Paraguayan Diana Albrecht joins the ranks of distinguished Latinos with ties to Boston
By: Elvis Jocol Lara
Boston is home to the best and brightest talent from across the country and world; this is no different for the Latino community. While the city is home to a sizable number of Latinos, it will never rival the major Latino hubs such as Los Angeles, Miami and New York in terms of population.
What truly sets the Boston Latino community apart, however, is the depth of its homegrown talent and that which hails from across the country and Latin America drawn to the city’s colleges, universities and world class institutions.
Familiar names like Juan Luis Guerra and Julian Castro – the former mayor of San Antonio and current Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration – came of age here and have had tremendous influence beyond Boston. One name you may be less familiar with, though, is that of Diana Albrecht.
Soft-spoken and self-described as “delicate,” Albrecht’s career trajectory has been anything but delicate. Her rise from relative obscurity in South America to second soloist at the prestigious Boston Ballet is all but from the pages of a Hollywood script – one that would likely be turned away for being too unrealistic (or for featuring a Latina heroine but that’s a topic for another day).
Albrecht arrived in Boston five years ago, fresh off a six-year stint with the Washington Ballet. Her story, however, began decades ago outside Asuncion, Paraguay. Influenced in large part by her older cousin, she began dancing at age 3 and eventually decided at age 11 she would pursue ballet full time.
“It kind of just happened,” said Albrecht during a recent phone interview of her decision to pursue ballet over other dance forms. “I would win one competition and then another. I earned scholarships and it was a progressive thing that kept going and never stopped.”
The scholarship offers that stemmed from her success were key to her development as a dancer. Paraguay, like most Latin American countries, isn’t known for producing world class ballerinas and the art form is not well supported locally. There were no community centers providing free dance instruction for low or middle income dancers like Diana.
Even with the scholarship offers, being able to afford her passion for dance proved difficult for her father, who worked as a farmer, and her mother, a teacher. In an effort to support her undeniable talent, her family banded together. “My brothers helped me a lot economically,” said Albrecht. “Ballet is a very expensive career. The shoes, costumes and tutus are very hard to afford. You need that kind of support to make it through.”
Albrecht’s talent flourished and eventually she outgrew her surroundings, landing a scholarship to a dance academy and a spot in a professional ballet company in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; a city with a greater tradition in Ballet. Deciding to go to Brazil wasn’t easy.
Rio is a massive city that is often unsafe for women. Diana was only 17 at the time and spoke no Portuguese. Undeterred and driven by her dreams of excellence, Albrecht enlisted the company of her mother, and together, they uprooted their lives and moved to Rio. As many Latinos in the US can relate, the transition was not easy.
“Even though the language is similar to Spanish it was different. I didn’t even know how to behave in a professional company. At times I was lost and felt a lot of pressure to do well. I didn’t want to fail.”
Countless hours of work, a lack of familiarity with the culture and an eventual illness to Albrecht’s mother made things increasingly difficult to the point where she thought of giving up.
“I was still a kid, but you grow up and mature a lot. You’re pushed to do well and you learn on your own to survive. I had to become an adult from one day to another. I had to cope with everything and just try to keep it together for my mother. She didn’t want me to stop and go back to Paraguay.”
Her uncommon will and determination is a product of what Albrecht sees as a shared trait, unique among Paraguayans.
“We are very tenacious and determined.” Albrecht said in a written statement to El Mundo. “Paraguay went through a horrible war – perhaps the most painful ever in Latin America – between 1865 and 1870, where we lost between 50% and 85% of our population. We fought with our heart against three countries and this warrior spirit is one of the things that Paraguayans will always have in them. Tenacity is something that I think I carry in my blood.”
Albrecht remained in Brazil under the care of her aunt who resided in the country. Eventually, her desire to pursue different artistic opportunities and challenges precipitated a departure from Brazil.
“After 2 years I decided I wanted to do more and come to the United States at least for a month. I wanted the experience and to see world class ballet. At the time I had only seen it on the internet.
“In the United States you have so many great choreographers and you have the opportunity to work with people who have worked in Europe. The opportunity to gain exposure is much greater than in South America.”
Without the financial resources or networks to make her way to the United States alone, Albrecht sent video audition tapes to dance academies across the country. To her amazement, she received a response from the America Grand Prix, one of the most prestigious youth competitions in the world.
The organizers were so impressed by her audition tapes that they invited her to participate in that year’s competition. There was only one problem: the competition was in two weeks in New York City. That gave relatively no time for Albrecht to secure a visa, rehearse the routines for the competition and learn enough English to serve her during her trip; her first ever to the United States.
But that Paraguayan Tenacity would not let her give in; she pulled everything together.
New York can be overwhelming even for Americans. For the soft spoken Paraguayan, it was a shock to the system even despite her time in Rio.
“I came and it was a very rough process. I had two weeks to prepare different choreographies. I missed so many rehearsals because I didn’t know what was going on. It was very overwhelming. I walked everywhere because I didn’t know how to take the metro.”
