Celebrating 'can do' at Special Needs Talent Showcase

Dec. 4—Alandra Lopez took to the stage at Teatro Paraguas on Friday to put on a flamenco and Mexican folklorico performance to show the world what people with disabilities can do.

"They can do anything if they set their mind to it," Lopez said in an interview.

She was one of a handful of performers who showed their skills at the first Santa Fe Special Needs Talent Showcase. The event honored the gifts and talents of people with disabilities.

"What we want is to celebrate what people can do, not what they can't," said the event's organizer and communications director for the state Department of Health, Jodi Porter.

"Often times people with disabilities are the last ones to be picked but are the first to be picked on," Porter added.

That's why organizers wanted to give them a chance to be the stars of the show.

Most of the performers are recipients of the state's developmental disabilities waiver, which provides services and support to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to help them become active members of their communities.

The performers sang, danced and put on skits they planned themselves for an audience of friends and family.

Lopez, 19, said she always loved musicals like Grease and West Side Story and wanted to be in one. She started learning to dance when she was 4 years old at Moving Arts Española, a performing and visual arts education program.

"I was a little shy at first," Lopez said. "I didn't know I could do this. When I started growing up, I started to get the confidence to do what I wanted to do, which is dance."

Her teacher, Mina Fajardo, said she saw Lopez blossom over the years as she learned to dance.

"She couldn't talk; she couldn't stand up; she couldn't walk," Fajardo said about Lopez when she first joined the class.

Over the years, Lopez gained all those abilities and more with the help of Fajardo's classes.

"It's amazing to see how much she improved; it sometimes makes me cry," she added.

Now, Lopez dreams of making it to New York City someday, to perform on Broadway. Though that dream may be in the far-off future, Lopez and her peers got their chance in the spotlight, thanks to Porter and the theater.

Porter said she plans to make the talent show an annual event and hopes to see it grow. She said she was inspired to put it together after her adult son, Christian Porter, who has autism, told her he wanted to perform a Star Wars skit.

Christian played Mel Arroyo, a Jedi who faced off against the newest Sith Lord Darth Krom. After an arduous battle, Arroyo defeated Darth Krom and put him under arrest.

The Star Wars fan said he started working on the script in 2020 and wanted people to see it.

That's when Porter decided to reach out to her high school theater friends, JoJo Sena de Tarnoff and Carol McGiffin, to try to put something together.

Sena de Tarnoff is the president of Teatro Paraguas and often works with disabled actors to put on shows, like the upcoming play A Musical Piñata for Christmas.

"When Jodi told me about this idea, I said, 'bring it on,' " Sena de Tarnoff said.

Sena de Tarnoff said she has noticed the joy it brings these special needs performers when they get on stage.

"They are as happy as can be," she said. "It's something they have always wanted to do, and to do it in front of an audience is even more special."

Perhaps the best example of this joy came from singer Kati Zmeskal. Her face lit up as she received a standing ovation for her rendition of Wish Upon a Star, by Jiminy Cricket. She was born with cerebral palsy, requiring 24-hour care, but it doesn't stop her from doing what she loves. Besides singing, Zmeskal, who is in a wheelchair, is a talented artist who specializes in weaving.

Another singer that was all smiles was the No. 1 Michael Jackson fan and impersonator, Anna Chavez. She performed "You Are Not Alone," dedicating the song to her precious pup, Princess.

"I love singing and dancing," Chavez said during an interview.

Chavez said her mother and grandmother taught to her sing and dance growing up. Her mom died last year, leaving her to keep dancing on her own.

"Now since my mom's passed away of cancer, she told me to keep going dancing for her because she used to dance even though she was in pain," Chavez said. "My mom said, 'Keep on dancing, daughter. Do it for me.' "