fbpx

She helps harness creativity, support mental health in safe space at NJ Pride Center

lehighvalleylive’s Logo
Written by admin
ADVERTISEMENT

Leticia Viloria started the virtual class with questions, a few laughs and a different assignment for each of the half dozen participants.

“Create a story using only words you have made up,” Viloria instructed one participant. “Say hello or introduce yourself to someone you don’t know,” she told another.

She encouraged everyone on the Zoom call to include their pronouns next to their name. Viloria’s are she/they, and she identifies as pansexual. That means she is attracted to any gender.

The 39-year-old mother, writer and performer from Milltown said the assignment was meant to give way to the most unencumbered form of creativity and support mental health.

“A lot of us have things in common with the way we were raised and told what things are important to do,” she said.

Viloria is the Creative Voice Group Leader for The Pride Center of New Jersey in Highland Park. She welcomes all into the class, where she emphasizes the importance of art and examining ideas through constructive feedback. Then pose a series of questions to each participant who uses them to talk through their creative process.

Viloria started Creative Voice in 2020 to teach marginalized communities to express themselves. Anyone can attend, but mostly performing artists with a range of gender identities make up the class, a safe space for people seeking a creative release and an opportunity to connect with others like them without judgment.

Erika May-McNichol, a comedian in suburban Pennsylvania, asked Viloria to develop the class curriculum and awarded a $500 grant to help after the two met during a comedy show in Philadelphia, where they performed.

“We wanted to focus on something that would engage adults in the community, especially adults that might not otherwise be able to access online classes and creative outlets,” May-McNichol said.

After the first session, Viloria said she realized she was filling a need.

“People were crying,” she said, adding that she had to tell participants she is not a trained therapist.

ADVERTISEMENT

The class is once a week, but many in the small, close-knit group continue to come month after month.

“It’s an amazing offering,” said Patricia Nagle, the Pride Center’s vice president of development and programming. “At the Pride Center, it is unlike any other group that we have.”

Stephanie Wobensmith, 39, of Ottawa, Canada, joined Creative Voice in January 2021.

“I was very new to drag when I found Leticia’s group,” said Wobensmith, who self-identifies as a nonbinary drag king, opening performances with a palette of masculinity and adding feminine touches.

“Creative Voice helped me put like two hours every week toward my creative process…with a group of creative people, Wobensmith added. “I was able to develop real friendships through this online class with other creative people that have different creative forts.”

One of the assignments Viloria gave Wobensmith was to “do absolutely nothing and to be OK with that.”

“Leticia saw I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to be productive,” Wobensmith said. “And maybe I was putting so much pressure on myself… that if I didn’t get to that end result. I would give up.”

Viloria is a New York native whose family is from the Dominican Republic. She is the first generation born in the United States.

In high school, she was introduced to the stage, comedy and writing as a medium for self-expression during an internship at the Bowery Poetry Club.

“I was surrounded by so many different people,” she said. “I performed spoken word. I blood. And then it just became comedy things, and then I just started improvising things a lot on stage.”

Viloria later worked at The Bowery Poetry Clubwhere she met partner Chris, married in 2008 and moved to a Pennsylvania suburb in 2009.

She began writing and performing through a local improv group but later left because of bias she said she encountered.

“It was the experience of having people say pretty prejudice things,” Viloria said. “The jokes would be centered around race and making fun of the LGBTQ community. It was very mean,” she said.

Viloria later found Philly Improv Theater.

“In Philly, it was very diverse. There were entire LGBTQIA improv groups, so it felt more inclusive,” Viloria said. “And it was around the time I started realizing I wasn’t just a person of color.”

Viloria said she realized she was part of the LBGTQ community but acknowledged that the intersectionality of race and gender has been difficult at times.

“The goal was always to be myself, but I never felt there were the right words” to self-identify, Viloria said. “And there was this fear of not being seen as enough to be in the LBGTQIA community.”

Viloria said she struggled with visiting family in the Dominican Republic. Her son Jace, 10, “expresses himself in so many different ways and dresses however he wants,” she said. “And I have this fear of us going to the Dominican Republic and him being judged.”

The fear is rooted in Viloria’s past experiences. “I used to have things called out at me there based on what I was wearing,” she said. “I would be called a ‘Joe,’ which is, I guess, a way to call a woman a man.”

“I don’t want to bring him into an environment where there is so much prejudice,” she said.

It’s part of the reason Viloria has committed herself to create a space like Creative Voice.

Wobensmith can attest to the reaffirming effects the class is having.

“Leticia is one of those people that has a huge heart and is also a really incredible practitioner in their own right,” Wobensmith said. “Being able to bring people together in order to venture out on their own creative journeys wherever they are is incredible.”

To register for Creative Voice, go to http://www.pridecenter.org/

Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.

Shaylah Brown may be reached at sbrown@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at @shaylah_brown

ADVERTISEMENT

Leave a Comment