HUMBOLDT PARK — When he’s not fielding questions from reporters and putting out 1st Ward newsletters, Ald. Daniel La Spata’s communications director Joshua Smyser-DeLeon is running the show — his own show, that is.
Since last August, Smyser-DeLeon, a self-described “Chicago-born Boricua,” has been putting Chicago’s — and more specifically Humboldt Park’s — Puerto Rican community in the spotlight with Paseo Podcast.
Smyser-DeLeon hit the pause button on podcast production when the coronavirus pandemic hit but has since relaunched the project with help from three volunteers. The podcast is growing in popularity, with hundreds of downloads each week.
“I’m just a Chicago-born Boricua and I love Puerto Rican culture and I want that love to come through in what we put out in the podcast,” Smyser-DeLeon said. “I know there are people in the Puerto Rican community who see the beauty in our community and I just want that to keep growing.”
Paseo Podcast is a celebration of Puerto Rican culture and a news source for those interested in what’s going on in Chicago’s Puerto Rican community, which is centered in Humboldt Park. Smyser-DeLeon’s guests range from Genesis, an 8-year-old “Boricua chef,” to State Sen. Iris Martinez, also of Puerto Rican descent. New episodes are released every Thursday.
“When I look at our Puerto Rican community, I don’t just see the festival, the cultural center, I don’t just see elected officials, I don’t just see Jennifer Lopez,” said Smyser-DeLeon, who became the alderman’s communications director back in March.
“I see a wide spectrum of people throughout the country that are doing things on a grand scale and on a small scale, but equally can give people a glimpse into the uniqueness into the Puerto Rican diaspora.”
Smyser-DeLeon came up with the idea for the podcast while working with Latinx students as DePaul University’s Latinx coordinator, long before he started working for the alderman. Initially, he wanted to partner with students, but he lacked the resources to get the project off the ground.
Later, after graduating from DePaul University with a master’s degree in public relations and advertising, Smyser-DeLeon charted his own path. He approached the Puerto Rican Cultural Center about a partnership and when the center’s leaders gave him the green light, he got to work.
“Our history, our Puerto Rican history, as part of the diaspora in the United States — [it’s] not really told in the classroom. If Puerto Rico is mentioned it’s mentioned from the standpoint of Puerto Rico being saved by the U.S. from Spain,” he said.
“I felt like our story was so much richer than that. Our community is much more diverse and vibrant than a few pages in a textbook and I started to challenge myself on how I could bring those stories to life.”
Before the pandemic hit, Smyser-DeLeon had a studio in the cultural center where guests could come in and talk face-to-face.
But now he works on the podcasts in the evenings out of his Hermosa home when he’s not managing communications for Ald. La Spata or working for the public relations firm Zeno Group.
Despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic, the podcast is taking off. Since relaunching Labor Day weekend — the same weekend as Chicago’s Puerto Rican Festival and Parade — Smyser-DeLeon and his team of volunteers have produced 14 episodes, each one gaining more listeners than the week before.
“To see where we started to where we’re at now, I’m incredibly proud of the work we’ve put in,” he said. “And I’m proud … to be one of the many amazing news sources for our community to really dial into.”
The success of the project is personal for Smyser-DeLeon, who is half Puerto Rican and half Spanish. His grandfather moved from the island to Chicago in 1952, settling in Humboldt Park in 1969. He went on to run a corner store at California and Wabansia avenues for decades.
Growing up in Humboldt Park, Smyser-DeLeon was never far from his aunts, uncles and cousins, who all lived within walking distance. He said that support system shaped who he is and gave him a reverence for Humboldt Park.
“That saying — ‘It takes a village to raise someone’ — I definitely had a village in my corner. I grew up with a ton of familial support,” he said.
Smyser-DeLeon said he learned a lot about his culture from his relatives around the dinner table and he hopes to pay it forward with the podcast. He said he’ll continue to make the podcast as long as people continue to listen to it and enjoy it.
“To see all of the love and support we’re getting — I never thought I’d be here,” he said.
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