Cultural Equity Dialogues: Artistic Marginalization

ACTA - Posted on 07 September 2010

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Cultural Equity DialoguesEditor’s Note: Artistic Marginalization is the fifth article in ACTA’s Cultural Equity Dialogues.  Based on ACTA's community forum, Building Cultural Equity Through the Traditional Arts, held in Los Angeles in February 2010, the Cultural Equity Dialogues are a series of online, interactive articles exploring topics relating to cultural equity and folk & traditional arts.  You are invited to join this conversation by posting your own comments and stories below.

Jerry Yoshitomi, Meaning Matters LLC
Fighting the overwhelming perception that only mainstream, dominant narratives are valid, and/or that traditional artistic expression is old, outmoded, and irrelevant to contemporary issues and taste, how do we position/promote the public value of our work more effectively?

Hugo Morales, Executive Director, Radio Bilingüe
Well, you start by taking over the airwaves. I'm serious. I think we really do need to look at what popular channels or accessible channels there are in our communities in order to have more of a democratic way of sharing and reinforcing these traditions. And that's what a lot of us are doing with community radio. And it's been, obviously, a mixed history of success. Unfortunately, I think there's so much economic pressure in this society to mainstream that, in both urban and rural settings, some of these channels that began as channels for that expression, for that sharing, have given way to more economically viable, mainstream-supported channels. I'm talking about National Public Radio, for example.

Technology is changing. And even though that is a handicap for many of our people, at the same time it's an opportunity for many of our people. I'm involved in a project here in Los Angeles, developing an entire new format for public media that is ethnically based. And one of the things we've found among the English-speaking ethnic communities of Latinos, Asians, and African Americans, in the demog between twenty-five and forty, is that 95% have access and do use broadband. So that is an opportunity. It's a real opportunity. Though before I began this project I didn't know that that was the case, for example.

So those are the opportunities I think we need to grasp. I think there are no models to do this that have proven economically viable, so we have to experiment—which is what folk communities do all the time. So we just have to find our way to do that and not lose sight of the importance of authenticity and the importance of gaining control of these channels.

Joel Jacinto, Executive Director, Search to Involve Pilipino Americans
I think, along with Hugo, we need to take control of the airwaves or create space for ourselves. You're here in an organization where we started as a grassroots organization serving youth and families. And the drive to be able to say, we need a place for us to do our things became very, very important to us. So as an organization we embarked on a capital campaign to build this as a center for the arts, a center for collaboration to happen. And I think if you look at SIPA's history throughout the years, it has been that of carving out space for ourselves and running multiple narratives. So that, at the same time we could perform Filipino folk dance at Grand Performances, we have places in our community where we can have our own narratives, where we can tell our own stories.

Later, I'll really highlight the significance of the Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture being a community initiative. It was started out with the city, but being owned and internalized by a community that gave birth to it and nurtured it. So the work we are doing on the festival manifests that our narratives can't be solely insular. We have to be able to present on the main stage, as we are worthy of that. And to still have places where this is ours. And whether you like it or not, this is us.

Dr. Anna Scott, Department of Dance, UC Riverside
I like the idea of running multiple narratives and leveraging these new opportunities that are coming about. I'm kind of a cyborg, which is why I like the cyber. I like figuring out ways to generate not necessarily audience, but generate users and makers. And I think that that is the shift into letting go of these tropes of marginalization, of the idea that there's a center and an exterior. When really there are pockets that transform. This pocket might have fifteen people, this pocket have thirty, this pocket might have forty-five. The next day, there might be ten pockets, each of two or whatever. And then it comes out and then there's one pocket—all those people have come together the next day. It's shifted again into another eight different types of pockets, and they're following different narratives or they're following different issues that are important to them. Or they've all realized that there’s this one particular thing they'd like to shift, but they want to shift it all different ways. But it doesn't matter, they just want to shift it, so they all end up working together.

And I think that's a wonderful way to let go of the idea of the center and the edge. Because sometimes that cutting edge, or being marginalized, it hurts. But actually it's pushed out because it's so integral to what's happening.

