Hispanic Heritage Month

Hispanic Heritage Month is a period from September 15-October 15 recognizing the contributions and influence of Hispanics to the history, culture, and achievements of the United States. It’s a month of celebration, remembering those who came before us, and recognizing the people who influence us now.

GTA has several students of Hispanic heritage that grace us with their hard work and dedication. I and two of my beautiful friends, Ethan and Marcello, share what being Hispanic (and this month) means to us.

Jeilianne Vazquez, BA Theatre
Ethan Baez, BA Theatre
Marcello Valenica, BA Theatre

What is your current major and what do you plan to do with your degree?

Jeilianne Vazquez: I am a junior BA Theatre major. I have interests in theatre, film, playwriting, and marketing. I love all four with a passion, so I think, for now, I will continue doing what I love and putting myself out there. Letting God open the doors. 

Ethan Baez: I am a junior theatre major pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in the program, and I’d like to use my degree to either perform professionally or teach high school.

Marcello Valencia: I am a BA Theatre major with a minor in entrepreneurship. I plan to pursue a career as an actor, but I’m also very interested in the business side of theatre and how it operates.

What does being Hispanic mean to you?

Jeilianne Vazquez: Being Hispanic means being unapologetically myself. I love being Puerto Rican. It is a beautiful culture and people. It’s the connection with our family and roots that make it all so wonderful. 

Ethan Baez: Being Hispanic means being proud! Growing up, I quickly learned that culture and family is something to be proud of, so I was always excited to learn new things concerning my Venezuelan heritage.

Marcello Valencia: Being Hispanic to me means having a rich culture full of love and passion. I have such fond memories of watching my dad cook and play his favorite salsa station on the TV while he made empanadas. The aroma that would fill the home was amazing and I always felt so special to be a part of a culture that was so centered around celebrating life and cherishing all the gifts we are given. Both of my grandparents came from a very poor rural part of Puerto Rico and I’m so fortunate to have parents and grandparents who were willing to work day in and day out for the chance to better their families. At the end of the day being Hispanic to me has truly shown me the importance of family and the endless possibilities I’m able to achieve.

How has your family and their culture impacted you? Any unique family traditions?

Jeilianne Vazquez: My family taught me to love music, dancing, food, and being a Latina in general. I listened to Juan Luis Guerra, Marc Anthony, Gloria Stefan, Jon Secada, Jesus Adrian Romero, and DLG. Whenever I was told I didn’t sound or look Latina enough, my mother would always remind me to be proud or quote her, “haters gonna hate.” My mother taught me a lot about Puerto Rican culture, and I loved hearing stories about her experience living in Puerto Rico and moving to Buffalo, New York. My father taught me bachata, salsa, and merengue! We would play music and dance in the kitchen. He taught me the proper steps and how to move my body. The downside is that I feel awkward dancing with anyone else because my dad has been my dance partner for 20 years now. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

I remember traditions of Three Kings Day, celebrating the Kings who brought gifts to baby Jesus, Coquito and having it for every holiday, playing dominoes, and singing happy birthday to someone very, very early in the morning.

Ethan Baez: Going off the idea of being excited to learn new things about my culture, it was very easy to get close with my father in that he would be the one to teach me about the things that made our family unique. It was through him that I learned about arepas, Oscar DeLeon, how to dance bachata, he connected me to other Hispanic people, and he was instrumental in teaching me what it means to be Hispanic. As far as tradition goes, the only one that comes to mind is eating 12 grapes every hour in the 12 hours before new years. You make a wish with each grape for how you want the year to go, and eating the grapes is a means of obtaining good luck and prosperity for the new year.

Marcello and his family

Marcello Valencia: When my siblings and I were really young my parents made the decision to move to Georgia from New York. It wasn’t easy, to say the least, because for over a year my mom raised me and my two siblings while working all on her own. My Dad had to stay in New York and continue to work with Amtrak in order to receive the retirement benefits that he was entitled to after being with the company for so many years. I remember watching my mom not only work as hard as she could to provide for my siblings, but then come home to cook us dinner and make sure we were adjusting to the big move. I honestly don’t remember missing my dad because we knew he was working hard and he flew down to visit us as much as he could. Seeing their work ethic and drive to be the best parents was always an inspiration for me and really pushed me to become self-sufficient financially and allow me to pursue higher education without being a financial burden for them.

