Over the past 40 years, Carlota Santana has been lauded as “The Keeper of Flamenco,” was honored by the government of Spain for her “passion, excellence and dedication to the flamenco art,” and, at the age of 82, continues to bring flamenco dance to stages across the globe.
Flamenco, at its core, is “an aggregation of influences from a number of peoples and cultures, most of which had experienced hardship, discrimination, and displacement,” Santana, who is white, said in a 2020 interview.
“A lot of the songs in flamenco came from minority communities,” she explained. “The songs were about what they felt and how they responded to the discrimination.”
Since co-founding venerable New York dance company Flamenco Vivo in 1983, Santana—an Upstate New York native also known as Caroleah Kotch—has introduced flamenco to thousands of inner-city children, “pioneer[ing] bilingual education initiatives targeted to immigrant populations,” according to her official bio.
“Born from marginalized communities, flamenco’s history explores themes of immigrant life, oppression, pride, and injustice,” Flamenco Vivo’s “Comunidad” page explains.
But even as Santana champions an art form comprised of Romani, African, Sephardic, and Andalusian traditions, she routinely abuses and discriminates against people of color who work for her, according to lawsuits filed by three former employees.
In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, Flamenco Vivo’s former program manager for arts education, Elizabeth McWilliams Hernandez, who is Hispanic, claims Santana not only promoted younger, less qualified white employees over more experienced employees of color, and paid higher wages and overtime to white employees but not non-white ones, she “insist[ed] that Flamenco Vivo’s curriculum for public school students regarding flamenco’s history needed to talk about the ‘good intentions’ of Spain’s White colonizers and the ‘benefits’ of colonization to the indigenous Latin American and Caribbean people.”
“Furthermore… Carlota Santana stated that [McWilliams Hernandez] had included too many photos of Gitano/Roma artists in the lessons, even though the Roma people have been instrumental in the creation and preservation of the flamenco art form,” states the lawsuit, filed by McWilliams Hernandez’s attorneys, Peter Hans Cooper and Theresa Barbadoro.
A pair of companion lawsuits Cooper and Barbadoro filed in federal court on behalf of two other former Flamenco Vivo employees contain similarly striking charges. In one, the organization’s former marketing coordinator, Tariro Chinyanganya, who is Black, says Santana, upset over staffers’ criticism for “using white artists from Spain only,” allegedly replied with a note, reading, “[T]here are to my knowledge no black artists of the caliber needed… am [I] expected to use less professional artists just to fill the diversity issue?”
In the other suit, Flamenco Vivo’s artist development manager, Leslie Geraldes, who is of Hispanic and Native American descent and remains on the organization’s payroll, says that employees of color “who disagreed with or questioned Defendant Carlota Santana’s decisions… would be labeled as ‘difficult’ and subsequently suffer retaliation such as being cut out of conversations related to key decisions for their role, not being provided with information necessary to complete assignments, and the removal or threatened removal of funding for events they are organizing,” the suit states.
“The organization has a history of discriminatory and illegal pay practices involving people of color,” Cooper told The Daily Beast. “Change is long overdue and we are highly confident in our clients’ cases.”
Cooper and Barbadoro declined to make McWilliams Hernandez, Chinyanganya, and Geraldes available for on-the-record interviews, citing active litigation. Santana and her attorneys did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.
McWilliams Hernandez, a flamenco dancer and teacher who goes by Isabel del Día professionally, was hired by Flamenco Vivo in October 2018, for $40,000 a year. She quickly found herself working 50 to 60 hour weeks, rather than the 35 to 40 hour weeks she thought she had signed on for, according to her lawsuit.
There were other unexpected surprises, McWilliams Hernandez says. It soon became clear that Santana and her inner circle “collectively created an environment that censored employees of color within the organization,” the lawsuit states. “In front of the administrative staff, which consisted almost entirely of employees of color like [McWilliams Hernandez]… Carlota Santana would make racist comments and take discriminatory actions.”
Less than a year into the job, McWilliams Hernandez clashed with Santana over her attempt to make Flamenco Vivo’s public school curriculum “more inclusive and to accurately reflect the contributions of the diaspora of Black and Brown people to the art form,” the suit says. She was “continuously criticized” for her efforts, which Santana saw as insufficiently forgiving to white colonial-era Spaniards, who, she argued, brought assorted “benefits” to the lands they conquered, according to the suit.