Adding to the difficulties, Diana would have to confront the most important competition of her life without the presence of her family who could not make the trip due to financial reasons. But while she lost the physical support that had been by her side her entire life, she gained the support of an entire country.
No Paraguayan ballerina had ever left the country to compete or perform in the United States, let alone at the America Grand Prix. Understandably, people began to talk about her upcoming competition and Paraguayan media outlets soon began picking up her story. Not long after arriving in the United States, Albrecht was conducting phone interviews with Paraguayan radio as she walked the streets of Manhattan on her way to rehearsals.
“It was overwhelming and it seemed like a dream,” Albrecht says with a laugh. “Everything happened so fast. I felt like a superstar even though I was so young. It gave me the motivation to keep going.”
Newspapers, television news and magazines began covering her story. After all, this was a local girl from humble beginnings who was now competing in the world’s premier youth competition. Albrecht was no longer dancing for herself: she was representing an entire country.
That motivation proved crucial as she faced stiff competition from the world’s best youth dancers who benefited from elite training from an early age.
“I thought it was impossible for me to win,” she confessed during our interview. “I would see people from Japan, America and Europe and I’d be in shock about how good they were. I didn’t watch their performances because I would be intimidated. I wanted to go on stage and focus on my dancing.”
Undeterred, and perhaps a bit emboldened by what she didn’t know, Albrecht shined.
When the instructors gave instructions in English, she had a hard time understanding and when the competition drew to a close she was overcome by nerves. Again, she struggled to fully comprehend what was being said until she heard her name: “Diana Albrecht.” It was at this point she knew she had been selected as one of the 12 finalists at the competition, securing a scholarship to a summer program and ultimately a trial and a spot at the Washington Ballet.
“I remember when I told my family over the phone, it was like fireworks! No one in my country had accomplished that. No one from Paraguay had ever gone to the United State to be a ballerina.”
Several years have passed since that euphoric day in New York. Her experience in Washington paved the way for an eventual try out in Boston, one of Albrecht’s childhood dreams.
“Growing up I knew of Boston Ballet because it was a very well-known company but I thought it was unreachable for me. I came here to audition because I wanted a different repertoire and to join a bigger company. A few weeks after my audition I heard back and was offered a role.”
She began her time in Boston a part of the corps de ballet, the ensemble of dancers who sustain and are the core of the show. Eventually, her undeniable talent showed through as it has throughout her career and she began receiving solo parts, becoming second soloist. The next step for her is now principal ballerina.
“I’m overwhelmed by the situation. I see that I can do more, and it pushes me to do more. But for me it is not about the rank, it’s about growing as an artist. It pushes me to new limits. Since I am the first Paraguayan to attain this, it’s a huge responsibility.”
It’s a responsibility that is not easily forgotten. Paraguayan media continues to follow her story and they check up on her every time she visits the country.
“I’m usually invited to shows and they ask me about my progress. People still remember the story from 10 years ago and the impact it’s had. They want to know more. It’s been inspiring for other dancers.”
That inspiration has had a direct impact on the development of ballet in the country. She now sees more young ballerinas where there were none in her time growing. Fundraisers are now common to raise funds for youth dancers. Even the America Grand Prix now hosts preliminary qualifiers for their yearly competition in the country, allowing other young Paraguayans to dream about reaching the heights Diana has.
“I don’t know if I made it more possible,” she says humbly, “but people have started to look into ballet as an option.”
She remains active in the world of ballet in Paraguay, leading youth programs during the summer when she visits family. Once her dancing career is over, a return to Paraguay is an intriguing option for her to help the art form continue to develop in her country.
In the meantime, she’s focused primarily on continuing to grow as an artist and expanding her horizons to include the business aspect of ballet. During her time off in Boston, Albrecht moonlights as a night student in management at Northeastern University in preparation for what might come when she finally hangs up her shoes. Never satisfied with success, she continues to work; it’s that Paraguayan grit at play.
“It’s important to know ballet as a business and not just artistically. At the end of the day it’s a business. You need to know what makes it work.”
Just as countless other Latinos, Albrecht’s world class talent has brought her to Boston where she proudly represents Latinos and Paraguay at one of the city’s most influential institutions. Unfortunately for her, she’s yet to see much of the city itself.
“For 5 years I’ve been working non-stop. I don’t have much free time and I haven’t gotten to know the city. We work 8 hours a day and then I’m off to school. But the city is so energizing because of all that is going on, the universities the young people and the art we’re surrounded by. It’s an exciting city to be in.”
Albrecht is now an essential part of the young generation of influential Latinos making a mark on the city like never before. Boston may not have the largest Latino community, but as long as it has outstanding talent like Diana Albrecht to proudly represent it and blaze trails in unfamiliar territory, Latinos in Boston will continue to have influence that goes beyond the city and state.
Elvis Jocol Lara is Director of Digital Media at El Mundo, Founder and President of Casa Guatemala and an experienced Marketing professional who has worked with some of the world’s leading brands. A child of Guatemalan immigrants, he was born in Boston and raised in Waltham, MA. Follow him on Twitter @ElChapin.