When William Sanchez started curating the Hispanic Youth Showcase, a talent competition for Latino and Latina youth throughout New Jersey and around the country, 27 years ago, there was no “American Idol,” or “Dancing With the Stars.”
“There was ‘Star Search,’ which gave me the idea,” the Emmy-winning television producer and community activist said. “But we wanted to find a way to gear it towards Hispanic kids.”
The program, which was produced by and aired on the now-defunct New Jersey Network (NJN), is held at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark, and has propelled its winners to successful careers as recording artists, Broadway actors, and movie stars.
But now, the annual program is in the middle of a type of renaissance. After NJN announced its closing in 2011, Sanchez was unsure of how to proceed, given the immediate loss of significant funding and facilities.
“We had to try and figure out how we were going to move on,” said Sanchez. “That’s when West New York reached out.”
Mayor Felix Roque and the town’s Board of Commissioners announced recently that they had formed a new partnership with the Showcase, and offered up the West New York Middle School as a facility for live auditions. The auditions will be held on April 12, in the middle school’s state-of-the-art auditorium.
Roque said in an interview this week that by inviting the Showcase to use the town’s facilities, he hoped to spread the talents of West New York’s youth to a wider arena.
“The kids in this town are like oil wells,” he said. “The raw talent is there, but we have to provide the means for exploiting it.”
Both Sanchez and Roque discussed the need for programming such as the Showcase, which was originally started “to counter the negative images of Latino youth as portrayed on major television networks.”
“There are too many examples of Hispanic kids on television and in movies that are negative,” said Sanchez. “It makes kids think that they may not have opportunities to do great things.”
“There are too many examples of Hispanic kids on television and in movies that are negative. It makes kids think that they may not have opportunities to do great things.” – William Sanchez
“One of our main goals is to create role models,” he said. “We want to show our new kids that those who have won in the past can go on to do amazing things.”
Veronica Kole, a local singer-songwriter who has used her talents to spread an anti-bullying message through schools and organizations around the tri-state area, won the competition as a 15-year-old, and spoke highly of the experience.
“I think the Showcase is important because it gives a lot of opportunity to kids who wouldn’t get them otherwise,” she said. “A lot of times there are situations where a kid has a lot of talent and the will to perform, but the opportunity just isn’t there.”
Kole has stayed in close touch with Sanchez in the years since her triumph, serving as a judge in the preliminary rounds and lending her voice to the program’s marketing. Last year, she hosted the finals, which employed an anti-bullying theme in her honor.
Kole also explained that even if a participant doesn’t come away from the Showcase as a winner, the experience still has the potential to make a difference in their life.
“I think it’s awesome that kids can have a chance to perform, even if just for the one show,” she said. “It definitely goes a long way to show them that they are capable of getting them off the streets and accomplishing something that they can be proud of.”
The combined achievements contest’s past winners do make for an impressive resume. Caitlin Sanchez, who won the competition twice, became the voice of Dora on the popular children’s television series “Dora the Explorer.” Salsa superstar recording artist Frankie Negron, who also had a role in Paul Simon’s Broadway show “The Capeman,” won the showcase three times. And showcase winner Karina Pasian, a recording artist whose debut R&B album was nominated for a Grammy award, has thrice performed at the White House, for Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
The Showcase was originally aimed at kids in New Jersey exclusively, but has grown to include contestants from Florida, New Mexico, Texas, New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois and even Puerto Rico. Latino stars such as Rita Moreno, Pedro “Cuban Pete” Aguilar, Beatriz Rodriguez, and even Tito Puente and Celia Cruz have endorsed and lent their support to the program.
The April auditions held in West New York will judged by a panel of judges to determine the finalists that will perform in the final competition at the NJPAC on May 24. A televised version, hosted by past winners, will be aired this summer.