Culturally United

Rick Sperling and Valeria Montes have unassuming ways of creating positive change in Detroit. They do it by blending artistic work with family life, building cultural unity through education and performance.

Sperling is founder and CEO of Mosaic Youth Theatre, Mexican flamenco dancer Valeria Montes is the driving force behind the ensemble La Chispa and Company. Two of the city's most accomplished artists met at a restaurant where Montes' family worked and were married two years ago.

Like Flamenco, Valeria Montes is generous and disciplined, and speaks self-assuredly and decisively. Like Mosaic, Rick is articulate and the definition of enthusiasm. The two often begin and finish each other’s sentences; it’s obvious they’re both on the same wavelength.

Birth of Mosaic

Sperling was living in Ann Arbor and coordinating education and outreach for Detroit’s Attic Theatre when he realized Detroit was where the need was. “I always felt a disconnect living and teaching theater in Ann Arbor," he says. "It felt like I was (working with) kids that already had a lot of options.”

With a little help from his friends, Sperling founded Mosaic Youth Theatre. Its first staging in 1992 was in tandem with the Attic. The show was the 1970s Broadway musical Runaways, about youth living on the streets. Over 300 kids auditioned, surprising and encouraging Sperling. “The quality exceeded anything we had planned,” he says. “That was the birth of Mosaic, (through) talent and need.”

Over the past 15 years, Mosaic has performed locally at Music Hall, the Max M. Fisher Music Center, the Fox Theatre and at numerous festivals. In 1999, the troupe performed for President Bill Clinton at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. They have been featured on National Public Radio's All Things Considered and appeared on NBC's The Today Show.

Homeward Bound

Montes learned the Spanish dance as a child in her native Mexico, at the legendary La Casa de la Cultura. Since settling in Michigan, she has trained and performed with Detroit’s late Dama Maria del Carmen and her troupe Grupo Espana, and studied in Seville, Spain, with the likes of Cihtli Ocampo, Miguel Vargas, and Adela Campallo. Valeria teaches weekly in the metro area, including at downtown's Boll Family YMCA. La Chispa and Company (guitarist Dan Parisen, percussionist Mark Sawasky, and cantaor Eugenio Vara) has most recently performed at Pontiac festival Arts Beat and Eats, the Detroit Festival of the Arts, Music Hall’s Jazz Café and at Ann Arbor's Performance Network.

The couple was exploring Detroit neighborhoods for a home together when Sperling ran into State Rep. Steve Tobocman at a party. Always an advocate for southwest Detroit, Tobocman mentioned a house for sale down the street from his. “I always heard wonderful things about the Hubbard Farms neighborhood in southwest Detroit,” Sperling says.

Montes and Sperling found a home in the over-100-year-old neighborhood, which was designated an historic district in the 1990s. Montes says it was like finding a "a piece of history and bringing it to life again.” Like their work, home is itself the picture of verve and vivacity, with a pre-teen, two dogs, music and Mexican arts and crafts to keep it lively.

Historically one of the most ethnically diverse sections of the city, now home to a predominantly Latino population, southwest Detroit has often been the first home for area immigrants before moving on to other neighborhoods and metro areas. These days Hubbard Farms’ diversity reflects America at its best: young and old alike represent a wide range of income levels and education, a multiplicity of professional choices and religious beliefs, and a variety of marital and parental statuses.

Sperling says it is a great place to raise their daughter. “It’s wonderful for Ana Maria," he says. "She was losing touch with her (Mexican) cultural roots.”

Arts and Sparks

After settling in southwest Detroit, Montes and Sperling became conscious of the scarcity of educational performing arts opportunities – ethnic and otherwise – for local families. “Having an 11 year old daughter in southwest Detroit, we usually were driving (elsewhere)” Montes says. There were few options for cultural enrichment opportunities, Sperling says. Together, they set out to expand the area’s creative prospects. “We needed something that was state of the art,” Montes says.

After a year of looking at southwest Detroit facilities and talking with other like-minded artists and cultural reps, the couple found a space at the recently renovated Odd Fellows Hall. A development project of the Southwest Detroit Business Association (SDBA), the historic Hall is located in the Vernor-Lawndale district and is now known as Center of Music and Performing Arts Southwest (COMPAS). The center recently received a $90,000 grant from the McGregor Fund.

It is where Sperling's bilingual Teatro Mosaico program has found a permanent home.

Spanish for the word compass, and a term for the hand clapping that keeps time in Flamenco rhythm, COMPAS aims to give direction to the culturally rich population of southwest Detroit. Montes says COMPAS will be  “where parents and families feel this is a safe place for them. Tremendous artists (are) collaborating in the Center.” Focusing primarily on Latino culture, the Center will offer dance classes for youth and adults, including flamenco, tango, samba and capoeira. David Hernandez, leader of the popular Mariachi Especial, will offer youth mariachi instruction, and the organization Living Arts will offer American dance lessons in tap and hip-hop. SDBA has graciously prepared the Center’s performance-friendly studio, making it ready for Montes and Sperling's multicultural ambitions.

More to come

Mosaic Youth Theatre celebrates its 15th anniversary this fall, with a CD release and gala party at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The ensemble will later present “Woodward Wonderland,” what it hopes to be the first staging of a lasting tradition in late December. The show will be divided into five vignettes about holidays in Detroit.

For information about classes at COMPAS, call (313) 842-0986.

Veronica Paiz is a regular contributor to Model D.


Mosaic Youth Theatre Courtesy Rick Sperling

Mosaic Youth Theatre Sign at University Prep High School

Valeria Montes Courtesy La Chispa and Company

Mosaic Youth Theatre

Mosaic Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

Signup for Email Alerts