Doctor trades in a career in health care for a love of Latino arts

Carmen Febo San Miguel prepares to cut the ribbon at the opening of El Corazon Cultural Center at Taller Puertorriqueno at 2600 N. 5th St. in North Philadelphia.

It's not often that a physician leaves medicine for the arts, but that's exactly what Carmen Febo San Miguel is enjoying in her retirement from health care.

Febo, 68, was born in Ciales, Puerto Rico, and attended the University of Puerto Rico, earning a degree magna cum laude as an undergraduate and subsequently finishing medical school there, as well, in 1973. She moved to Philadelphia for her residency at Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital on North Broad Street and ultimately made Philadelphia her home.

"Growing up, my Christmas presents always included a doctor's kit. I knew I wanted to be in medicine from when I was very young," she recalls.

As a second-year resident, Febo began her medical practice at a family-medicine clinic, Spring Garden Health Center, and "in those days it was a significantly Puerto Rican population."

She was already firmly planted, working as a doctor to the Latino community here, when in 1985 Febo volunteered to serve as board chair for Taller (pronounced Tie-yare) Puertorriqueño. Based in Lower Northeast Philadelphia, Taller was a fledgling nonprofit organization promoting art as a vehicle for social change.

Febo describes Taller’s goals as a "mission of education and dissemination about the rich cultural heritage of Puerto Rico, Latino, and related cultural groups, including African Americans."

After serving for 14 years as Taller’s board chair, Febo became executive director in 1999. All the while, she continued to practice family medicine, cutting back to three, then two days a week.

Finally, in June 2012, she stopped practicing medicine altogether. She'd beaten a second bout of breast cancer, and that prompted her to take stock.

"Personally and health-wise, it was time. Arts and culture have always been very dear to me. And although I love being a physician, the doctor relationship is very one-to-one. In public health, you're able to impact a broader community," she said.

Her family was supportive, including her mother, who had moved temporarily to Philadelphia to take care of Febo during her chemotherapy treatments.  

"But she knew my goal was really to see the new Taller center come to life," Febo recalls.

The Latino population in Philadelphia has surged, with 12 percent of people in the metropolitan area classifying themselves as Hispanic in census figures, she notes. Under Febo's leadership, Taller Puertorriqueño has also grown, completing and moving into a new state-of-the-art center in the heart of North Philadelphia’s Latino community at a cost of $11.5 million. Taller serves about 20,000 people annually, she estimates.

During her tenure, Febo developed new collaborations to exhibit Taller’s Latin American and African American art collections off-site; created the Visítenos arts-outreach program; expanded artist residencies into the Philadelphia School District and nearby charter schools; and coordinated the annual arts festival, Feria del Barrio, now in its 32nd year.

Taller has also garnered national recognition, snagging grants from the Andy Warhol Foundation, the Knight Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and others.

In addition to running Taller, Febo is a well-known face in the nonprofit community, serving as a board member of Congreso de Latinos Unidos, the Philadelphia Aids Consortium, and Centro Guayacán.  She also served for nine years as a member of the board of managers of the Philadelphia Foundation; the last two years of her term were as chair. 

Today, Taller Puertorriqueño is at 2600 N. Fifth St., in one of the city’s largest and poorest Puerto Rican/Latino neighborhoods. In December, it moved to its new building, the El Corazón Cultural Center, designed as a multifunctional space around one central indoor patio to support a multitude of activities.

Occupying half of the city block, the one-story structure is subdivided into several scaled volumes. As a result, the El Corazón Center fits into the urban fabric while embracing the neighborhood scale, with multicolored panels on the façade that evoke the colorful palette of many of the community's Puerto Rican households. 

The new center includes performance space that can accommodate more than 250 people and can be subdivided into drama, dance, and tutoring classrooms; an art gallery to showcase the work of local and national artists; a bilingual book and gift shop; and multiple classrooms that will allow for the expansion of art and information-technology programs and after-school activities. Two commercial-grade kitchens support a meal service for after-school programs  and summer camps, and allow for a gourmet café serving Puerto Rican cuisine to the community.

“By identifying Taller’s needs and realistic strategies for the development and operations of the center early in the planning process, we were able to deliver a center that serves the community, Taller, other local businesses, and the city as a whole," said Vera Kiselev, senior associate and project manager with architecture firm WRT, which designed the center.

Febo wants non-Latinos to visit the center, as well.

"I hope other people start paying attention to this community," she says. "Maybe the new center puts the community on the map and overcomes the incredible negativity we've suffered. 

"... I want to attract the general population in learning and experiencing Latino arts - the gallery, the artistic presentations are for the public, and citywide," Febo said.