Just before the pandemic, the then-newly formed nonprofit organization Worcester Guardians of Traditions co-presented an exhibit on the Dominican Republic’s Carnival tradition for Worcester Windows at the Worcester PopUp.
“I like to tell people I had the longest running exhibit in Worcester because it stayed until everything was back to normal,” said Vanessa Joga, co-founder and executive director of Guardians of Traditions.
The exhibit, which was presented by Guardians of Traditions and Cojuelos’ Productions, was titled “Dominican Carnival: A Colorful Tale of Satire and the World” and it got a good response from the people despite the circumstances, Joga said. “It opened a lot of doors.”
So instead of giving up hope of creating Guardians of Traditions during the lockdown, Joga helped organize two virtual events and expanded the organization’s mission.
“The display of Dominican Carnival traditions has evolved in all cultures,” Joga said. The mission statement was: “You can still maintain your cultural identity and be part of the community.” “Keepers of traditions” will organize creative events with an educational component, she said.
Joga recalled giving a presentation about bachata music — popular in the Dominican Republic but for a time frowned upon by the government — and its African connections to students at South High Community School. She told an African-American student who “hug me and said, ‘I had no idea my culture was so important to your culture.’ “
This moment helped solidify Joga’s intention to “use the arts to share history and cultures.”
Keepers of traditions are active in the community with various programs. It recently staged A Night to Remember: The People’s Guardians of Worcester, a program of music, dance, exhibitions and displays in partnership with Mechanics Hall.
Earlier in the year Guardians of Traditions involved the community in making puppets with Creative Hub Worcester for the Worcester 300th Anniversary Parade in June.
“Vanessa is an amazing person with a beautiful heart and I feel blessed to call her my friend,” said Stacey Lord, co-founder of Creative Hub Worcester. “Her passion and vision, combined with her deep-rooted knowledge of Dominican culture and heritage, make her a valuable resource in our community.
“You can see this through the tireless work of her non-profit organization, Guardians of Traditions. Whether it’s working with WPS’s LEAP program, engaging the community in creating 18 marionettes for Worcester’s tercentenary, or organizing a cultural event that takes you on a journey around the world celebrating African heritage, Vanessa has a vibrant way of using the arts, to show the interconnectedness of cultures and traditions,” Lord said.
Joga is a native of the Dominican Republic and has lived in Worcester for nine years. She said she had lived in the United States “on and off” since 1993 in various places, including South Carolina, Milwaukee, New Jersey and New York, as well as Canada.
Some of her experiences as an immigrant “were not the greatest.”
Still, “I’ve always loved to travel and expand my horizons,” she said.
Joga went to visit some relatives in Lynn and met Alex Nagorski, a member of Worcester band The Numbskulls. “There was a connection,” she said. “He’s so kind-hearted.” They became and remain a couple, with Joga moving to Worcester.
Meanwhile, “I always had in mind that I wanted to share my culture. I wanted people to understand that there is more to the Dominican Republic than baseball players and drug dealers,” she said.
The pandemic that hit while Keepers of Tradition was just getting started was a challenge, but the lockdown “was a challenge for all of us. We all struggled,” Joga said.
“But I say I’m stubborn,” she added. She wanted to “reach out and find something that people could relate to and that was helpful.”