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Our Hispanic ‘ambassadors’

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Juan Contreras has global ambitions. But the 51-year-old Chilean isn't aiming to take over the world; he's looking to capture it in his series of Spanish Cultural Festivals, pulling in a variety of cultures from Rochester's rich tapestry. | "I took a little of my inspiration from the movie Field of Dreams," Contreras says. "You know the phrase 'If you build it, they will come.' Well, I thought: If you organize it, all these cultures will come." | Contreras' festivals have grown significantly since his first at the Rochester Public Market in 2003, where his Empanada Stop is a popular spot. That festival's success led Six Flags Darien Lake to invite Contreras' festival there last year. | Contreras says his heritage makes his festivals work. "You have to know the different cultures of Hispanics," he says. "We are all different, but we are also the same. We're very complex, and it was difficult for a corporation to understand that." | Contreras' global vision focused in college. "I was part of some international clubs," he says, "because I wanted to know why would people have different cultures and ideas, and how to bring them together." | That experience shaped his festivals into a United Nations model, with "embassies" for each country | "I haven't seen something of this magnitude outside of New York," Contreras says, and the festivals are expanding. He hopes to attract a major Latin artist to play the Darien Lake Performing Arts Center next year.| "There are so many of us [Latin Americans] around today," he says, "and it is time that we are no longer ignored." | His next festival at Darien Lake is on July 9-10, and he's still looking for "ambassadors" of Hispanic heritage. Contact him at 303-1290 if you are interested in representing your country.

-- Evan Parker Pierce


Flipping the bird

Big Bird, that is.

The icon of children's educational television has become a temporary symbol for something else in the past few weeks: public broadcasting's public drive to stave off federal funding cuts. Stations nationwide --- including WXXI --- ran ads urging viewers and listeners to urge their representatives to save their overgrown feathered friend. (Why do politicians keep threatening an institution that constitutes its own PR machine, anyway?)

The drive paid off, and on June 22 the House of Representatives voted to restore funds to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. A House subcommittee had recommended the cuts as part of a budget-appropriations bill.

"From a conservative perspective, PBS is a great alternative to network and cable television, and we heard from many constituents who rely on PBS as the only television programming they want their kids watching," Bob Van Wicklin, Upstate Representative Randy Kuhl's spokesperson, wrote in an email. Kuhl was among the House Republicans who crossed party lines to vote to restore the cuts.

"Also," Van Wicklin added, "with the mandated switch to digital coming up soon, it doesn't make sense to cut their budget now."

Kuhl's office "received a lot of calls asking us to restore the funds," Van Wicklin said.

Senator Hillary Clinton said her offices were "deluged" with similar pleas. The spotlight on public broadcasting is a political gift for a senator tilting toward the center, as Clinton is. It's a rare issue that lets her play the family values card without fear of alienating progressive constituencies.

In a conference call with reporters the day before the vote, Clinton voiced the same concern as Kuhl about preserving kid-friendly TV.

"There is nobody to pick up that kind of quality programming for children," she said. "If the broadcast or cable stations thought there was money to be made in doing quality programming for children, they would have done it. And you know that's not what they want. They want to subject kids to all kinds of inappropriate material, and that's what we are deploring. We want to keep public broadcasting available as a safe haven for parents and kids."

But public stations --- and particularly the educational services they provide --- aren't home free. A significant portion of funding for the educational programs PBS offers comes from other federal programs. Funding for some of these, like Ready to Learn, a partnership with the federal Department of Education, wasn't restored. For WXXI, the loss of that grant alone represents a $35,000 hit. Another program to set up satellite connections remains cut, at a loss of $18,000 to the station.

That may not seem like much, but it translates into a real setback at a time when public broadcasters around the state are trying to link up with one another to expand and improve their school programming.

The cuts are also felt more deeply because they're unlikely to be made up through fundraising, says WXXI President and CEO Norm Silverstein.

"Membership and underwriting support goes to prime-time stuff," as well as classical music, he says.

Still, station managers remain optimistic; they're now focusing on the Senate and planning on having full funding for this coming year. "Right now, we're budgeting as if the cuts will be restored," says Silverstein.


GOP in charge

Money wasn't the only public broadcasting story to come out of Capitol Hill last Thursday. Power was the other commodity of the day. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting's controversial chair, Ken Tomlinson, announced the appointment of a new president and CEO for his organization.

