A Moment in the Life of Debra Del Toro-Phillips

The story of Debra del Toro

I was born in Puerto Rico and lived in the metropolitan area of San Juan until I was ten years old. My family returned to New York City in the late 60’s and settled in the South Bronx, a prominently Puerto Rican neighborhood.

The South Bronx, known at the time as “Fort Apache” for the prevalence of gangs, drugs, and violence, was a challenging place to live, but it offered invaluable lessons in how to navigate life with confidence and assertiveness. It taught me how to confront my fears, be street smart and believe that working hard was the key to success.

Growing up in the South Bronx also taught me that no matter how disadvantaged and troubled a community might appear to be, with the exception of the few trouble makers, the people are good and carry a tremendous sense of pride, dignity, hope, and love for their culture and community.

Just recently I revisited my old neighborhood. Some sections still show signs of impoverishment, but there is much rejuvenation and growth going on. What has not changed is “el orgullo,” the pride of being Puerto Rican, displayed in the Puerto Rican flags that are draped from tenement windows and balconies along with the lively sounds of Spanglish, música Latina and the buzz and sizzle of culture.

My dreams and ambitions took me into “the city.” In my late teens and early twenties, I worked hard attending night school at the Fashion Institute of Technology and developed a career in fashion.

I made it to the upper echelons of the garment district as Vice President of Merchandising for multi-million dollar companies. For more than twenty years, I managed the development and production of men’s, women’s and children’s apparel. The work was glamorous, creative and fast-paced, and it took me to places I could only dream about in the Bronx – Paris, Italy, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Korea, Taiwan and Mexico.

Then it was time for a change in my life. Time to be a Mami! I took on the task of parenting with the same vigor I drew upon in my fashion career, determined to be the best mother I could possibly be. Though it was not an easy choice, I decided to give up my career in order to be present with my son.

Being a mother brought tremendous fulfillment, but my identity had always been tied to my work, and with work no longer a part of my life I sought to develop a new identity – that of student. I enrolled in the Columbia University School of General Studies as an undergraduate and majored in psychology.

culturame

My interest in clinical psychology led me to a Masters Degree at the Columbia University School of Social Work, where I selected geriatrics as my specialty. My interest in working with the Latino community led me to the Geriatric Psychiatric Clinic at Mt. Sinai Hospital in East Harlem (then a home-based treatment program for Latino Elders), a private practice of psychoanalysis for Latino women and cultural competence consulting and training for organizations servicing Latino clients.

It was all good work and very fulfilling, but if there is one lesson I learned growing up in the Bronx, it is that if you want something, you’ve got to go after it! Entrepreneurship had always intrigued me. When I was young, my mother owned and operated two clothing factories in the Bronx – hence my interest in fashion.

My mother’s independence, strength and willingness to give opportunities to others left a mark on me – hence my interest in social work. My pursuit of creative expression, love for my Latin culture, desire to work hard, be engaged and give opportunities to others led to the creation of Cultúrame!

Such is life! One thing leads to another and another! We are a product of our experiences and environments. As a teen-aged chica in the Bronx, strutting my stuff with big fat curlers in my hair as I shopped the boulevard for a new outfit to go dancing on a Saturday night, or as a carefree, skinny little girl riding my bike in the tropics of Puerto Rico, or as a young Latina professional making her way in the big city, or as a mother and wife caring for her family in the suburbs, it all amounts to one person, one being, one me! Proud of my roots, my accomplishments and looking forward to what all of this will lead to ne…

How do you keep Hispanic Culture alive?

It is not an uncommon phenomenon for those in the acculturation process to repress their own culture in order to adapt to a new one. That certainly was the case with me. I would call it a “process,” coming to terms with where I came from, who I wanted to be and, ultimately, who I am. I am grateful for the process, as I am a richer person for all my experiences.

Keeping my culture alive within me has been a challenge at times, but when I manage to live it and experience it – wow – there is nothing like it!

I use language to connect with my Latin culture. I find that when my tongue starts to roll, my pitch rises, my tempo quickens, and I am immediately immersed in the culture. However, the transformation from my mainstream culture to my Latin culture is not always smooth. It may take me a few minutes to get my verbal rhythms going, but once it does, it’s smooth sailing. And the connection to my own culture leaves me feeling comfortable and at home.

Music and food are also basic staples for feeling my culture. I put a little Tito Rodriguez or Trío Los Panchos on the stereo or my ipod and I am immediately transported to my childhood in Puerto Rico in the 60’s, cleaning the house on a Saturday morning with my mother and singing along to ballads of lost loves and romance, or dancing salsa with “la escoba” while sweeping the floor to El Gran Combo.

Going to El Barrio in East Harlem, sitting at a counter in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and eating a little mofongo (delicious fried plantains mashed with garlic, meat, or shrimp), puts me in a total Puerto Rican state of mind!