“[McWilliams Hernandez], whose family members continue to suffer the detrimental effects of such colonization, objected strongly to… Carlota Santana’s characterization of colonization, as she found it degrading and discriminatory,” it says.
McWilliams Hernandez “was forced to endure multiple uncomfortable conversations with… Carlota Santana regarding the impacts of racial discrimination and colonization during which… Santana refused to relent and continued to target [McWilliams Hernandez] with unwarranted criticism,” the suit continues. An appeal to Flamenco Vivo’s executive director, Hanaah Frechette Bates, about the situation went nowhere, according to McWilliams Hernandez.
The following year, Santana became angry after McWilliams Hernandez shared a new lesson plan with Flamenco Vivo teaching artists that centered on the “power of flamenco to uplift communities,” the lawsuit states. In response, Santana sent an email to all of the recipients, but not McWilliams Hernandez, “condemning [McWilliams Hernandez’s] use of the word ‘power’ and setting forth why it should not be used,” according to the lawsuit. Again, McWilliams Hernandez complained to Frechette Bates, who, the suit alleges, did nothing.
“The word ‘power’ is used in almost everything the company does—on our website, on our instagram page, in Arts Ed materials, just about everywhere,” McWilliams Hernandez emailed Frechette Bates. “It seems that it’s only when I use the word that it becomes a problem…. I know that we’ve talked about all of this and more at length, but I just feel so drained emotionally. It’s affecting my mental wellbeing.”
White employees, according to the lawsuit, “received no such supervision or censorship over their word choices.”
There was a “clear pattern” of discrimination emerging, the lawsuit says, and McWilliams Hernandez made sure Frechette Bates and Flamenco Vivo’s HR director both knew that she had witnessed “every single person of color who has worked in the office cry numerous times out of anger, frustration and exhaustion” over Santana’s “discriminatory treatment.”
In response to the claims, an outside firm was hired to conduct an employee survey, in which, according to the lawsuit, “the words ‘racist’ and ‘bullying’ were two of the top themes used to describe the organization.”
Santana aside, McWilliams Hernandez was frequently complimented on her work by higher-ups, the lawsuit states. In June 2022, she asked for a promotion, emphasizing that she had tripled the Arts Education Department’s revenue, and that she deserved a raise and a director title. According to McWilliams Hernandez’s lawsuit, Frechette Bates agreed that she “should have a director title, but that she ‘could not get Carlota to agree.’”
“In contrast, White employees, such as Defendant Hanaah Frechette Bates herself, were given higher-paid positions and rapidly advanced within the organization despite limited prior experience,” the suit states. “Defendant Carlota Santana made the decision to promote Defendant Hannah Frechette Bates nearly every three (3) years, even creating new positions for her to be able to advance. Defendant Hanaah Frechettte Bates went from being a college intern to being the Company Manager, then the Managing Director and ultimately the Executive Director, all within six (6) years.”
The alleged discrimination “is even more clearly evident in the discrepancies in pay rates,” McWilliams Hernandez says in her suit, claiming a white administrative employee with “significantly less experience” than McWilliams Hernandez was hired at a higher salary than hers, for a position requiring less work and less responsibility.
Frechette Bates did not respond to a request for comment.
In May 2023, after “years of fighting against the discrimination and toxic work environment” at Flamenco Vivo, McWilliams Hernandez was, as she states in her lawsuit, finally “pushed out.” She says in the filing that she had “no choice but to leave” in the face of constant discrimination and bullying, “a tactic that the organization also used to constructively terminate Ms. Chinyanganya and continues to use against Ms. Geraldes, who remains employed with the [Flamenco Vivo].”
In McWilliams Hernandez’s exit interview with Frechette Bates and Flamenco Vivo’s HR director, who is not named as a defendant in any of the three lawsuits, she took the pair to task for their alleged inaction, according to her suit. She told them, it says, that they “‘have done nothing, have taken zero action to fight against the racism in this company,’ and that by choosing to do nothing, they ‘continue to support racism.’”
Mediation efforts have twice failed thus far in Geraldes and Chinyanganya’s cases, according to court filings. Santana, Frechette Bates, and Flamenco Vivo have not yet filed a response in court to McWilliams Hernandez’s lawsuit.