Casita Maria, Fiesta, Forever!

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Jackie Weld Drake with Tony Marion and friends at Casita Maria Fiesta! 2023 at The Plaza Hotel.

With a deft hand, an open heart — and great clothes — subtly and chicly, Jackie Weld Drake steers Casita Maria to help Hispanic children in the South Bronx. One way she does it, throwing a damn glam party: dressy not stuffy, well intentioned and well heeled. And everyone kicks up those heels at Casita Maria Fiesta.

Jackie Weld Drake, longtime chair of Casita Maria Center for Arts & Education.

“Make sure it’s fun!” Jackie always says, and Jackie always does. “If it isn’t, people won’t come back. Speeches must be capped at five minutes. Auction must be short and sweet. Liz Smith used to say you don’t have to beat your guests over the head with their good deeds.” That saves time to dance. Boy, do we!

Jackie has been helming Casita’s board for years. In the rough and tumble South Bronx, it gives kids an alternative to gangs and crime with after school arts education and emotional support. It’s the perfect fit for an art scholar and collector who is also the great, great, granddaughter of Uruguay’s president.

“You can accomplish anything you want,” Jackie says, “as long as you don’t care who gets the credit.” She was quick to thank co-chairs HRH Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia, George Corton, Darlyn Portes, Sissi Fleitas, Lydia Forbes, Thomas C. Quick, and Jean Shafiroff.

Or to say, “Enough from me. Talk to our new Executive Director Felix Urrutia Jr. Talk to one of the others.”

So, we did.

Casita Maria’s Executive Director Felix Urrutia Jr.

Jennifer and the Honorable David Fischer were being honored that evening, along with Grammy Award winning producer Nelson J. Albareda and Soros Community Care founder Dr. Ramon Tallaj.

As the US Ambassador to Morocco, David Fischer was the fourth component of the Abraham Accords, and with Jennifer, serves on the board of the Abraham Accords Peace Institute. For that The United States awarded the National Security Medal and the King of Morocco bestowed the Wissam Alaouite of the Order.

Jennifer, a longtime community activist, serves on the Board of Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C and as a member of the U.S. State Department Speaker Bureau. She’s also an International Ambassador for The Lighthouse Guild, a Trustee of The Society of the Four Arts, on The Ellis Island Honors Board of Directors and recently received The Ireland Funds Distinguished Leadership Award.

Honoree Jennifer Fischer.
Honoree Nelson Albareda and Omer Pardillo.

“And Casita was founded by two Irish ladies,” Jackie reminded me. The Sullivan sisters founded Casita in their living room to take care of Puerto Rican immigrants, mindful that the Irish were once in those shoes. Ed Sullivan, a relation, emceed some of the first fundraisers.

After this Casita gala, Jennifer planned to meet David in Israel. Instead, she was speaking to me about combatting terror organizations that divide, by bringing countries together.

Elizabeth Ridder Sullivan, Co-founder of Casita Maria.

“Morocco had been split apart long, long ago into French Morocco and Spanish Morocco,” she began. “When Spain left in the ’50s, that became Western Sahara, which created a fight over it, not unlike Gaza. Morocco rightly thought it needed to be put back together. But, a separatist group called the Polisario raged a war that went on for 80-some years. As part of the accord, the world recognized that Western Sahara is the southern part of Morocco. And David signed the very first map of the combined country.

“It was such an obvious, beautiful, natural thing for Israel and Morocco to recognize each other. A huge percent of Israelis are Sephardic Jews that came from Spain and France to Morocco in the 14th century when the Ottoman empire wanted to annihilate them.”

The Fischers continue to work for lasting peace through prosperity. “We go back three times a year since we left the ambassadorship to introduce business people and philanthropic groups between the two countries,” Jennifer said. “Every time you do that, it gets more and more solid, until it has nothing to do with treaties. It has to do with friendship and commerce. You begin to love each other and put more kids to work. Give a kid a shot and the world gets more peaceful. Everybody needs a reason to get up in the morning and take care of themselves.”