With family and friends, I throw at them a few Spanish words here and there – they love to engage in the Latin culture and I love stepping out of my mainstream culture for a moment and being the Latina that I am. I imagine others feel the same longing to re-connect with their culture, and that’s why my Cultú’rame bilingual greeting cards have received such a phenomenal reception. They allow people to connect culturally with family and friends.

How was your passion for photography born?

Although I am a very social person, I also enjoy periods of silence and solitude. Photography offers me the best of both experiences. I enjoy going out on my own and discovering situations and images that speak to me. And as I’ve become more comfortable with my creative expressions, I enjoy sharing my images with others. This is new for me!

Placing my photographs on my Cultúrame bilingual greeting cards for the world to see and judge has been a huge move towards self-acceptance and sharing of myself artistically. Somehow, doing so with photos from my travels to Latin America makes it easier. I suppose the desire to share my culture offsets any anxiety I may have about revealing myself creatively.

The photos in the Fotografía of America Latina Collection were taken in Ecuador, Guatemala, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. I find that looking through a lens helps to cut out the extraneous. It allows me to zero-in on a particular subject and really think about and experience the peculiarities of the culture: what it says, what it means, how it translates in the eyes of others.

The images of Latin America reveal a beauty and energy that is familiar throughout Latino culture, but they also reveal the uniqueness of each individual country, for each country has its own personality and history.

The greatest reward from my photography has been passing on the interest to my son, Streeter, who recently graduated from Yale University with a B.A. in Photography. It is a skill and interest that will forever serve him well, as he navigates his world. It most certainly has done so for me.

How did Cultúrame start? Origins, inspiration and ideas…

birthday-photo-box-setIn contemplating the next phase of my life, I felt a need to do something that offered opportunities for creative self-expression, while maintaining my interest in social services.

I had done a lot of development/fundraising work for the Mental Health Association of Westchester County and continue to have an interest in raising funds for charitable programs. However, traditional approaches to fundraising no longer interest me, as the limitations can be stifling. Instead, I decided to do it through a new business, one that would allow for creative self-expression, keep me connected to the Latino community and generate revenue, a portion of which I will be directing to bi-cultural art education programs for children.

Initially, I contemplated opening a home décor store, since I love color, fabrics, and decorating. The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that a retail outlet would limit the flexibility I so value in my life.

The switch to greeting cards began with a research trip to an arts and craft show, where I bought several handmade greeting cards. They were nice, but I kept thinking how nice it would be if I could share greetings with cards that reflected my culture, my styling sensitivities and helped me connect with and share my Latino culture.

With a little more research, the great fortune of having a dear friend who is graphic designer available to help me design the cards, and a willingness to work hard in setting up a business, I created a line of bilingual social expressions in time to launch at the 2010 National Stationery Show in New York City.

Cultúrame is a win-win for me! I get to use the business skills I developed during my years as a fashion executive and start a new business, memorializing my mother and following in her entrepreneurial footsteps. I also get to be creative and play with color and patterns again. I get to stay connected with my Latino culture, and I get to stay connected to the world of social services.

Designing the cards felt familiar and easy. I suppose that’s because it took me back to my designing days in fashion. Writing the cards was an interesting process, as I have never done anything like it before. It just kind of happened! The ideas and concepts just flowed from me as if it were meant to be! I searched within and asked myself, “What does this mean to me” and, voila, a thought, a sentiment, an expression surfaced.

For inspiration I thought about past experiences and some of my daily interactions with people. For instance, chatting with Juan Carlos, the garage attendant in the city was a great source of inspiration, as we reminisced about our homeland, interests and families.

Tell me more about the Pueblo Collection

The Pueblo Collection was inspired by my years in social work. So often my clients expressed a sense of loss and loneliness for their countries of origin and the homes and families they left behind.

The Central America and South America cards with the names of countries in each region are a great way to share those feelings of love and longing. Another card in the collection reflects the diverse cultures of the indigenous peoples of Latin America–Taíno, Guaraní, Aztec, Inca, Mayan, and Mestizo– with a message inside that reads “Celebra tu vida!” The card creates awareness of the diversity of cultures in Latin America, encourages you to be who you are and celebrates culture!

Being a small business, I do everything myself. It has been challenging to learn a new business model, the technology required for effectiveness and the marketing of a unique, new product.

The good news is the tremendous potential Cultúrame has already demonstrated, with increasing nationwide distribution and broad international appeal. It brings me joy when I see people’s reactions as they read the cards or admire the graphics and photography. So many have told me that they like what they see, feel it is timely, and love that it’s all for a good cause! I think I’m onto something here…

Picture at the top by Debra Del Toro-Phillips

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