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WUSF Public Media recently hosted NPR’s Next Generation Radio, a workshop for college students and new journalists. We're highlighting the week they spent producing audio and digital stories about the experiences of Floridians affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. This project was produced in January 2021 in partnership with NPR and WUSF Public Media and conducted virtually. Our reporters are students and recent graduates in Florida.

One Dance Teacher Goes Virtual And Brings Bomba And Plena To A New Stage

Next Generation Radio illustration
Illustrated by Yunyi Dai
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Barbara Liz-Cepeda refuses to let the pandemic stop her from running her Puerto Rican cultural arts school Escuela de Bomba y Plena Tata Cepeda. As the founder and the director of the Central Florida non-profit, she’s making it her mission to expand her audience and reach the Puerto Rican diaspora around the globe through virtual platforms.

Barbara Liz-Cepeda was used to giving her classes in a packed studio, filled with students eager and excited to learn about Puerto Rico’s music and culture. Now, she puts on her custom-tailored skirt and rolls out her percussion instruments to give her classes virtually from her living room.

Liz-Cepeda, who runs a Puerto Rican cultural arts school called Escuela de Bomba y Plena Tata Cepeda in Kissimmee, Fl, is the great-granddaughter of Rafael Cepeda, the patriarch of Puerto Rican Bomba and Plena.

Barbara Liz-Cepeda (center) performs with her sister Caridad Cepeda (left) and their mother Tata Cepeda (right)
Héctor García De León
Barbara Liz-Cepeda (center) performs with her sister Caridad Cepeda (left) and their mother Tata Cepeda (right) who are visiting from Puerto Rico. All three women are involved with promoting Bomba and Plena through dance classes and community events.

Bomba is Puerto Rico’s oldest genre of music dating from the 16th century and was developed by enslaved Africans in the sugar cane plantations. Plena is another traditional genre of music developed in the late 20th century. The two genres are different, but often combined because they are Puerto Rico’s oldest.

The nonprofit’s mission is to educate the Central Florida community on Puerto Rico’s culture and history, and teach dance and percussion classes. Liz-Cepeda is the first person in Central Florida to open a school dedicated to Bomba and Plena, named after her mother “Tata” to honor her while she is alive.

Hector Garcia De Leon reports for NPR's Next Generation Radio

When the pandemic first started in March, Liz-Cepeda said she struggled with the transition to virtual classes and that it took her about a week to learn new software like Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

“Once I got the hang of it, I learned pretty quickly. And then that gave me the emotional support where I was at a point where I can say, ‘I know we’re going through a pandemic, I know that this is something new for a lot of people. But we have to make it work,” Liz-Cepeda said.

Barbara Liz-Cepeda wears a custom-tailored skirt with the Puerto Rican flag
Héctor García De León
Barbara Liz-Cepeda wears a custom-tailored skirt with the Puerto Rican flag on it while she dances to the beat of the Bomba drums in her living room in Kissimmee, Fl.

When it came to virtual teaching, Liz-Cepeda turned her living room into her studio in just a few days, but it wasn’t the same.

“There’s not that much interaction,” Liz-Cepeda said. “You would like to be there and hug people and dance and show the moves. But you depend on having to move the computer if you’re on virtual… you have to lower the screen, you have to move back. You depend on the audio. You depend on the Internet.”

Both Liz-Cepeda and her students felt the classes weren’t the same. Class enrollment decreased due to the pandemic and students said the experience and feeling wasn’t what they felt in the studio. No matter how much teaching or how much playing Liz-Cepeda would do, it just wasn’t enough.

So, she had to get creative to find new ways to reach a larger audience.

“The good part of Covid-19 and the pandemic is that because we were seeing ourselves regressing in a way that we were not reaching the amount of people that we wanted,” Liz-Cepeda said. “We have to be creative and think about things where we could reach the people, where we can reach the community.”

She began a virtual book study where people from the United States and Puerto Rico meet every Saturday over Zoom and discuss topics about Black Lives Matter, slavery and Puerto Rico’s history and how it affects us today. They are on their third book now, moving to their fourth book soon which will be, ¡Negro, Negra!, a compilation of lectures about Afro-descendants of Puerto Rico.

“Because of the pandemic and because we were trying to reach out and expand ourselves, we were thinking, how can we also offer back to the community? What are we also giving back?” Liz-Cepeda said.

Margarita “Tata” Cepeda plays a drum
Héctor García De León
Margarita “Tata” Cepeda is the granddaughter of Rafael Cepeda, the patriarch of Bomba and Plena. Her daughter Barbara Liz-Cepeda opened Escuela de Bomba y Plena Tata Cepeda and named it after her mother to honor her while she’s alive.

Liz-Cepeda opened her non-profit with the mission to give Puerto Ricans in Central Florida a piece of home through in-person classes and performances. Now, through her virtual platforms and social media, she’s been able to increase her audience and reach people from across the globe.

“So our dance school has made a great impact in our community because we’ve been able to give that part of the traditions and the culture to those Puerto Ricans who are here in the diaspora, and they can reach out to us, they can sit with us. We have created a community for them, it’s not just taking the classes.”

Liz-Cepeda also works as a media specialist at Boggy Creek Elementary School and has two children. On top of her non-profit, she’s helping her 7-year-old daughter with digital learning.

“I’m a school teacher, so I have to go to school every single day while my daughter is doing virtual classes. So I depend on a lot of my family and friends to take care of my daughter,” Liz-Cepeda said.

She said it hasn’t been easy working at a school during the pandemic, but she said she’s taking the necessary precautions to keep family and loved ones safe at the school and at home.

“I am very proud of my school, my board of directors, my family, who have helped me along the way,” Liz-Cepeda said. “I can say that Escuela de Bomba y Plena Tata Cepeda will be here for a long time.”

Zoom screenshot
Screenshot courtesy of Barbara Liz-Cepeda
Barbara Liz-Cepeda (top-right corner) and her mother Tata Cepeda (top-left corner) teach a Bomba dance class virtually through Zoom to students from across the US and Puerto Rico.

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