And the process that we abide by for whatever reason, in terms of what we allow money to do to us, as opposed to what we do with it, that really impacts the idea of these things that are really integral to human-ness, ending up on the exterior, as opposed to being the way that we actually communicate. Leveraging Web 2.0, broadband, all those different things are a great way, I think. Or at least we need to figure out how to leverage it without losing a base, an idea from, this is my root, or this is how I flow all the time. This is a great way to put the person back in. And I know that seems kind counter-intuitive because you're talking about going into ones and zeros, and you don't who's on the other end of the computer. You have to partner with people you don't know, if you're actually partnering with them, because you can't see them. There are all of these issues. But it allows you to be many, many things and one thing all at the same time.

Cindi Alvitre (Tongva), PhD Candidate, UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures
I'm interpreting and defining artistic marginalization as when particular communities are neglected and underserved. This happens perhaps when institutions and funding agencies begin to generalize a particular cultural group, such as Native Americans. I'm Tongva. My ancestors are in this land, right here, for 10,000 years—Orange County, all of L.A., and the four Southern Channel Islands. And yet, as you look at the vertical space, the dimensional space of who really is here and how people are being deemed as authentic? The cultures being deemed as authentic and judged as being so? It becomes problematic. I absolutely go along with communities, things growing from a grassroots level, from Mother Earth. It has to come from here.

Technology is airspace that's another form of communication, another form of energy. And I will give you an example of what we've done, because absolutely in our community as Tongva people there are diasporas of people from other countries, but there's a Native American diaspora too. L.A. has the largest Native American population in the United States. And of that 1% of Indian people, we are less than 1%. So we become subsumed by the Lakota presence or all these other federally recognized tribes. It's our responsibility as humans—as human beings-in-training, as I like to call myself—to engage with the other communities, from the grassroots level. If you want to deal with marginalization, then you have to become action-orientated.

And I will use the Farmlab as an example, working with Lauren Bon. This is the space of Yangna, which was one of our village sites that was here for thousands of years, and when the missionaries came and . . . that's another story. The village continued while people were being converted. But as time went on, the village started to be closer and closer to what was the Pueblo de Los Angeles. And ultimately, the City votes to burn down the village because of the vermin, the stench, the ugliness of these traditional people. That site is here in this area, where the Farmlab is. And it was only through collaboration, a genuine collaboration, and conversations with Lauren Bon and other people that we've been able to re-initiate our ceremonies, including all the people in what I will call the legacy of refugeeism in northern Los Angeles. With the Chinese community, with the Japanese community, the Black community, the Mexican community.

So that land is the essence, it's a place of gathering. It's the land and how we act as communities. The land is being renegotiated to allow for education, to become cultural space, to become artistic space, healing space. So that's grassroots—bring it together as people, as communities. Institutions, agencies, that's ongoing. And when we do that, then it's there to see.

Hirokazu Kosaka, Director, Japanese American Cultural & Community Center
Every year I go back to Japan, three or four times a year. I arrive in Narita Airport from Los Angeles. And the next day I take the bullet train to my home, which is in Kyoto. And I look at my watch and it's 12:54 and 57 seconds, and it's right on time. The bullet train comes in seconds. And I get off at the platform and I see my friend, who's a taxi driver. Automatically the door opens and I enter, and he asks me if I want to watch a baseball game on his seven-inch plasma TV on his dashboard. It takes me about five hours from the Kyoto station to my home, which is 800 years old.

I was born in a monastery, which is in Mount Koya. When I enter the holy land, I usually go from the backyard. And occasionally I see my father raking the garden. But usually he points to the eave of our great edifice, which was built around 800 years ago. And there I see my childhood friend, which is a spider. And a long time ago, I remember my great-grandfather, who was living at that time, he told me about this spider which has been living here from the seventeenth century, he told me. But when I was a child, with my innocent voice, I asked him, "How do you know that, from the seventeenth century?" So he took out a scroll, where a monk from the seventeenth century wrote a haiku poem about these spiders who live in this part of this eave.

And this is where I come from. And again, this is very secluded. It's a very secret temple, where monks practice their training. No advertisements, it's not promoted. But yet, last year, in December, the Dalai Lama found out about our home and came to see it. And I was there, escorting him. And again, we do not have electricity, we don't have gas, we don't have the present technology at all.

But there is something about secrecy that is kind of important here. I know many of the folk and traditional artists are not discovered, unsung heroes here in Los Angeles. It might be, in fact, good. I practice Japanese archery. And I think, I'm sure no one knows where I practice, because I have never told anyone. My archery group has been practicing since 1916, here in Los Angeles. And this has been kind of interesting. People find out through some channels, but I have never promoted my school here. And I think it's interesting what other people talk about—the media, for example. Hugo, I'm sure the radio station and the technology have been very explosive here. That is just a metaphor, an anecdote.

