their friends raked leaves, dug holes and planted flowers not quite ready to bloom on the site of their future cultural garden along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. 

Volunteers wore red, blue and yellow, matching the Colombian flag that waved behind them as they worked. The Colombian national anthem and cumbias played from a car while people took breaks to eat arepas with chorizo. 

The floral arrangements they planted are a placeholder for a cultural garden that will highlight Colombia’s geography and serve as a gathering space for Latinos in Northeast Ohio.

Once the garden is completed, Colombia will be the first Latin American country represented in the Cleveland Cultural Gardens. But it won’t be the only Latine garden for long. Mexican and Peruvian organizations are following suit. (Latine is a gender-neutral term some people use instead of Latino or Latina.)

As the Latin American population grows in Cuyahoga County and Northeast Ohio, the Latine community is organizing to showcase their rich cultures and histories at the gardens. 

Between 1980 and 2020, the Cleveland metro area’s Hispanic and Latine populations grew from about 39,000 to 133,900, according to “Reflections on the 2020 Census: Trends in Cleveland’s Hispanic and Latino Population,” a paper by Richey Piiparinen, director of urban theory and analytics for the Maxine Goodman Levin School of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University. 

In Cuyahoga County, the growth was from around 24,000 to 83,300. 

Completing a garden takes years

The Cleveland Cultural Gardens Federation, born in the 1920s, dedicated its first garden in 1926. 

For Isabel Galvez-Benites, vice president of the Peruvian Cultural Association of Northeast Ohio, the gardens reflect the international communities that have found a home in Cleveland. 

It’s where people bring the most important parts of their culture, she said. 

“And it’s a place where international populations also find a meeting place and a place to honor their homelands,” Galvez-Benites said.

Driving along the gardens on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, what stands out most are European countries’ flags waving beside gardens showing the cultures of some of the earliest immigrants in the region. 

The Cleveland Cultural Gardens have seen more diversity in recent years, with spaces representing Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries. And the number of cultures represented continues to grow. 

Construction for the Pakistani and African-American gardens is in full swing. And after Peru’s proposal was approved, the federation approved a Philippines garden.

Getting a garden built takes years. 

A nonprofit organization first presents a proposal to the federation. The federation wants to know the size of the community, how the organization will fundraise and how it plans to build and maintain the garden. 

“We want to make sure that the garden can be there forever,” said Lori Ashyk, executive director of the Cleveland Cultural Gardens Federation. “That there’s a solid group of people in an organization that can sustain the garden for decades.”

Once approved, the group chooses an available plot. Next, Cleveland City Council has to approve leasing that land to the group. 

The organization then has to raise money for a designer, an architect and the construction. The design has to be approved by the design committee of the Gardens Federation. Then the federation as a whole weighs in, followed by the city’s Landmarks Commission. City Council gives final approval.

The cost depends on how elaborate the design is, Ashyk said. 

Latines support one another

Through this long process, Peruvians, Colombians and Mexicans are supporting one another’s garden efforts. They are also seeing support from other Latines in Cleveland. 

Hector Castellanos Lara, a Guatemalan visual artist who was at a Mother’s Day fundraiser for the Peruvian garden and auctioned art for a Mexican Cinco de Mayo fundraiser, has been supportive of all three Latin American groups raising funds for their gardens. 

Castellanos Lara is heavily involved in the Cleveland arts scene and has worked with the Cleveland Museum of Art on Parade the Circle. He is also the artistic director for Cleveland’s Dia de Muertos celebration.

He said people from countries without a garden are comforted by knowing they have Latin American neighbors creating these spaces. 

“Como Latinoamericano es un gran orgullo que existan varios países que están ya establecidos y que continuarán progresando, representando no solo sus propios países pero todo Latinoamérica,” he said.

“As a Latin American, it is a great pride that there are several countries that are already established and that they will continue to progress, representing not only their own countries but all of Latin America.” 

Hilda Carpio is excited to have a Peruvian garden in Cleveland. 

“Estoy feliz, encantada. Porque ya era hora,” she said of the garden. “I’m happy, delighted. Because it was about time.”

Music and dancing are some of her favorite cultural traditions, she said, adding that she’s usually the first on the dance floor at parties.

At a Mother’s Day celebration last month, Carpio danced in her seat as others around her finished their dinner. As a DJ played cumbia and salsa at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic School on Detroit Avenue. 

She wore blue sunglasses, a white dress with blue polka dots, a blue ribbon tied in a bow at her waist and a lace white cardigan that matched her short, wavy white hair. Carpio lamented that the party ended so early at 10 p.m. 

