FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. (Oct. 1, 2015) -- The value of cross-cultural engagement was the topic of the hour, as community members met to take part in the Maneuver Support Center of Excellence and Fort Leonard Wood Hispanic American Heritage Month Observance Tuesday at Pershing Community Center.

The MSCoE Noncommissioned Officers Academy sponsored the event that featured Jaime Torres, a retired Air Force officer, who is currently the chairman of the Hispanic Leaders Group of Greater St. Louis and president of the Midwest Association for Latin American Studies, along with Cecilia Nadal, founder of St. Louis-based Gitana Productions.

Nadal's organization is an arts and education group that engages cultures through music, dance and drama in the St. Louis area.

Command Sgt. Maj. Alma Zeladaparedes, NCOA commandant, welcomed the St. Louis community leaders to the event, noting how the two had used cross-cultural engagement through the arts to bring people together.

"Dance, song and drama -- everything that makes us smile or makes us feel good about ourselves -- they used that," Zeladaparedes said. "They used the human potential that doesn't cost money. The human potential that is in your heart and in your mind; and then they said, 'come follow me, let's play song, let's dance … They took all that stuff and led a community," she said.

Torres introduced the pair's presentation, which was presented in dialogue fashion. The Puerto Rican native talked about his time in the military and about his experiences in the Air Force -- including how others presumed he understood all Hispanic culture, because of his last name. He said when Nadal went to the St. Louis area, she also had to deal with others making presumptions about her.

"When we came to St. Louis in 1983, I met this lady," said Torres, speaking about Nadal.

"When you know Cecilia, you realize) she actually is Puerto Rican," Torres said. "I did not know."

Torres said coming to the Midwest, Nadal dealt with many people presuming she was black. He said this type of racial classification was not a concept he was used to in Puerto Rico.

"When I came to the U.S. Air Force, I learned the deal -- we are now black," he said.

Nadal, whose father was a 30-year service member, had travelled to 12 different countries throughout her childhood so she considered herself a gypsy -- especially when she faced segregation in college.

"(I) came to St. Louis to (attend) St. Louis University where I got a scholarship, and there were Hispanic people on one end, black people on the other and white people over here." Being Puerto Rican, but raised in multiple cultures, Nadal said she did not know where she fit in.

"I am wanting to go to all three (groups), but it is difficult to navigate when people are separated in that way. So, I either had the choice to accept that or to be a gypsy. Since gypsy has been a preoccupation for me for many years, I decided that was the approach I would use, to take the initiative and travel from table-to-table and meet the people who were there," Nadal said.

"It became clear to me, that if I wanted truly to get the richness that comes from knowing people on a one-to-one basis, I would have to ignore the barriers myself -- that was my responsibility," she said.

Torres and Nadal spoke about how they had worked to bring cultures together in St. Louis and talked about an event to bring African Americans and Hispanics together. They sponsored a musical festival, preceded by a salsa tasting contest and a Salsa dancing class.

"It was fabulously successful. I sat on the side and watched old black women dancing Salsa and young Latina women dancing salsa. They (also) tasted salsa together," Nadal said. " All of a sudden, we learned there were some interesting similarities between African Americans and Latinos."

Nadal said unity does not come from who is in the room, but how the people communicate.

"What is strong and powerful is cross-cultural engagement and involvement," she said.

"Energy comes from innovation. Innovation comes from having diverse people come together," Nadal said. "Business schools are just figuring this out … when you bring different people from different cultures, both in terms of ethnic cultures, as well as career backgrounds, together you are going to get fabulous results."

Aside from Torres and Nadal's presentation, audience members had the opportunity to listen to Argentinian music provided from "Los Amancay," and Soleil Montejano presented Mexican dances.