Accused of politicizing public broadcasting, Tomlinson did nothing to dispel those charges when he appointed Patricia Harrison, a former chair of the Republican National Committee, to the CPB's top job. Harrison, who was as an assistant US secretary of state until Thursday, "has no significant broadcasting experience," according to the New York Times. What she does have is a slew of critics. Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer (along with other politicians) immediately attacked Harrison's appointment as a shallow partisan power grab.

But the stations --- perhaps partly to protect themselves --- are expressing cautious optimism. One reason may be the level of press scrutiny trained on CPB in the months preceding Harrison's appointment.

"That position's going to be under such a microscope," says WXXI's creative director, Jon Haliniak. That could easily deter Harrison from making significant changes any time soon.


On the waterfront

It was bound to happen: The maligned and seemingly cursed fast ferry finally got some good news over the weekend. The ferry's operators, Bay Ferries, figured that the best way to win over skeptical Rochesterians was to show off their best feature: the ferry itself. So they opened the ship for free tours on Sunday --- and attracted more than 5,000 people.

The line for the tours stretched out of the terminal, past much of the ongoing Harbor and Carousel Festival and into Ontario Beach Park. Some of the curious waited almost two hours for their 10-minute tour.

You might question the sanity of standing on hot sidewalks and blacktop for a quick glimpse of a glorified jetliner. But there we all were, waiting in line to see the most buzz-worthy city project in years.

Are we just hicks mesmerized by new technology, or is this ship Rochester's Great White Hope? We'll know, presumably, later this year. But we've gotta say: Ink rode the big ship last year, and with its comfortable seats, not-one-but-two movie theaters, arcade, and bar, it's a heck of a nice way to travel.


Tests, lite

Opponents of standardized tests won a small victory last Wednesday when state lawmakers agreed to allow 28 alternative schools to continue to evaluate their students almost entirely free of Regents exams. Most of the schools, known as the New York State Performance Standards Consortium, are in the New York City area. But one, School Without Walls, is a Rochester public school.

"I think there is some reason to celebrate," says SWW Principal Dan Drmacich. "There are some signs of cracks in the armor of this high-stakes testing approach to education. There's no question that if you want a true alternative approach you can't have standardized testing, because that is what makes us different. If we have to teach just to pass those tests, then we are just like every other school in the state."

The Consortium did not escape testing altogether. Students will still have to pass the Regents exam in English and in math or one other subject. Schools that don't comply risk losing federal funding.

The schools were under the scrutiny of State Education Commissioner Richard Mills, who is credited with turning New York into one of the country's most test-driven states. But Republican State Senator Steven Saland and Assembly Education Committee Chair Steven Sanders, a Democrat, have supported the schools' approach. Saland ushered a bill through the Republican-controlled Senate, where it passed, 50-10.

"Alternatives become the only option to the 'one size fits all' model for parents," says Drmacich, "unless they are wealthy and they can afford to send [their children] to a school like Harley." In September Drmacich's 34-year-old school will expand from grades 9-12 to include grades 7 and 8.


Preventive med

Republicans in the state Senate, at least a few of them, are finally getting serious about stopping abortions. Not by outlawing them; this time they've given a little more thought to one of the problems that leads to abortion, unwanted pregnancies. Hence the lyrically named "unintended pregnancy prevention act."

The act (which the Assembly passed earlier this session) would allow pharmacists and nurses to hand out emergency contraception --- the morning-after pill --- without a prescription. It does that by allowing them to get a blanket prescription from a doctor to cover anyone. That's intended to prevent a delay that might render the pill ineffective.

Locally, Jim Alesi co-sponsored the bill and Joe Robach voted in favor of the bill.

"Basically, he supported it hoping that this is something that will lead to fewer abortions," says Jeff McCann, Robach's chief of staff.

The passage drew a shrill denunciation from the state's influential Conservative Party. In a letter to Governor Pataki demanding a veto, party Chair Mike Long called the bill "one of the most harmful pieces of legislation that will reach your desk this year."


Correcting ourselves

Our 2005 Summer Guide contained two errors. The festivals calendar gave the wrong date for the Pathway to Peace's Peace Fest. It is on July 31 at the High Falls Festival Site. In the classical listings, the wrong day of the week was given for the Eastman School of Music's Summer Sings. The concerts are on Tuesdays in July.

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