One of the biggest traditions we have as a family is we have game tournaments in where we either play dominoes or bingo and each round has X amount of prize money and the final has a pretty big jackpot that brings out the competitive side of everyone. To me, it’s one of those things that no matter how bad of a day we are having everyone leaves happier than we started. 

How do you celebrate Hispanic Heritage month? What does it mean to you?

Jeilianne and her family

Jeilianne Vazquez: I celebrate by being in touch with my family and just being all-around proud of who I am! Though learning more about Latin culture can be any day of the year, Hispanic Heritage month is an opportunity to learn about other Latin cultures. It’s such a beautiful community. 

Ethan Baez: I celebrate Hispanic heritage month by being Hispanic, I think that’s all I need to do. I’m in a constant state of being proud of who I am, so I’m already in the habit of appreciating the Hispanic qualities that make me who I am. Growing up, my dad and I would go to the occasional party to meet with friends and enjoy each other’s Hispanic company, but even back then it was more to celebrate friendship more than it was to celebrate being Hispanic.

Marcello Valencia: I celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month by giving thanks to those who came before and dreamed of a better life. I know I wouldn’t be anywhere without them and I’m forever in their debt.

What is something you want people to know about you?

Jeilianne Vazquez: I am a passionate person! I love hard! That sometimes intimidates people, or they use it to their advantage. (Be kind). 

Another thing I want people to know is that my experience as a Latina is valid even though English is my first language. I am still learning Spanish, and I learn every day. Don’t ever let anyone tell you how Latinx you are; only you decide that. 

Ethan Baez: My favorite color is orange! For the past ten years I’ve left the house every day with at least one orange thing on me, whether in clothing or accessories. I know this because in August of 2011 I decided to make orange an every day part of my life considering how much I love the color.

Marcello Valencia: I’m a people person! I love getting to know people and listening to their stories. I also want to see the world and do every possible thing I can regardless of the risk or how crazy it seems. My main goal in life is to be able to say I followed my heart regardless of the outcome. We have one life to live and I’m going to do whatever it takes to live to the fullest.

How does your family feel about theatre?

Jeilianne Vazquez: My father is a film actor and minored in theatre in college. My family has always been involved with the arts. When I first told them I wanted to major in theatre, they were concerned at first. They wanted me to be sure this was what I absolutely wanted. Since then, they have never stopped supporting me! 

Ethan Baez: My family loves theatre! I think they love seeing me on stage more, but I’ve never had to struggle with them to support me in my endeavors concerning theatre and I’ve always been extremely grateful for that, considering that isn’t the case for a lot of my peers.

Marcello Valencia: They honestly are really supportive of me. I have been a part of theatre since middle school and I can’t ever recall a time they didn’t approve of it. I think their main concern was if I was going to pursue higher education. Like all parents, they want the best for their kids and they know life doesn’t always go the way we want it to and by having a college degree it gives them peace of mind that I have the ability to pursue other things if push comes to shove. 

What do you love about theatre?

Jeilianne Vazquez: When I was a child, I was very shy. As I got more comfortable with the people around me, I got loud, happy, and goofy. A lot of people found me weird. When I did that on a stage, I was accepted and told I had a great presence. So I decided theatre was my safe place. Theatre is an art that can never die. I take everything I learn in theatre wherever I go. Storytelling is my favorite thing, and I get to do that in theatre with my performance and writing. 

Ethan Baez: I love that theatre is fun more than anything else; it’s profound and it’s bigger than ourselves, yes, but before all that I’ve always maintained that the purpose of theatre is fun, regardless how you participate it.

Marcello Valencia: I love its heart and the ability it has to transport you to another world, experience things you could have never dreamed of, or feel things you’ve never felt and make you leave the theatre with a completely new perspective. 

Five years from now, where do you hope to be?

Jeilianne Vazquez: I don’t know exactly where I’m going to end up. I can see myself in different cities, and I like the idea of traveling for work. But I do eventually want to settle down. (We’ll figure it out.) I love acting for theatre and TV and film, playwriting, screenwriting, and theatre marketing. There are many opportunities right now, and I’m excited to go out there and find them. 

Ethan Baez: I hope to be in Washington D.C. with a job in theatre, whatever that means. A lot can happen in a year alone, so to think of what my life is like five years from now is almost unfathomable when I haven’t figured out what I’m going to do for the rest of this week.

Marcello Valencia: I would love to see myself still within the realm of theatre and able to financially support myself. While I would prefer to be a performer, I know things happen and life doesn’t always go to plan, but as long as I can still be a part of the theatre world regardless of what my role is, I’ll be fine.