As soon as the floor opened up and people were invited to dance, a smiling Carpio was shuffling her feet and swaying her hips, arms wide open. 

Swipe through for Peruvian fundraiser photos

  • Hilda Carpio dances with her arms out and a smile on her face. She has short, wavy white hair, a white dress with blue polka dots and a white lace cardigan.
  • Roberto Pinedo, in a red shirt with a small Peruvian flag logo on the top left side of his shirt, dances with a woman at the association's Mother's Day celebration on May 6, 2023, at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic School.
  • Jorge Neyra, in a black fedora, black outfit and yellow sneakers holds his sister Claire Neyra, as she slides her left foot back in an almost half-split, her back arched. She wears a black bra top and black pants with black and yellow sneakers. The siblings, professional dancers from Peru, perform at the Peruvian Mother's Day celebration on May 6, 2023, at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic School. The event served as a fundraiser for the Peruvian Cultural Garden.
  • Roasted chicken and rice with carrots and red peppers and papa a la huancaina — boiled potato served cold in slices with a were two of the foods served at a Mother's Day celebration on May 6, 2023.
  • A group of people dance following Jorge Neyra's lead at a Mother's Day celebration at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic School.

The Peruvian Cultural Association of Northeast Ohio hosted the celebration to raise funds for their garden. Peru is the most recent Latin American group to have a garden proposal approved in 2022. 

Galvez-Benites, with the Peruvian association, said that while the design still must be finalized, the group has agreed the garden should showcase Peru’s three natural regions – the coast; the Andes Mountains, or the Sierra; and the Peruvian rainforest, or Selva Peruana. 

And, of course, part of the design will pay homage to Machu Picchu, one of the modern wonders of the world. 

The association estimates creating the garden will cost about $350,000, Galvez-Benites said. 

After the proposal was approved in September, Roberto Pinedo, development chair for the association, designed an early draft of the garden with the group’s input. The garden will include a plaza where the community can celebrate Peruvian holidays and hold events, he said. 

Martina Richter, 19, said it’s up to her generation and those after to stay involved in the association and make sure their culture stays present in Cleveland.

“Aqui estamos en Cleveland. Estamos lejos del Perú. Estamos lejos de Sudamérica, Latinoamérica,” she said. “Entonces es muy importante poder mantener esa conexión a la cultura y no olvidarla.” 

“We are here in Cleveland. We are far from Peru. We are far from South America, Latin America,” she said. “So it is very important to be able to maintain that connection to the culture and not forget it.”

A trumpet from the Mariachi playing in the background blared from the event hall on the other side of the wall as Eduviges “Vicky” Caballero talked about her Mexican culture – the food, Folklorico dancing, Dia de Muertos celebrations. 

Caballero stared into the distance, reminiscing as she talked, memories taking her back to the flavors, sounds and sights of her first home.

A red scarf was wrapped around her neck over a black shirt with a cream-colored floral pattern. She laughed, clapped and shimmied her shoulders as she danced in a growing line around the event hall while the mariachi played “El Mariachi Loco.”

Caballero said it’s important for Mexican Clevelanders to teach younger generations to be proud of their culture. 

“Especialmente aquí en Cleveland donde es como un bowl de salad, una ensalada grande donde hay de diferentes culturas,” dijo. “Compartirlas, no solamente mi cultura sino todas las culturas hacer algo hermoso de esto y que cada quien, de donde quiera que sea se sienta orgulloso de ser parte de donde es y de estar donde están, en Cleveland, Ohio.” 

“Especially here in Cleveland where it’s like a bowl of salad, a big salad where there are different cultures,” she said. “Sharing them, not just my culture but all cultures making something beautiful out of it and everyone, wherever they are from, be proud to be a part of where they are from and to be where they are, in Cleveland, Ohio.”

“Una de las cosas que para mi son muy importantes es que el jardín une a las familias,” dijo. “Porque nos trae color, nos trae alimentacion y nos trae vida.”

“One of the most important things to me is that the garden unites families,” she said. “Because it brings us color, it brings us nourishment, it brings us life.” 

Swipe through for Cinco de Mayo gala photos

  • A mariachi plays at the Cinco de Mayo Gala on May 5, 2023, at the Crowne Plaza Cleveland at Playhouse Square.
  • Eduardo Rodriguez, in a black suit, white button up and maroon tie, and his wife, in a red dress, Karen Rodriguez laugh while enjoying a glass of wine at the Cinco de Mayo Gala on May 5, 2023.
  • Art displayed on a table includes a framed colorful painting, a doll, a painted portrait of Frida Kahlo, and other items. The art was up for auction at the Cinco de Mayo Gala on May 5, 2023.
  • Two servers offer two women empanadas, displayed on a tray at the Cinco de Mayo Gala on May 5, 2023.

