Once a year, Jackie Weld Drake brings her special alegría de vivir to the Plaza, with Casita Maria’s FIESTA! The great granddaughter of Juan Idiarte Borda, a President of Uruguay, she stays true to her roots, helping Latino immigrants in the Bronx. She’s been a Board Chair and benefit Co-Chair for so many years, “How do you know Jackie?” is a sure fire conversation starter.
With her again this year as Co-Chair: the dapper HRH Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia.
“Jackie has been able to create a gala that no one can imitate, because it’s a fiesta celebration with dancing,” Honoree Tony Bechara said, himself a native of San Juan. “It’s a transformative event. She changed the whole idea of what a gala is. There’s great music and love with the giving.” In 40 years, he’s never missed a gala.
“Casita Maria was founded more than 80 years ago,” he continued. “The irony is: amidst this wave of Puerto Ricans that were coming to New York, two Irish sisters, the Sullivans (Ed Sullivan’s nieces) decided to help. They knew first-hand about migration and the difficulties of assimilating. Casita was the only organization for more than ten years to take care of this population. They have thrived and survived. They are still a great help, not only for Puerto Ricans, but they have expanded their operation to include all of the Latinos coming into New York.
“I love them. I’m impressed by them, And I will help them forever!”
Guests included Dinner Chair Sissi Isabel Fleitas-Refaie, Committee Members Geoffrey Bradfield, Michele Gerber Klein, Ann Nitze, and Ben Rodriguez-Cubenas, Pachanga Chairs Victor Roquette and Sabrina Wirth, Pachanga Committee Members Cathy Aragon, Carlos Barraza, and Omar Hernandez, as well as Afsaneh Akhtari, Steven M.L. Aronson, Tina Beriro, Martha Bograd, Geoffrey Bradfield, Estrellita and Daniel Brodsky, Sharon Bush Murray, Carlos Campos, Mark and Maxine Dalio, Jennifer Fischer, William Haseltine and Maria Eugenia Maury, Lucia Hwong Gordon, BB Jean, William Ivey Long, Elizabeth Meigher, Carlos Picon, Martin and Jean Shafiroff, Stephanie Stokes, Desiree von la Valette, Carole Radziwell, Lynne Wheat, and Chris Wolf.
Bechara, who is a respected abstract artist, serves as Chairman Emeritus of El Museo del Barrio and as a BAM board member for 20 years. He credits Alfredo Ortiz-Morias, “a true gentleman,” and the late Anne Eisenhower for bringing him to the Casita party.
“Alfredo Ortiz-Murias was the president of Casita, really its heart and soul,” Jackie told me. “He put it on the map, made it into a glamorous, star powered party. He was from a prominent Puerto Rican family, knew everyone and was a great friend to all. He introduced me to the cause. If you were his friend you had to go to Fiesta! He died too young, but before he did, he said, ‘Get Jackie and Anne to continue it.’ And so we did.”
Now, it was Anne who had died too young, in July. The evening was dedicated “with love and gratitude,” to her. “Anne had been on the board for 25 years, many of which she co-chaired with me,” Jackie told the room. “For a long time, she and I took it upon ourselves to keep Fiesta as joyful and happy as it is and to make it the best party in New York. We worked beautifully together. She had a great eye for detail. I turned to her always for her sage advice and wisdom. I miss her, of course, terribly. She never failed me. We were lucky to have her as long as we did.”
Cesar Conde, Chairman of the NBCUniversal News Group, and Maria Gabriela (Gaby) Pacheco, a strong force behind the DREAM Act among other immigration reforms, were also honored. Conde is the first Hispanic to lead a major English language TV news organization. Shortly after being named to this position in May 2020, he launched the Fifty Percent Challenge Initiative, setting a goal for his newsrooms to be 50% women and 50% people of color.
Gaby Pacheco’s work is also personal. She arrived in Miami as an eight-year-old, with her family from Guayaquil, Ecuador, on a tourist visa.
“My parents weren’t able to get legal status which left me and my family without documentation,” Gaby told me. “I had to fight to have access to higher education.” Then she fought for others. Not only did she become a national figure working towards the DREAM Act, she advocated for in-state tuition for undocumented students, staging the Trail of Dreams, a four month walk from Miami to Washington DC. As political director for United We Dream, she spearheaded the effort that led to DACA.
Her take on this hot topic? “It’s very simple,” she replied. “In the United States we have an aging population. We need the vibrancy of young people. Dreamers are Americans and all they’re missing is the opportunity to get their status and regularize their papers.