“Your individuality is important, but so is belonging. Recognize the parts of your culture that have shaped your past, and the parts you want to carry with you into the future.” – Sol Peralta

GTA Students Share Their Living Out Experience

By Jeilianne Vazquez

Living Out is the story of two hard-working mothers who want better lives for their children. One happens to be an undocumented Latina worker named Ana, employed by the other, Nancy. The story is funny, warm, and heart-breaking. This post is extra special for me as I have the honor of being the Swing for Ana. I get to see firsthand the rehearsal process and experience. Everyone involved in this show is passionate. Our fantastic director, Elisa Carlson, has really taken her time with every scene, blocking, and reading. The details matter, and she stays true to the script. Her dedication and our fantastic team of actors and technicians really bring it to life. This play has had a special place in my heart for a while now. I am so grateful to be a part of this production.

I was able to ask my fellow cast mates their feelings on the show and what their role means to them.


Emily Starace, senior BFA Musical Theatre Major

What is your role in Living Out?

I play Zoila! She is a very fun and bold nanny from Guatemala. She tells it like it is and isn’t afraid to be herself. Playing this role, I found myself pulling tons of  inspiration from my very unique Abuela. She is a very passionate woman who is never afraid to voice her opinions.

Why is this play important to you?

As a Latina actress, I have always found that it is sometimes difficult to find plays that are about our culture. Of course, there are the ones that everyone has heard of like West Side Story or In The Heights, but I have always wanted to see or be in a show that is a little more personal. As soon as I read the script for this show, I fell in love instantly. Without saying too much, the show drew me in with its clever jokes, but completely won me over with how real it can get. I could truly see each and every one of my family members in all of the characters. That is why I am happy to be a part of a show about my people.

Why is it important that people see this play?

I love how this show reflects on the struggles of not only being a woman in society, but also the challenges of being a wife, mother, and person of color. That is a story that needs to be heard. These are still issues that are seen today. People should come and see this play to open up their hearts, have a good laugh, and also get in their feelings. This show is an amazing piece of art and I truly believe everyone should experience it.


Sarah Kay, junior BFA Musical Theatre Major

What is your role in Living Out?

I play Wallace Breyer. She’s an upper-class mom who finds trouble connecting with other people, specifically undocumented immigrants. Despite this, she is incredibly charming and loves her children with her whole being.

Why is this play important to you?

The play is important to me because it tells a story that was relevant for it’s time and is still relevant today. Undocumented immigrants are frequently treated as less than, due to racism, classism, and misguided patriotism.

Why is it important that people see this play?

This play teaches compassion and understanding, with all of the characters feeling real and truthful. It will keep you laughing and crying.


Emmanuel Cologne, senior BA Theatre major

What is your role in Living Out?

I play Bobby Hernandez (Ana’s husband). Bobby is a hard-working carpenter who has had a rough upbringing, but he has a good sense of humor and a big heart. He loves his family more than anything and just wants the best for them.

Why is this play important to you?

This play is important to me because it exemplifies the disparities between race and class, but despite all of this, it reveals the humanity in all of us despite those differences.

Why is it important that people see this play?

I believe audiences will resonate with these characters, and even move them to see beyond cultural and economic differences.


Estef Martin, senior BA Theatre major

What is your role in Living Out?

My role is Ana, and she is a Salvadorian immigrant mother and a nanny who just loves children and is trying to get by in her unique reality. She’s just trying to figure out how to go about her situations for her family to be a family.

Why is this play important to you?

My sister-in-law is from El Salvador. I’ve known her since I was seven so she is my sister. She and her mom share a very similar story to Ana and the people in the play. It’s important because I’ve never been able to represent a Latina on stage. I’ve been a witch and an Italian, and I’ve never been so close to who I am. I think it’s essential for people who look like me to watch me in a leading role.

Why is it important that people see this play?

People should come to see this show because it’s lovely! It makes you think, loves differently, thinks of others differently, teaches empathy, causes catharsis. People should come and support students, learning actors, and their community. We are members of the world of our community members. We are trying to survive in the same space, so why not support?


Tyus Martin, senior BA Theatre major

What is your role in Living Out?