Gardening is also what Mexicans are known for, Luis Aranda said. 

“Es como ponerle la corona a un rey,” dijo Aranda. “Somos famosos por la jardinería no?”

“It’s like putting the crown on a king,” Aranda said. “We’re famous for gardening, aren’t we?”

Aranda moved to the Cleveland area from Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico, about 30 years ago. He and his wife, Jennifer Murphy, were at the Cinco de Mayo gala, eager to support the garden fundraising. 

Mexican immigrants shouldn’t be considered foreigners in the United States,  Aranda said. They belong in spaces like the Cleveland Cultural Gardens, where they can teach their American-born children about their culture and history and the story of Mexican immigration. 

Eduardo Rodriguez, executive director of Comite Mexicano de Cleveland, said their garden will cost around $500,000. 

The committee has discussed installing an Alebrije sculpture — a mythical spirit guide that has become famous in Mexican folk art. 

They’ve also talked about planting a special garden to attract monarch butterflies. 

Monarch butterflies migrate from northwestern North America to Mexico to spend the winter in warmer weather, passing Cleveland on their way south. 

“Nosotros como comunidad migrante creemos en este tipo de mariposas,” dijo Rodriguez. “Que realmente ellas vuelan y no hay frontera que las detenga.”

“As a migrating community, we believe in those butterflies that just fly,” he said. “And there are no borders that can stop them.”

In 2018, Ivan Cerquera was talking with his friend Erica Sullivan about starting a Colombian organization in Cleveland. 

At the same time, Luzelena Klopp and her daughter, Angelina, drove through the Cleveland Cultural Gardens often and wanted to see a Colombian garden in the space. 

Sullivan and Klopp connected, and the four created the Ohio Colombian Foundation. The federation approved their garden proposal in 2019. 

The Colombian Foundation plans to use QR codes to share more about Colombian culture interactively through their website, said Cerquera, president of the foundation. 

Symbolic gardens using different plants, flowers, trees and boulders will highlight their country’s natural regions – the rainforest; the grasslands, or los Llanos; the highlands; and the coastal lowlands. 

Swipe through for Colombian garden cleanup photos

  • Bill Gruber pours a blue liquid from a gallon, a mix of water with pesticides, over a newly planted flower bed at the site of the Colombian Cultural Garden. The first phase of the garden is expected to be complete in the Spring.
  • Lucy Yansinky, wearing a brown shirt and gardening gloves, trims a bush at the Colombian Cultural Garden, the Colombian flag waving on a pole behind her, on June 10, 2023.
  • Bradley Beatty leans on one knee in khaki shorts, a blue long sleeve shirt and a sun hat with a bandanna underneath covering his neck, scoops soil into a black pot. Other volunteers behind him help clean up the Colombian garden on June 10, 2023, at the Cleveland Cultural Gardens.
  • Volunteers cleaned and replanted a garden at the site of the Colombian Cultural Garden on June 10, 2023.
  • Ivan Cerquera (left) rakes leaves at the Colombian Cultural Garden on June 10, 2023. Bags of soil are stacked in front of him. Other voluteers around him work to clean the garden.

Their total cost estimate is around $260,000. They have divided construction into three phases, starting with a plaza and an entrance. The first phase is expected to be completed in the Spring.

Pilar Lachwanni, foundation board member, said Colombia is more than the bad news and drug trafficking that has been shown historically in the media. Colombia is a country with diverse natural resources and traditions. 

“El pueblo Colombiano es gente trabajadora, honrada en supermayoría,” dijo. 

“The Colombian people are hard-working people, honest, the supermajority,” she said.

Her home country is known for flowers exported to the United States. It’s known for the coffee exported all over the world, Lachwanni said. 

“Colombia es la alegría, Colombia es la cumbia,” dijo. 

“Colombia is joy, Colombia is cumbia.”

Cerquera said the organization will welcome all Latinos to celebrate their special events in the space.

“Esto no es solamente para los Colombianos,” dijo. “Esto es para todos los Hispanos.”

“This isn’t only for Colombians,” he said. “It’s for all Hispanic people.”

Criminal Justice Reporter (she/her)
Stephanie, who covered criminal justice and breaking news at the Chicago Tribune, is a bilingual journalist with a passion for storytelling that is inclusive and reflects the diversity of the communities she covers. She has been a reporter and copy editor for local newspapers in South Dakota, Kansas and Arizona. Stephanie is also a Maynard 200 alumni, a Maynard Institute for Journalism Education training program for journalists of color that focuses on making newsrooms more equitable, diverse and anti-racist.