“DACA has been around for ten years. It has been one of the most successful programs that we had ever seen in immigration. It gave Dreamers the opportunity to get work authorization. The subscription has to be renewed every two years. But, because of it, we’ve seen Dreamers become doctors, nurses and social workers. They’re working at Microsoft and Walgreens. They are part of our communities. They belong here and we need them.”
So much for gozando como si fuera el último día de sus vidas (“enjoying as if it were the last day of their lives”), another night, it was the link between Chinese and American cultures that was celebrated, at the Lang Lang International Music Foundation “Lang Lang and Friends Gala,” at Cipriani 25 Broadway.
When did piano stars get so sexy? Lang Lang is such a rock star, he even performed at the Grammy’s — four times. When he was famously paired with Metallica (2010), flames shot up behind him in. In 2008, he joined Herbie Hancock for Rhapsody in Blue at the Grammy Awards and again performed at the 2020 Grammy Awards with John Legend, Cyndi Lauper and Camila Cabello.
This night, Wyclef Jean surprised Lang Lang on stage with a musical nod to his 40th birthday.
“Lang Lang and I connected when we played together in Oslo, when Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize,” Wyclef told me. “I’ve always been fond of what he’s been doing with this foundation. And he knows about my work in Haiti. Staying connected to musicians and wanting to change the world through music is the ether of our connection. I was also here five years ago, before Covid.”
We asked Lang Lang about his role in revolutionizing the image of the classical performer.
“I am still playing classical music,” he replied, “that has to remain. It is very important to be respectful to that art form. What we can do, is to bring some new ideas to promote it in the 21st Century, to bring in more young people with music education to appreciate it. That’s what I’m trying to do. A lot of new generation artists are also trying to make classical music more approachable to everyone, while still respecting its history.”
“When I was with Lang Lang in Berlin, he sold out an arena for 20,000 in two hours,” Leszek Barwinski-Brown, Lang Lang’s Chief Executive Officer told me. “Chopin said, ‘let the piano sing.’ If you can do that, it’s sexy. Today’s stars are not disconnected in another stratosphere like the classical music stars in the ’80s. Lang Lang doesn’t sit in a corner reading music scores, he’s a regular guy.”
Thus Lang Lang’s cameo in “Mozart in the Jungle” playing ping pong at his after-concert party. “Classical music was originally meant to be approachable,” Leszek reminded me. “It was the party entertainment of its day.”
The entertainment of the night also featured Lang Lang, playing from his new release The Disney Book, and with his wife, Gina Alice; Mauro Castillo from the cast of Disney’s Encanto for a version of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno”; Young Scholar alumni Maxim Lando, as well as other performances.
Barbara Tober presented a posthumous Lifetime Philanthropy Award to longtime board member and longtime friend Shirley Young. Shirley’s sons, David, Doug, and William Hsieh announced a $100,000 challenge grant for new Keys of Inspiration school sponsorship in their mother’s memory. She had met Lang Lang when he was ten. He was scheduled to perform, when the organizer, running late, decided to cut things short. “Let the young man play!” she said.
Thus began a lifelong relationship. “He’s like a fourth brother to me,” said David Hsieh. “My mom had this belief that the arts can help build a better understanding and bridge different cultures. We need that now more than ever.”
Tober will create the Donald Tober Piano Fund for Scholars, so appropriate, as playing the piano was one of Donald’s great passions — besides, of course, Barbara.
The room included Board members Christy Cressy, David Hsieh, David Hryck, Joseph Rallo, Elizabeth Segerstrom, and Kyle Wool. Supporters included Kelly Bensimon, Candace Bushnell, Mauro Castillo, Kelly Cutrone, artist Steven Ladd, as well as Afsaneh Akhtari, Janna Bullock, Amanda and Carter Burch, Angela Chen, Joan Hardy Clark, Judith Anne Corrente and Wym Kooyer, Laurie Cumbo, Nathanael Hausmann, Joanna Fisher, Chloe Flower, Carole Guest, Michele Gerber Klein, Ellie Manko, Sherrie Mu, Liane Pei, Lydia and David Sarfati, Jean Shafiroff, Daisy Soros, Vivienne Tam, Veronika Vilim and Victoria Wyman.
With the foundation, Lang Lang is revolutionizing music education, by taking it out of after school programming and putting it into Title One public schools’ curriculum. Their program is now in more than 180 schools in America, China and the UK, reaching 175,000 children.
So: two gorgeous galas celebrating different cultures. These days, that’s a breath of fresh air.
Photographs by Rommel Demano/BFA.com (Casita); Rob Kim (Lang Lang)