Tourism also drives economies — and peace. “The Israelis came in droves to Morocco to see their ancestors’ home, to see the old Temples, the villages that were up in the mountains, the museums with magnificent jewelry and wedding dresses.”

David Fischer stands before a new US State Department map of Morocco (bearing a signature by Fischer), December 12, 2020. (AFP)

And now?

“Everybody knows the right way forward is for the Arab world and Israel to talk. It’s never worked the other way. The great line is: we haven’t talked in 50 years, how has that worked out?

“When the Polisario Front gained control, they kept the conflict going in Western Sahara. As long as there is conflict you can hire mercenaries, the most evil people in the world, and there’s no way negotiations can go forward. That fuels drug trade, sex trade, arms trade. It’s awful. Those guys make money with wars. Think of the poor Palestinians and the Israelis who just want a peaceful life and future for their children. It’s tragic. It’s shocking the way leadership can control these things while little guys, normal people, get destroyed in the middle.

“Education is so important. There are all these reasons to connect, find each other, understand each other, glorify each other. Build it bigger. Give kids more, more, more opportunities. That is what Casita does.”

It’s no mystery why she and Jackie are friends. In fact, Jennifer accepted the award in Jackie’s honor. “She’s been the lioness for decades,” Jennifer told me. “There are angels among us.”

Now, Jackie is nurturing her cubs, youthful supporters dubbed the Pachangas (In Latin America, a Pachanga is a fun party). Alina de Almeida, Vanessa Molina, Alicia Lubowski-Jahn, Sabrina Wirth, Carlos Barraza and Victor Roquette were among Pachanga Co-Chairs and committee. Many of them, like Jackie, have connections to the Latino and art communities.

Pachanga Alicia Lubowski-Jahn and Victor Roquette.

And to Jackie herself: Alicia Lubowski-Jahn is Jackie’s niece. There was never a time when she didn’t know about Casita. Mom Martha Bograd, Jackie’s sister and a trustee, brought Alicia to Fiesta in her 20s.

Like most of the women in her family, Alicia is art-centric. With a PhD in art history, she’s an independent curator who has worked with such institutions as the Philadelphia Museum and the Americas Society on their groundbreaking von Humboldt show. She has also worked with Casita Art Director Gail Heidel on their exhibitions.

Martha was active in the Americas Society and Friends of the Royal Academy. Estrellita Bograd Brodsky PhD has long been a champion and collector of Latin American art, and with her husband Daniel Brodsky (former Chair of the Metropolitan Museum) named one of ARTNews’ top 200 Collectors. The fourth sister, Mercedes Bograd, supports Casita as well.

Another second gen Casita, Pachanga Co-Chair Sabrina Wirth, also has Latina roots and art cred. Her mother, Maria, born in El Salvador, was the private curator of Placido Arango, Chair of the Prado Museum and one of the largest collectors of 20th Century Art. Maria’s also a friend of Jackie’s, and once chaired the Casita Maria Musicale.

Pachanga Co-Chair Sabrina Wirth and Edgar Batista.

Mexican born Sabrina is one of the original Pachangas. “I’ve been involved in Casita ever since I curated an exhibition there in 2009,” she told me. “In 2011, I curated their Super Heroes show. We put all these pieces together on the floor and let the kids talk about them. They got it. The unique mission of Casita is to use the arts to understand the world better and make a living later. There are great people involved and Jackie is so passionate about it.”

Sabrina also curates her own independent art exhibits. She’s put together a Stephen Hannock show in partnership with Marlborough Gallery, and one on Gabriel Ortega, among many others.

