image of group of people dancing
Abraham Zorrilla is in his element at a gathering of friends dancing to salsa music. | Photo courtesy of Abraham Zorilla

 

Abraham Zorrilla loves Cuban salsa dancing. He doesn’t read music, but somehow, he said he knows what to do and how to go along with the music count. When he listens to a song, he instinctively knows what’s coming.

He also loves his job as a community planner for the Planning & Development department. For him, the two passions are not mutually exclusive. In fact, Zorrilla believes his love for dancing makes him a better planner. It helps him interact in a better way with the public because everything he does within this division is community-based, he said. 

“Even though we have the same passion, we have different cultures. But we learn to interact with one another when we dance,” he said. “All the planning we do here is with community input and with different knowledge and culture of the neighborhood.”

And it’s about building trust. “Meeting with people based on who they are means we can arrange things,” he said. “If I understand the culture, it’s easy to interact with the community.”

Zorrilla said he learned his passion for dancing from his mother, who he described as a great dancer. When he moved to the U.S. from Peru in October 1999, dancing was one of the first things he did to meet people and make friends. 

He joined the Peruvian Association of Houston and began performing with the group at Miller Outdoor Theater at Hermann Park. It was his first time ever performing in front of a large audience.

“I never performed in front of so many people. In Peru, I did some school activities, but nothing of that nature. I was nervous, but one thing I learned from it was being on a big stage, you don’t see people’s faces because there’s so much light on you, so I just tried to enjoy it,” Zorrilla said.

Zorrilla also attended college at the University of Houston-Downtown, earning a bachelor’s degree in international business and working with financial groups and banks. On a visit back to Peru in 2010, he said he noticed the country was doing well, but the economic growth did not reflect on the cities.

“I thought, ‘What can I do to be part of that improvement?’  That’s how I learned about city planning,” he said.

original B2F6B795 D56B 46AB 9FE6 10720319EDA8Texas Southern University was the only school in Houston that offered a city planning master’s degree program. While Texas A&M University in College Station also offered a master’s degree in city planning, Zorrilla chose to stay home.

“I’m a city guy, so I decided I would rather stay in Houston,” he said. “I’m very proud of being a TSU alumnus. Studying there in a city with no zoning taught me things that zoning did to minorities, the history behind zoning and how diverse we are because we don’t have zoning. Learning there gave me a better understanding of how urbanism can improve the quality of life for people.”

Zorrilla attended his first American Planning Association conference as a graduate student and said he was able to discover how segregated some communities were in other cities, but not so much in Houston.

“We do have areas that are based more on one race, but I also see the mix of races in those areas also. There’s an organic component to Houston where everything changes based on the nature of itself,” he said. “And that organic component is provided to us because we don’t have zoning.”

East downtown is a good example of how things have changed, Zorrilla said. “As an urban planner, you want to create spaces where people can live and walk to places.”

 Zorrilla is also an advocate of the new urbanism concept, which seeks to create a place where people can work, play and work within a five-minute radius and have connections between other neighborhoods.  He believes Houston’s size with no zoning can help minorities do better.

“That’s why we have such a diverse city. We still have regulations and rules that need to be followed. It’s not like you can do whatever you want to because you still must meet some criteria to make sure that you meet the well-being of the neighborhood,” he said.

Zorrilla said there are neighborhoods that need to be protected, but there are also neighborhoods that can change organically in a way that is beneficial for a community. By not having zoning, it’s a benefit that Houston has, he added.

 “And a lot of cities are looking at that because you see these types of developments that they cannot have,” Zorrilla said. 

For planners who like to interact with people, Zorrilla said the key to being successful is taking the opportunity to interact with people from other cultures. 

“Salsa gave me cultural awareness before I was a planner,” he said. “Find your passion, and what you learn from that you can bring into community planning.”