Raúl Orlando Edwards

Raúl Orlando Edwards has been featured by media both local (Defender, Chronicle) and national (NBC Nightly News) for his work in Houston’s Afro-Latinx art scene. But when Edwards first arrived in Houston, he couldn’t find his community.

Now, thanks in part to Edwards’ work as founder of the non-profit Foundation for Latin American Arts (F-LAMARTS), a foundation that hosts an annual music festival and events throughout the year, and Strictly Street Salsa, Houston’s first salsa studio, Houston’s Afro-Latinx community is gaining notoriety.

The Defender spoke with Edwards to learn more about him and his work.

DEFENDER: How did you become such a huge part of Houston’s art (dance) scene?

EDWARDS: I moved to Houston to study music. And as I began to dance, people kept asking me, “Hey, are you an instructor?” I responded, “I just dance for fun, but I do love to teach.” In that process, some people asked me if I were to teach, who would I give them a call. I decided to do it in 1997 and started teaching in January 1998. In that process, I began to see how people were teaching Latin American dances. And I was literally shocked because it didn’t look anything like how we did dance back in those countries. I sort of felt offended about what was being presented as the dances of my culture. So, I decided to be either bitter or to do something better. And that’s when I decided to start teaching because I want to be able to have an actual experience of how Latin American people dance. The other thing that I noticed, there was no representation of the African influences, which all of these dances, all of the music, the cuisine, all of these things were created by Black people. But they were not being represented in the dances. That was one of my big things to do, to bring that to people.

DEFENDER: How did you make that happen?

EDWARDS:  I didn’t realize how people actually wanted that (the authentic, Africa-created dances), but they had no idea what that was. So, we began to teach that. And in that process, I established the first salsa studio in Houston back in 1998. And we are actually getting to 25 years. And consequently, we launched the Afro-Latin Fest, which currently has the largest curriculum of Afro-Latino dancers in the country. So, that was one of the motivations for me, to represent the culture with all its components, the European, the indigenous, and the African, where one is not more important than the other. They all equally represented, but also they equally contributed in creating what we know as Latin culture today.

DEFENDER: Have you faced any pushback or challenges in the process?

EDWARDS: In all the arts, you’re going to find this kind of elitism. You have this element where somebody would say, “You have to have this technique” and I’m like, “No. Actually we have technique, but it doesn’t look so rigid and step.” And it’s a different kind of technique. I remember one time a programmer at a university asked me to do a workshop and then I did one. And I went back and asked, “Let me know when you want the other one” because they asked me to do a second one. The faculty member tells me, “Well, we only do ballet, jazz, modern. We don’t do folk dancing.” That was my first experience understanding the prejudices that existed in, “We actually dance, you all just do folk dancing.” The same thing happened when I was studying classical music in school. It was, “This is music, and that’s ethnic music.” I did find in the arts, there was this stark difference, to some extent, racism, in “This is us and everything has to follow these European standards to be accepted.” So, I decided I was going to fight against that.