Guests included Martha Bograd, Miguel A. Fuentes Jr., Michéle Gerber Klein, Patrick Moran, Gautam Patel, Benigno Rodriguez-Cubeñas, as well as Peter Bacanovic, Edgar Batista, Tina Beriro, Estrellita and Daniel Brodsky, Sharon Bush, Carlos Campos, Consuelo Vanderbilt Costin, Laura and Diego Garcia, Bradley Gibson, Margo Langenberg, Alicia Lubowski-Jahn, Tony Marion, Juan Montoya, Darlyn Portes, Marc Rosen, Gabriel Rivera-Barraza, Victor Roquette, Alexandra Lind Rose, Leslie Schulhof, Marie Louise Slocum, Alexandra Seegers, Mary Snow (hosting the largest table), Kenny Thomas, Barbara Tober, and Charlie Ward. The tropical décor was designed by Full Moon. The Bob Hardwick Band, as always, hit the right notes.

We’ll finish on this note: “I’ve given my heart and soul to it for so many years,” Jackie told me. “End of story.”

Alexandra Lind Rose, Mary Snow, Marie Louise Slocum, and Lesley Schulhof.
Darlyn Portes, El Cigala, Carlos Campos, Sissi Fleitas, and Moataz Refaie.
L. to r.: Claudia Hilda, Alexandra Seegers, and Ben Rodriguez-Cubenas; Consuelo Vanderbilt Costin and Elizabeth Steimberg.
Enrico Bruni, Consuelo Vanderbilt Costin, Mary Snow, Omar Hernandez, Suzanne Amini, Amy Hoadley, and Luiza Petre.
Jackie Weld Drake, Virginia Sheppard, Leonardo Sheppard, and Martha Bograd.
Jennifer Fischer, Amy Hoadley, Jackie Weld Drake, and Alexandra Seegers.
Laura Padron, Jakub Hejl, Carolina Hejl, and Alyssa Meyer.
Kenny Thomas, Tony Marion, Wes Williams, and Beau Minniear.
L. to r.: Suzanne Amini, Sissi Fleitas, Elizabeth Steimberg, and Rebecca Seawright; Tina Beriro and Jonathan Marder.
Gary Padmore.
Jean Shafiroff, Angela Chen, Barbara Tober, and Robert Kean.
L. to r.: Antonieta Landa and Heather Norgard; Marc Rosen and Candace Post.
Ricardo Oquendo, Elena Albareda, and Nelson Albareda.
Peter Bacanovic, Steven Aronson, and Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia.
Omar Hernandez, Laura Garcia, and Diego Garcia.
John Nubian, Keiko Aoki, Sergio Orozco, and Irene Arditi.
Jarrod Millington, Tess Elder, and Tyler Lain.
Enrico Bruni, Lieba Nesis, and Steven Leber.
Daniel and Estrellita Brodsky.
L. to r.: Jonathan and Somers Farkas; Gabriel Rivera-Barraza and Mapy.
Dara Sowell and Luiza Petre.
Alexandra Seegers and Tina Beriro.
Ben Wegman and Katie Allsup.
Bradley Gibson, Tony Marion, Paul Marlow, Charlie Ward, and Adam Jepsen.
Daniel Brodsky, Princess Nand Khemka, Thomas Quick, Ricardo Oquendo, and Jackie Weld.
Allison Rockefeller and Estrellita Brodsky.
Esther Herrero and Peter Bacanovic.
Fernanda Garcia and Jean Shafiroff.
Nand Khemka and Michele Gerber Klein.
Lynne Wheat and Juan Montoya.
Angela Chen and Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia.
Thomas Quick and Jacqueline Weld Drake.
Steve Leber and Jennifer Fischer.
Talia Lockspeiser, Neil Flynn, and Luz Tavarez.
Sharon Bush and Adolfo Zaralegui.
L. to r.: Lise Honore and Philip Norkeliunas; Luiza Petre and Suzanne Amini.
Sissi Fleitas and Moataz Refaie.
Carolina and Jakub Hejl.

Photographs by Jared Siskin/©Patrick McMullan

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