After a decade of ups and downs, dance troupe Aurora marches front and center – Chicago Tribune

When Martin Luna-Espinoza arrived in downtown Aurora on Sunday morning to set up for the city’s Pride Parade, he was surprised — perhaps more shocked — to learn that his dance troupe kicked off the show.

Because the kids he started Simply Destinee with ten years ago have now graduated, the majority of the dancers are new, he told me, and were more than a little excited. to secure such first place in the prestigious – and this year, controversial – parade.

“I told them, don’t get used to it,” Luna-Espinoza recalls, looking back on the many obstacles this group has faced over the years, including the time he and now-husband partner Jose Espinoza had to sleep in their van to keep the studio doors open.

“Sometimes,” he reminded the young marchers, “you’ll have to be backwards in these parades.”

But even if Simply Destinee isn’t always front and center in the public eye, there’s no doubt that the band’s feet are firmly planted in the Aurora community. Not only did his dance troupe get to kick off the Pride Parade, Jose and Martin Luna-Espinoza were honored by the City of Aurora in the first ever Pride Flag Raising Ceremony for their commitment to helping marginalized children emerge from the shadows and find their place.

I first met Martin Luna-Espinoza, a former JCPenney photographer, in October 2013 with a 16-year-old East Aurora High School student named Oscar, who had just been discharged hours earlier from the hospital after was severely beaten by the police. were investigating a hate crime.

The teenager, his face shattered, swollen and bruised, had no place to go but the studio of Simply Destinee which, created in memory of Luna-Espinoza’s teenage niece who had committed suicide, had become a safe haven for children struggling with bullying and depression. .

I remember many tears during this interview, not just from this physically and emotionally damaged gay teenager, but also from Luna-Espinoza, who despite abandoning his apartment and sleeping in his van in order to be able to afford space on Highland Avenue, didn’t have the money for that month’s rent at the facility.

He knew his dream of helping so many injured young people was in jeopardy.

But one thing Luna-Espinoza has in addition to a lot of passion and compassion is tenacity. After that first column aired, the band was able to move to a much bigger and better studio on the second floor of the Leland Tower in downtown Aurora, where the kids spent a lot of their time and sweat renovating. of this historical space.

Then, eight months after celebrating this new home with a big Thanksgiving feast, Luna-Espinoza hit a new low: while burying his beloved mother, Simply Destinee had two days to find another site. , because the new owner of the building needed this second floor for other purposes.

Because the group had become better known, largely through partnerships with other youth groups and community leaders who recognized the importance of this work, Simply Destinee was able to relocate again, this time to a more small part of the old Keystone building. .

Yet as Simply Destinee’s numbers and profile continued to grow — he even auditioned for “America’s Got Talent” — it became increasingly difficult to keep up with the costs.

In 2015, with over 100 children and a waiting list, community leaders continued to offer their support to the dance troupe, whether through contributions, networking or fundraising efforts. There has even been talk of merging with more established nonprofits. But Luna-Espinoza, along with co-founder Liza Oliva, Destinee’s mother, were convinced that any merger would “lose that personal touch” that the group prided itself on offering children.

Simply Destinee really turned out to be special.

Rena Church, retired executive director of the Aurora Public Art Commission, calls it “one of the best nonprofits in the community” because its leaders are “really genuine,” she said. . Moreover, not only are they “about as open and honest as possible” because there are no egos or hidden agendas, “they want to learn to work together” with others, which is not That’s not always the case in the nonprofit world. .

“Martin and Jose make it so easy to love them,” she said, adding that a lot of what they’ve been able to accomplish has been because “they did it from their own pocket”.

And so, Simply Destinee Youth Center and Dance Team – now its full title and located on the lower level of the Legal Arts Building at 122 W. Downer Place, continued its march, keeping the doors open and expanding after-school programs – currently in 14 schools – that combine social/emotional learning with dance.

By the way, the band does more than just get the kids moving to the beat of the music. Simply Destinee also offers cooking classes, sewing, car maintenance and ways to earn extra money on the side, which has become especially important during COVID and as the economy has slowed because “a lot of our families,” Luna-Espinoza noted, “struggles to earn that extra dollar.

Although the pandemic has reduced the number of members, the number is starting to climb again, he says, adding that, more than ever, he and other advisers are concerned about “lack of motivation” in children who “seem s ‘being disinterested in things’ since the pandemic.

On the positive side, Luna-Espinoza noted, the fallout from the pandemic has helped reduce the stigma around mental health because, as people find themselves dealing with more of these issues within their own families, they become more vulnerable. are increasingly involved in education and awareness.

Similarly, he continued, the gay community has also made huge strides, certainly compared to his experiences as a teenager when he felt he was leading a secret life until he took a course. sponsored by the church who “really helped me” with his identity.

For example, Luna-Espinoza quickly ticked off how all schools now have gay/straight alliances, more and more LGBTQ restaurants are becoming mainstream, and there are even local drag queen shows “attracting young, old, straight and gays who a few years ago you would have had to go to Chicago to see.

He credits a small but determined group of local Pride leaders with their efforts to move that community towards a “different feel to the conversation”.

According to Luna-Espinoza, the Simply Destinee roller coaster is reminiscent of the Aurora’s Pride movement, which suffered a backlash this year after the city pulled its float from the parade in response to the Pride committee asking police officers not to not wear a uniform when marching in the parade. .

The event was briefly canceled due to lack of security until triple overtime pay was offered to the cops. Which, according to Luna-Espinoza, made Sunday’s event all the “bigger and better” as fans knew how close it was to not happening.

“There’s more joy,” he said, referring to both Simply Destinee and the parade, “when you take steps back but keep moving forward.”

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