BY LISANDRA PÉREZ COTO
Ten years ago not even Yoelkis Torres Tápanes himself could have ensured the scope of an idea that emerged among friends and for which he worked eight hard years without receiving any salary. AfroAthens, an initiative that promotes social and community development, has become a reference point that is now spreading throughout Cuba and beyond. However, although teamwork has been decisive, he is that engine that drives all the wonderful things that are developed within “the great spider’s web”, as he prefers to call his project.
Those who know him are well aware of his sanguine character, and that rush with thinking, walking, talking and often acting. To take advantage of every second of the day is vital to be able to sustain at the same time so many responsibilities in a person. That is why he assures that from early in the morning he starts his day without the certainty of an hour’s rest.
This is how we see it making calls, giving workshops, ordering documents, controlling every logistic detail, or managing projects. Not to mention his responsibilities outside of AfroAtenAs, as coordinator of the Humanity for Diversity Network, an activist with the National Center for Sex Education, a university professor, a member of the Hermanos Saíz Association, and the uncle of some beautiful nephews.
But as he himself assures us, it is all part of a dream that for ten years has left many joys in his life, and in the lives of many others he has managed to reach with his actions.
“I’ve been an activist since I was 15 years old, when I started as a health promoter at the old sanatorium. From then on I became more committed to actions towards the neediest people and that led me to take an interest in the neighborhood, that’s where it all began,” says Yoelkis as she recalls that year 2009, when in the 34th district of Pueblo Nuevo, garbage came to occupy nearly seven blocks.
“This is how a group of friends of the LBTIQ community met who felt discriminated against and the motivation was to demonstrate our value with actions of transformation, something that always formed part of our concerns.
“We decided to call the AfroAtenas project first, because those of us who started that project had strong religious beliefs and we tried to look at ourselves from that perspective. Then we acquired other concerns and changed our focus to the cultural, a much more inclusive vision that, along with the community work, has guided our daily work ever since.
“AfroAthens came to change the lives of the people around us and to radiate in the city and in the country. It has been difficult but we are succeeding. Our purpose is to promote development within the community based on culture as a means of social transformation. We use methods focused on the environment, the theme of heritage, the rescue of traditions, and recently we have also incorporated a focus on disability issues, non-violence against women and girls, as well as non-discrimination and non-stigmatization on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.
When he talks about the project he coordinates, he is excited about the results, he speaks proudly of the articulations that have been generated, the alliances inside and outside Cuba, and the many challenges that inevitably continue as paths to continue growing.
“During this time we have seen with great pleasure the evolution of something that began spontaneously and that pleases us very much. Since 2013, the Alley of Traditions arises, which is the most recognized space within the neighborhood, but also the first community tourism product of the City of Matanzas, declared as such in the International Tourism Fair of 2013.
“AfrotAenAs is not only in Matanzas, but we attend 22 projects in the provinces of Pinar del Río, La Habana, Matanzas, Cienfuegos, Santa Clara and Santi Spíritus, thanks to our condition as national reference granted by the Center of Exchange and Reference on Community Initiatives, specifically for our model of action and results. But we are also satisfied with the networks that we have been gradually weaving with other institutions such as the Universities of Havana and Matanzas, the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, among others”.
For the also Master in Welfare and Anthropological Studies, perseverance is the key to both his life and the success of any project. If it weren’t for this energetic character, which condemns bureaucratism or indolence, and for his way of naming things head on and without half-measures, perhaps the story that accompanies AfroAthens would be different.
“One of our great wishes came up in 2014 when we presented the proposal for an initiative for the local development of the Ateneo de la Rumba, pending its construction in the old Cabaret el Pescadito. That was the basis for the declaration of that rhythm as Cultural Heritage of the Nation and as Intangible Heritage of Humanity. It happens that from AfroAtenAs the Timbalaye International Festival was managed and produced, and together with that group we participated all over the country in the collection of signatures for these two declarations and the conformation of both files.
Unfortunately, the initiative has been detained by the territorial direction of culture, which did not place it within the continuity budgets and today we are waiting for the government to estimate the necessary resources for the continuity of the work, which obviously has not been a priority despite what it is.
“But we do not stop, we firmly believe in the work of transformation that accompanies us, in the more than 400 young people trained here, today entrepreneurs throughout the province, or those specialized in community work, leadership and different topics that contribute to empowerment in all its dimensions.
“We don’t need recognition, we are still to some extent the same crazy people who on the second Saturdays of the month worked to change things and who by dint of hard work and not getting tired came to fulfill their dreams and managed to transform the spaces, there is no greater recognition than that”.
“A big spider’s web, that’s what we are.”