I was honored with the role of Assistant Director, from which I gained valuable experience from. I worked alongside Elisa, who entrusted me into the part and helped her maintain rehearsals and work alongside actors both onstage and offstage, which I fully loved every minute of. I then got the opportunity to work with Jayme, who stepped in and finished the rest of the process. My role as Assistant Director got more hands-on in the experience since Jayme relied on me a bit more to help with rehearsals, so it was a blessing to learn from two different wonderful directors and dive into the process in various ways.

Why is this play important to you?

This play is important to me because it tells a beautiful story of struggle, love, and sacrifice in the lives of different races and cultures, but keeping the warmth of laughter everyone will get to share together.

Why is it important that people see this play?

It is important that people get an opportunity to hear the stories of different cultures and their experiences of making it in America and wanting acceptance and everyday life just like any other human being. The world is going through some exciting and historical moments right now. The most important thing for everyone to remember is that we are all human, and we all deserve countless chances at a better life and the importance of spreading love.


Paris Aguilar, sophomore BA Theatre major

What is your role in Living Out?

I am the dramaturg, along with being the swing for Zoila and Sandra. As a swing, I learn the roles of my two characters and work as an understudy in case something happens to one of the actors. My role as a dramaturg is different than what I’ve done for previous works. I guide the actors playing Spanish-speaking roles in this production, working as a translator, dialect coach, and cultural advisor.

Why is this play important to you?

I have a deep connection to this show, as this is something I’ve grown up around. I grew up on the southern tip of Texas in Brownsville, a city on the border of Matamoros, Mexico. As a Latina woman who has permanently been submerged in Hispanic culture, it’s beautiful to see the same things I’ve known all my life to be onstage. Although, it’s painful to see the hardships of “legal ethics” surrounding people who choose to move to America for a better life, even if it means losing everything in the process.

Why is it important that people see this play?

The audience needs to understand that these powerful women are real. They’re not farces, not satire, and they’re not stereotypes (although there are a few comments). They’re meant to be interpreted as realistic fiction; it could happen. Even the white couples go through their struggles, though not as legal. I love my culture, and I love this cast that brings it to life. I’m so proud of the work everyone in this production has done – I can’t wait for everyone to see it.

Come see this lovely show September 17-25th at the Ed Cabell Theatre. We hope to see you there. Salud, amor, dinero y el tiempo para disfrutarlos.

GTA Welcomes Michael D. Jablonski

GTA is delighted to introduce Michael D. Jablonski, Assistant Professor of Musical Theatre at Brenau University. Michael will be teaching courses in dance, directing and musical theatre. He has been a successful musical theatre artist for over 20 years, and has taken his experience on the stage and has transitioned it into the classroom.

Michael performed on Broadway in Cry-Baby, The Book of Mormon and the 2009 revival of West Side Story. He toured the world with 8 different National Tours including Matilda, The Book of Mormon, West Side Story, Saturday Night Fever, Doctor Dolittle, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas starring Ann-Margret, Victor/Victoria, and Brigadoon. Michael also performed with the Radio City Rockette’s in the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall. On film, he can be seen as a featured dancer in the movie version of The Producers starring Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane. Michael also performed at many prestigious theatres across the United States.

Michael is an award-winning Director and Choreographer. His credits include Fame, Edges, Mamma Mia, We are Proud to Present a Presentation about the Herero of Namibia…, Wildwood Park, Another Day (Devised), Grease, The Producers, Hello Dolly, Eurydice and multiple productions of West Side Story. He created additional choreography for the National Tour of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas starring Ann-Margret. He supervised 4 national tours and multiple regional productions as their Dance Captain.

Michael holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre and Dance from SUNY at Buffalo and a Master of Fine Arts in Directing from Florida State University. He has been a Guest Lecturer and Master Instructor of dance & Musical Theatre technique at many universities and academic programs across the U.S and Canada. His previous academic appointments include Elon University, Florida State University and is thrilled to be joining the faculty at Brenau University this fall as an Assistant Professor of Musical Theatre.

Michael is a member of American Actors Equity Association, American Guild of Variety Artists, Society of American Fight Directors and Canadian Actors Equity Association. He serves as an Assistant Faculty member of Theatrical Intimacy Education. Visit Michael’s website at michaeldjablonski.com.

What drew you to Brenau University and Gainesville Theatre Alliance?

