Testimonials for Ancestors and the Sustainable Work of the Raíces Cultural Center

From the Center's Cultural Archive

From the Center’s Cultural Archive

The Raíces Cultural Center, located in central New Jersey, is dedicated to the preservation of the full spectrum of caribbean cultural arts including music, dance, art, and the spoken word. The word raíces means roots, and the center operates from a core belief that cultural arts are a central part of the human experience and should be available to everyone.

Providing tools, resources and training, the center helps to equip artists with the tools they need to sustain themselves creatively and economically. As explained in the organization’s vision statement, “Artists are encouraged to make their life around their art and are given the opportunities and venues to support themselves through their work in the arts.” 

The Raíces Cultural Center is the brainchild of founder Franciso G. Gomez who recognized the under-representation of Caribbean culture and art in Central New Jersey.” Beginning first as an after school program, directors Nicole Wines and Francisco G. Gómez worked to establish a place where “New Brunswick’s inner city kids could continue to learn and cultivate Caribbean music, art, dance and song.”  Today, explains Gómez, “it covers the latter, as well as a cultural archive, an eco-culture and sustainability component, foreign exchange program, 4H club, Raíces Community Gardens Project with 7 plots of land and a pilot C.S.A. dedicated to growing organic produce, the Raíces Cultural Center Ensemble and Raícitas Children’s Artistic Performance Group.”

While the center began as Gómez’s dream, “the Center’s Co-Director Nicole Wines has worked hand in hand to make the Center a reality,”Gomez explained. Inseparable from their focus on the preservation of cultural practice, the center is built on a foundation of sustainability and the recognition that no cultural practice can survive without the larger survival of the earth from which the culture develops. Through skill sharing workshops and the preservation of sustainable roots within First Nation cultures, Raíces Eco-Culture programming fosters the study and application of a more sustainable life, from the ground up.

Testimonials for the Ancestors Project 

Gathering stories and information from community members about the ways in which they honor and commune with ancestors, Raíces is working to document the interactive relationship between the living and the dead in their ongoing project, Testimonials for the the Ancestors. “Last year our organization put together a full production dedicated to celebrating and honoring the ancestors, called”Festival for the Dead: Art and Ancestors,”” explained Nicole Wines.  “Including music, dance, song and living culture, as well as a multimedia element to help share stories of people from a variety of cultures who continue to carry on the traditions of ancestor worship and reverence today.” The production received a such feedback that the center decided to continue the process of collecting stories , thus creating the Testimonials for the Ancestors Oral History Project.

“This project, explained Wines,  “is simply a way to collect, preserve and share these stories as part of our Cultural Archive.  By placing these stories as a featured project of our online archive, we hope to foster cross-cultural dialogue as well as provide an avenue for the preservation of cultural practices and histories, while educating viewers of the project about these beautiful traditions.”

Deeply curious about this work and their efforts to explore ways in which the dead play a role in everyday life, we asked Francisco G. Gómez and Nicole Wines if they’d be willing to answer a few questions over email. They generously agreed.

We’re reprinting their answers (and our sometimes less than adequate questions) here. They also shared several photos from the project with us specifically for this article. To learn more about this research you can hear more at their Youtube channel.  


Day of the Dead Celebration. From the Center’s Cultural Archive.

What inspired the Testimonials for Ancestors Project?

Ancestor worship in our Caribbean culture is of primary importance. We venerate those that came before us because we are them! Here in the North Western part of the Hemisphere such a practice is alien in our social and emotional constructs. The intent of our ancestor project was/is to educate the unknowing public about this cultural practice and tradition.

What’s the response been like thus far?

In traditional American society ancestor worship is still viewed as hookus pookus, this is to be expected. It is difficult to accept something that has never been taught to you, but more so in the attitudes that those unknowing individuals feel about the way we practice this tradition. On an artistic level the theme of ancestor worship went well being that lots of music, dance and song accompanied our presentation.

In your opinion, how is this oral history project tied to a place-based cultural practice? Or is it?

In reality it isn’t an oral history and far less a project. The key to any practice that functions outside the norms of American society and spirituality must reside in belief based on faith. Why is it OK for some Christian based belief systems in America, for instance, to accept the Holy Spirit, but not the spirits of the congregation’s ancestors? Many times they view ancestor/spirit worship as demonic! This is strait up ignorance from a religious context, not a spiritual one.

Can you talk a little bit about the inter-generational nature of this project and the long term goals?

In our Caribbean culture we have a great respect for the elderly, they are the foundation from where we build our lives. We integrate the very young, as young as a child in her/his mother’s arms, to what we practice. The long term goals of our tradition of ancestor worship is to continue to educate the unknowing public to this beautiful tradition. We do this not in the hopes that they will worship as we do, but more so to foster a possible tolerance, perhaps even respect for what we do!

Anything else you would like to add that would be of interest to our readers?

Given the global mess we find ourselves in at the present, especially dire environmental concerns, it is imperative that we create a consciousness that is based in helping Pachamama (Mother Earth) to heal herself, and in that way make it possible for humankind to survive. As the masses across the globe are rising up and saying that something must be done, many environmental activists are reverting back to the old ways of sustainability. One of those practices is the respect and veneration that First Nations People had/have for the wisdom and knowledge of those that came before them. Perhaps we find ourselves in this predicament because we have lost touch with that reality, but lets agree to let your readers be the judge of that!

Thanks so much to Franciso and Nicole for taking the time to share this information with us. You can learn more about the Raíces Cultural Center here.