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Faces of the Latinx community

The flavors, sounds and culture of Latin America are alive and well in the Lowcountry. Meet three locals whose South American roots helped them bloom here.

Story by Barry Kaufman + Photography by Lisa Staff

America, it has been said countless times, is a country of immigrants. And the truth of that sentiment is self-evident. 

In fact, we are not just a nation comprised of immigrants but one that is defined by its immigrants. Celebrating the Fourth of July with hamburgers and hot dogs? Thank the Germans who brought their penchant for meaty treats with them. Googling something or watching a video on YouTube? Both were founded by immigrants. And let’s not forget that famous lady in New York harbor, who found her way here via France. 

The point being, the American chorus is made of many voices. And perhaps no group has had a bigger impact in recent decades than the Latinx community. And perhaps no community has been more misunderstood. Not simply a monolithic catch-all, it is a community of countless cultures and traditions. Each is worth exploring, but for now, meet three Latinx immigrants who are adding their own spin on the American experience.

Martin “DJ Mar” Miranda

This Uruguay native is one of the Lowcountry’s most popular DJs.

Martin “DJ Mar” Miranda plays the best Latin music, EDM, hip hop, reggae and Top 40 music for private parties and music venues. He moved to the area at age 14 from Uruguay.

If you’ve been to Latin Night at Poseidon Rooftop Bar, you don’t need to be told what an exhilarating experience it is. For the uninitiated, picture a constantly pumping blend of beats and songs that transcends borders, gleefully mixing together the distinctive rhythms of reggaeton and Latin pop into classic hits of the ’90s and 2000s. Now picture that music electrifying a crowd that cuts across all racial divides, and at its center you’ll find DJ Mar.

“That is what we want to do. We want to bring people together. White, Black, Asian, everybody…” said DJ Mar, or Martin Miranda as he’s known off the dance floor. “I just want to bring everyone together for one night.”

His path to the DJ booth begins in his native Uruguay, where he grew up surrounded by the rhythm and culture of his Paysandú neighborhood. Already entranced by music, Miranda’s first gigs came courtesy of an old school boom box on loan from his dad. “He had the one with the double cassette, and I used to do my little radio show I’d record… then take the speakers out and play them for my neighbors,” he said. “I never thought at the time I’d be a DJ — I’ve just always been around music. My mom took me to learn to play the drums, but we couldn’t afford it.”

He was 14 when his family chased their American dream, and Martin found himself in a strange land without a word of English in his vocabulary. “When you’re a little kid and when you’re in school, you dream about other countries. But you think Disneyland. I never thought I’d end up in the Lowcountry,” he said. But as he learned, he found himself more at home. 

“This country gives you the opportunity to do what you want. You just have to take the right opportunities,” he said.

Those opportunities led him to take the DJing which he’d developed as a hobby onto the big stage, taking gigs at 51 Degrees, 201 Tapas and Hilton Head Brewing Co. before partnering with Poseidon for his monthly Latin night. 

“It’s the best feeling ever. You play a new song, everyone’s screaming,” he said. “I work a full-time job, and every time I get to play music, it’s my release.”

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Carlos Chacon

This native of Costa Rica never outgrew his passion for the outdoors.

Carlos Chacon is the Manager of Natural History for the Coastal Discovery Museum. He also leads several small groups on trips to Costa Rica each year.

Carlos Chacon grew up chasing butterflies around the verdant hills and valleys just outside of San Jose, Costa Rica. Years later, he’s still chasing butterflies. It’s just that now he does it professionally, as Manager of Natural History for the Coastal Discovery Museum. 

“I spent my childhood exploring the coffee fields, where there were coral snakes and owls and butterflies and turtles… It was a great place for a kid who was interested in nature,” he said. “I think a lot kids are, I just never grew out of it.”

Part of a tight-knit family that still maintains a compound in Costa Rica for an array of cousins, aunts, uncles and grands, Chacon’s passion for the outdoors led him to pursue a job as a naturalist. Taking small groups out into the field to experience the vast biodiversity of native country proved to be an enduring calling – he still leads them decades after uprooting and coming to America. 

“Before I came here, I was doing nature trips all around Costa Rica. After I came here, I continued to do them once a year, combined with working full-time at the museum,” he said. “A few years ago I went part-time at the museum in order to do more trips, and now I’m doing 5-7 trips per year.”

These trips not only let Chacon reconnect with the flora and fauna that defined his upbringing, it lets him share his culture with his wife, Carol Weir, and their sons. 

“We usually go as a family once a year and stay there for 2-3 weeks. My sons grew up here, but they have strong connections to Costa Rica; they know all their cousins there and speak Spanish,” he said. 

It was Wier who first floated the idea of a move to her native U.S. after the couple had been dating for several years, although Chacon had already been considering emigrating. “I’d just finished college, and she wanted to move back. I was trying to get a chance to get my master’s here, so the two things kind of lined up,” he said. He would finish his master’s degree in environmental resources management at USC, and after having a couple of children and buying a house, Chacon realized this was home now.

“I love it here. The nature here is really nice. It’s not the tropics, but it’s close enough,” he said. “And I was able to combine living here with the trips. There’s always a little stress running a trip, but the places we stay are beautiful.”

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Priscila Ortiz

Salsa dancing keeps this Argentina native connected to her culture.

Priscila Ortiz is an avid salsa dancer, traveling to events around the country. She also owns Hair Loft on Dunnagan’s Alley.

Ask anyone who has ever moved to a foreign country, and they’ll tell you that getting over the language barrier is the hardest part. For Priscila Ortiz, the language was just part of it.

“My mom spoke English, but I would never answer because I was embarrassed,” said Ortiz. “She would always say, ‘You should speak back, because if we move, you won’t be able to speak the language. I would say ‘We’re not moving.’ And then we moved.”

So 14-year-old Priscila Ortiz found herself leaving her native Argentina for a new country where she didn’t speak the language. And that was on top of the complex stresses of teenage years. “Oh yeah, it was awful,” she said with a laugh. “I didn’t think we were going to stay at first. My mom was from here, so we visited a lot. I just thought we were coming here on vacation.”

Her English would eventually improve to the point of true hyper fluency – in fact, today you’d be hard-pressed to find so much as a hint of an accent. But by then, she would discover a far more universal way to communicate. 

“What I love about dance is it keeps us connected,” she said. “Everyone is so disconnected in this world… it’s so nice to meet someone and communicate. It’s a language you can share with anybody.”

Her passion for salsa dancing is a language all its own, spoken in precisely choreographed sways, twirls and flourishes. It’s also a fearless declaration of her pride for where she came from. “Growing up we danced a lot. It’s in the culture,” she said. 

Beginning her journey at Fred Astaire Dance Studio, Ortiz enlisted a ballroom dancer friend to lead her in as much as two hours a day in lessons. “I realized there was a whole other world of it,” she said. “It was technique. It was learning everything to a T… I still do lessons to continue to grow.”

And when she’s not helping her clients look fabulous at her own business, Hair Loft on Dunnagan’s Alley, you’ll find her following that passion for dance around the country, at congresses put on by fellow devotees to the rhythm of salsa. 

“It’s a different culture. The last one I went to in Orlando, I’d say even just one class had 200 people in it,” she said. “There had to be more than 800 people there. And you see people of every age. Younger, older… you get everything.”

And with every perfectly executed dance move, Ortiz finds a deeper connection to her home country. “Knowing it and growing up in that culture, it just takes you back. My dance partner is always saying, ‘I wish I knew what they were saying.’ … I guess it does make a difference when you know the language.”

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