As a professional actor, I always enjoyed the artistic community in and around the Atlanta area. I came across Brenau University and Gainesville Theatre Alliance while in Graduate School at Florida State University by the recommendation of one of their professors. As I was researching possible academic institutions, GTA and Brenau kept floating to the top of my list with the incredible collaboration that is present, with facilities of the highest professional quality and a focus on honoring integrity in the artistic process. Although, what truly won me over was the incredibly supportive and welcoming community that I was able to engage with during my search.

How did you first get involved in dance and what keeps you involved?

I was an athlete my whole life and played almost every sport imaginable in some type of organized fashion. When I was in 7th grade, the news reported how many NFL and NHL professional athletes were taking dance to help with the coordination. This led me to taking a jazz class at a dance studio in hopes to help me in my agility on the ice playing hockey. Unfortunately, it was your typical story where I was made fun of by “friends” at school and I chose to quit. Fortunately, that did not stop my journey as I have supportive parents that introduced me to theatre and dance at a young age and I never lost that interest as I grew older.

In my undergraduate days at the State University of New York at Buffalo I fell into the dance program. I initially went to UB to study mathematics and compete in division 1 athletics on their track & field team. Because of my interest in theatre, I was able to minor in acting. During an acting class a professor said “you should take a dance class to loosen up your body for acting, plus it would help with flexibility and stretching for track & field.” Because of my many years of playing sports, dance felt like an extension of that training. I fell in love with the euphoric energy of performing. I realized that the life of an artist and athlete runs many parallels of hard work, discipline, and emotional expression. The many years of being an athlete helped me transform into the artist I am today with the passion and drive that not only do I love the arts, but that I need the arts.

What is a memorable project you have worked on that you felt made a great impact or moved you in a significant way?

To be honest, it is difficult to pinpoint one project as every project I work on lives with me forever. I will share a couple that stick out in my mind. First and foremost, as a professional actor, I will never forget being in rehearsal for Dreamgirls here at the Atlanta Fox Theatre, starring Jennifer Holliday. One day during that process I received a phone call from my agent that I was receiving an offer to make my Broadway debut in NYC in the original musical Cry-Baby. I will never forget that moment the rest of my life, as our Atlanta cast had many Broadway veterans, they created an energy circle and started improvisational singing to celebrate this wonderful opportunity I had on the horizon. It went on for like 20 minutes and the supportive energy in that moment still lives with me today.

Second, I will have to say playing Riff in the Broadway revival of West Side Story. Currently to date, I have performed in 10 productions of West Side Story and worked on the creative team in three professional productions. But this experience of the Broadway revival allowed me to gain an intimate knowledge of every aspect of that show directly from the original writer Arthur Laurents as he directed this production. The one-on-one conversations I had with him during rehearsals were priceless. I never tire of that show, and it has become a passion of mine to pass on this priceless knowledge.

Finally, I have to share that directing We are Proud to Present a Presentation about the Herero of Namibia… by Jackie Sibblies Drury during my graduate school directing program had a massive impact on me personally and professionally. It is a difficult play that confronts tough racial issues through a devised format. Because of my research and training with Theatrical Intimacy Education we were able to build a community of trust and empowerment to bring that production to life. The performance was impactful but the journey toward that performance was life changing.

How are you preparing for your new position with GTA?

Currently I am continuously prepping our production of 9 to 5 for the Fall. It is a massive show that is going to take the entire team working in collaboration to bring this to life. I also am working on the foundation of each class I will be teaching with a focus on how to create the greatest learning outcome for each individual artist.

What is your theory of teaching and theatre education?

My main goal as an artist and teacher is to enlighten young minds. I want to prepare students for every possible opportunity. As a professional, I believe that integrating theory and practice in the classroom, as well as on stage, is very important to succeed as a professional artist. I want to help each student develop their confidence, both intellectually and ethically, to develop talents and abilities to achieve their goals. Exploring many different styles and techniques helps prepare the artist for the multitudes of various art forms they will eventually encounter.

I believe that it is important to build a foundation of trust with a consent-based practice revolving around a praise-correct-praise methodology. The professional world is not easy so we must build the confidence necessary now with rigorous training so that our students can succeed in the competitive professional market. I also believe in building the professional work ethic from day one with our students. In my eyes, the academic world we live in must be the road leading to professional success. That success is different for every individual artist and bringing that professionalism into our studio work and productions will set our graduates up for a lifetime of growth no matter what path they choose.

What message would you like to share with Gainesville Theatre Alliance students?

I just want to say Thank You for welcoming me with open arms into this community. I am here for YOU and I will do everything in my power to support your journey as a young artist. My only success is when you find success.