Artistic creativity flows through each of Angela Puerta’s pursuits

Puerta shares her culture with others
Angela sits with her guitar
Photo by Timothy Hughes

To balance her life as an urban planner and a musician, Angela Puerta rises early almost every day. She says she gets to the gym by 5:30 a.m. on weekdays and arrives at work by 8 a.m. She puts in a full day with the city of Madison on neighborhood planning projects, then often meets with people after 5 p.m. on city projects or on work related to her music.

“It’s not like it’s too much,” she says of her commitment to being a singer, songwriter and guitarist. “It’s actually giving me energy.”

Puerta describes a rhythm in her life that emanates not only from art and music, but also from a desire to share her culture with others — especially with fellow Madisonians.

At a Glance
Name and title: Angela Puerta, urban planner for the city of Madison and a musician
Birthplace and hometown: Ibague, Colombia
Ethnicity and race: Self identifies as white Hispanic
Education: Bachelor’s degree in architecture from Universidad Piloto de Colombia in Bogota; master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Wisconsin–Madison
Came to Madison: In 2013 to attend UW–Madison
Family: Parents in Colombia and a brother in Los Angeles, in addition to “a family I created” in Madison

Tell me about the place where you grew up and how that influenced who you are today.
I grew up in Colombia in a tough environment. It was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Pablo Escobar was the head of his drug cartel and there was social conflict involving terrorist groups. It was dangerous and we couldn’t travel, even to nearby towns, because of kidnappings and rampant crime. My family was middle income, so we never suffered in terms of education. What impacted me the most was the environment on the streets — people looking for ways to survive. Those were the first memories I had. But I would say that our attitude as Colombians is mostly positive. No matter what kind of situation we face, we focus on what’s important and how we want life to be every day. I saw that we can achieve that by dancing and by creating music and popular Latin rhythms. We celebrate life in music. Growing up, I would say it was an artistic time, full of expression in dance and music, but at the same time it was very serious. It helped me grow as a person and it made me a fighter in this world. It made me see the world in a different way.

What led you to become a singer, songwriter and guitarist?
I started to learn to play the guitar from my mother when I was about 11 years old. She taught me some traditional Colombian songs. She is a singer who has a reputation as a musician in my hometown. She wrote her own music and performed in different bands. However, because of the economic situation in Colombia, I wasn’t encouraged to become a musician. It wasn’t until I was older that I became serious about my music.

Angela Puerta on a couch with her guitar

Photo by Timothy Hughes

How would you describe your music?
It’s hard to describe because of the different influences. When I started to take music more seriously, I was at the university in Bogota. I listened to Alanis Morrissette, Janis Joplin, AC/DC and even Metallica. I started to play rock music and I had a rock band. After I graduated, I moved to Australia in 2011 and lived there for nearly two years, and I learned English. But singing rock music with a Latin accent wasn’t really accepted by audiences. So I started to learn to play salsa and merengue. Later on, I incorporated some of those sounds with rock and exposed that kind of music to a wider audience. I would say my music is Latin rock. Right now, I have my own band and I want to show that I am versatile. I play some of my own original music and some of it is Colombian — very traditional music — with some rock and some salsa.

Tell me about the bands you are involved with and the work you’re doing with children.
I am working on three music projects. The Angela Puerta Band is a five-piece musical group that plays rock/pop, Latin rock, funk, boleros, reggae and other Latin American musical traditions. I also perform with Grupo Candela, a 13-piece Madison-based tropical band that offers a diverse repertoire of dance-oriented songs, including salsa, merengue, cumbia, bachata, bomba and plena. The band has been playing steadily since its inception in 2005. Angela Puerta y Amigos is a children’s band that incorporates Latin beats, Colombian folkloric music and other familiar songs in both English and Spanish.

How does your architectural background and city-planning work meld with your artistic passion?
I love architecture because it’s a practical way to express art. After I got my degree in architecture, I worked for the government in Bogota on a project that is similar to Habitat for Humanity. We went to low-income neighborhoods and helped people who were in need of housing. Whatever I do, I need to do something that helps people. Sure, what you are able to build is beautiful and nice, but most of the time you can’t do your own design. With urbanism, in many different ways, through policymakers and community engagement, you can create something that’s very diverse in the field. The reason why I became an urban planner is because it is multidisciplinary. You talk with a wide variety of professionals, especially those who work with vulnerable neighborhoods. I like community engagement and I like to express myself through design. It’s a meaningful way to try to transmit a message.

What is your view of Madison?
When I arrived in Madison, I disliked it a lot and it wasn’t because of the weather. I didn’t see diversity. I was attending the university and everyone was speaking a language I didn’t know. Very few people were speaking Spanish. I met a Puerto Rican classmate and she was my go-to person. She had a husband and a family, so it’s not like she could spend time helping me learn the culture, or help me with the technical components of the language related to my coursework. I was totally lost. Even though I went to the International Student Services office and other places on campus for help, I didn’t feel included. I went through depression during my first semester. I told my father, “I am going to leave … I am going to take my guitar and sing around the world.” He told me to just give it more time and keep working hard. In my second semester, I started to knock on doors and eventually got an internship with the city of Madison. There was a willingness to help. The problem with Madison is, you don’t see diversity right away. But if you look deeper, you can find it. I have to say, the city of Madison opened the door for me. Knowing that I was a Latina and a recent immigrant, and understanding the cultural differences I was facing, they saw potential in my design background and gave me an opportunity. Not only that, the city extended my internship for two years, after which I applied for and got my current position. This is an amazing city. What you have here is priceless.

Karen Lincoln Michel is president of Indian Country Today and a former publisher and executive editor of Madison Magazine.