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At Casa Azafrán's grand opening, the culturally interlaced Nashville of the future arrives early

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For all the countries of origin represented Saturday at the grand opening of the new Casa Azafrán community center — Somalia, Mexico, India, Peru, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Turkey, Guatemala, Tibet, Colombia, the U.S. — one thing crossed all boundaries: the arepa. A staple of northern South America, it's a thick, crusty corncake stuffed pocket-style with meat and cheese, scarcely seen here outside the Bonnaroo midway.

Yet even though it's little known even to Nashvillians who frequent Nolensville Road pupuserias, a line encompassing multiple ethnicities and dialects stretched along the community center's hallway, waiting for Ruth Rico's hand-patted specialty. Throughout Casa Azafrán, people who didn't speak the same language were finding other ways to communicate: music, dance, painting, pointing.

Saturday's grand opening, attended by more than 350 people, gave the public its first guided tour of a facility that means to bring Nashville's immigrant communities not only closer to each other but closer to the rest of the city. Located at a strategic halfway point between the downtown power base and Nolensville Road's many ethnic neighborhoods and businesses, the 28,800-square-foot Casa Azafrán houses a variety of services from medical to legal under one roof — and under the large, symbolic community-made artwork that adorns it.

"What I heard most was that it blew away people's expectations," says Renata Soto, the co-founder and executive director of Conexión Americas, for whom Casa Azafrán caps a tenacious five-year effort. A contingent of local dignitaries, including U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, Metro school board member Will Pinkston and Metro Councilman Fabian Bedne — the city's first Hispanic council member — declared the center open at a morning ceremony.

Joining them was Michael Ward of Allard Ward Architects, the architect responsible for the center's Spanish- and Moorish-influenced corridors and airy courtyard.

"Every swatch of fabric, the specific shade of red, the exact colors and arrangement of the tiles, and those amazing light fixtures were all part of Renata's vision for a place to celebrate the many cultures that make up our great city," Ward said. The crowd included Soto's extended family, who'd traveled from Costa Rica for the occasion.

By noon Saturday, visitors could be seen awaiting free flu shots from United Neighborhood Health Services, which maintains a clinic on the premises. Just past a spacious lobby decorated with mosaic tiles and a large hanging quipu — an Andean "talking knot" fashioned of colorful strands — a family could be glimpsed inside the office of Justice for Our Neighbors, the nonprofit that offers legal advice to immigrants. It's one of several organizations that expect to benefit immensely from their new space, a boon as Davidson County's immigrant population expands.

"The visibility is going to be a huge thing for us," says Kaki Friskics-Warren, Tennessee co-chair of JFON. The organization isn't as well-known as it should be, she says, considering it is helping young immigrant candidates across Middle Tennessee apply for a reprieve from deportation — a result of the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which went into effect in August. Under it, hard-working 15-to-30-year-olds who meet a set of rigorous criteria can get a Social Security number and a driver's license — tools needed to become business people and taxpayers.

"These are good kids, going to school and doing the right thing," Friskics-Warren says. "Currently, youth want to work but can't legally." So far, she says, JFON has helped 424 candidates apply; since August, two have been accepted.

Down the same crowded hallway, bustling with face-painted kids and festively clad dancers, a YWCA representative touted the "Girls Inc." after-school program that addresses the concerns of middle-school girls. Free zumba classes attracted gyrating participants inside the performing arts studio run by the Global Education Center, and curious onlookers outside.

Nearby offices promoted services such as mental health counseling from Family & Children's Services, Muslim community education and empowerment at the American Center for Outreach, and a "Thinkubator" dedicated to business and creative development. The 1,500-square-foot commercial-grade kitchen where Ruth Rico served her arepas will serve as a kind of test space for people to try out products they can use to start and run their own businesses. Together, the facilities demonstrate what Pinkston calls "the art of the possible" — and what Camilo Garcia of the website Comunicarteusa.com describes as "un nuevo capítulo en la historia de los hispanos de Tennessee."

The center's most dramatic feature, however, is the one that visitors filed past in small groups as if attending a public viewing: a boldly colored mosaic, 12 feet high and 30 feet wide, laid out on the center's floor. Later this week, the piece (titled "Migration") will be anchored by tile installer Blake Hathcock to Casa Azafrán's facade, marking its status as "the gateway to Nashville's most internationally and socially diverse district."

Designed by Jairo Prado, a native Colombian who's lived in Nashville for almost 30 years, it represents the work of some 250 volunteers and contains more than 7,000 pieces. Because Soto didn't want a literal representation of "azafrán" — an Arabic-derived word for saffron, the flower that produces the world's most expensive spice, linking the neighborhood's Hispanic and Middle Eastern cultures — Prado created an abstract representation of the flower's three stigmas. The mosaic's entwining forms, Soto says, reinforce the idea that "we become something new in interaction, but in the process we do not lose what we are."

Now Soto must focus on raising the rest of the $700,000 left for the center's capital campaign, including meeting a $50,000 challenge grant from the Cal Turner Family Foundation by Dec. 31. (You can find instructions on how to give at conexionamericas.org.) But already Soto says Saturday's opening has spurred new donors. On Monday, Soto said she'd just heard from one surprise benefactor: Ruth Rico, hoping to pay back the contacts and compliments she and her business Delicias Colombiana attracted with her arepas.

"That was the best call I got today," Soto says.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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