Dr. Anna Scott
That's interesting because I think often, when people think about the internet they're thinking promotion, but I'm not thinking promotion. I'm thinking interconnectivity. I don't care, necessarily, that anyone is buying—and I know that's kind of crazy. But I'm more interested in talking to people, to finding them and then actually encountering them in specific place for a specific issue, that I otherwise would not have found them. And that's one of those kind of odd back-channel things. We think about privacy a lot on the internet, or you have to look a certain way. The standardization of web pages drives me nuts, for example, because you lose a sense of who the person is or who the agency is because it's not really showing you what they're going to do or what they're about, and that's a problem.

But it's much more about running those multiple narratives, in order for it to actually run for me. Putting a mask on to do work in the world type of vibration, where you're running these multiple stories. They begin to kind of spin around you in a way so that you're left alone to create what you need to create and to connect with the people that should be talking to you, not the people that just want to talk to you.

It's not the end in and of itself, it's not just for the sake of it, it is a tool to be leveraged for specific things. It doesn't always work at all times.

Peter Harris, Poet
I've just been listening, and I want to comment on this marginalization from the perspective of an urban, light-skinned African American male. I find myself in so many environments, particularly in L.A. I'm from DC, so if this was a DC meeting, it would be all Black, right? But so I'm in LA for almost fifteen years, and I cannot tell you how many times I'm the only dude. I'm the only Black poet, I'm the only person who knows Larry Neal, for example, or somebody like that. What I'm claiming, I think, in terms of this question is, I'm asking myself where is there room for my righteous rage? Where is there room for my anger about aspects of people's lives that I know? And because I'm not an indiscriminate mao-mao-type person, I'm interested in collaborating with people. And I'm interested, though, in bringing power to power. I'm interested in bringing integrity to integrity.

One of the things we talk about is how do we find these great conversational circles, where we bring to the table these masters from a particular art form, a particular cultural walk? But they're so good that everybody needs to be absorbing it. And that's really where the heart of all this is for me. Pardon me, because I'm really just testifying, I really don't have any answers to anything, frankly.

Now all of this to me is, you've got to do everything all the time. Really, is what it boils down to for me. So when I'm walking among a bunch of young men, I have to make sure I have integrity for what they're expecting from me, as a dude who is in his fifties now, who's been through certain things. And I look them in the eye and say, "You know, I used to be right at your crossroads." When I work with organizations, I have to be able to describe what I'm getting ready to do in a way that makes sure that some money can come my way.

The fundamental power of this question for me, this whole idea of what's marginal, what isn't marginal, is first, the internal power. If I understand traditional peoples or traditional first walks, or this, that, and the other over the years, it always had to be synthesizers. We've always got to use whatever tool is available. The reason I start with this urban energy is because I never liked the rural vibration of my family until I got older, because I thought they were country. And in my opinion, I think we have to sort of balance these things. Traditional is one thing, but when a next generation comes we have a lot of work to do to keep passing stuff on.

So anyway, power, righteous rage, mastery, you know what I mean? I'm not afraid of being good at what I do. You know what I mean? I am a master poet. I'm a master with working with young people. But that doesn't mean I don't have anything to learn from other poets and from other young people. So I like this creative tension of doing and listening—I call it a pulse.

We invite you to think about this topic and post your own comments and stories.  How do you position/promote the public value of your work more effectively?

ACTA's Comment Disclaimer

My thanks to ACTA for keeping this conversation alive and to Terry for adding his perspectives. 

Terry:  One of the new phenomons in Los Angeles are gourmet food trucks.  Yes, they used to be called 'roach coaches', but now they've arrived and do arrive at a number of art walks and other gatherings.  And food from all cultures and traditions.  One of the most popular is Korean Barbecue.  I'd be pleased to host you at one of these occasions on your next visit here.


Thank you for sharing this transcript of brilliant people gathered at a table. My family follows Kōbō-Daishi, who was a scholar, and researcher, teacher, and subsequently became a public figure in 9th Century Japan when the Emporer gave him Mt. Koya to build temples. Ours is a practical approach to esoteric Buddhism that Kōbō-Daishi brought to Japan from India via China 12 hundred years ago. The underlying dimensions, time, place, technology, communication, energy, spirit, and enlightenment, that you all talked about are why human beings are so compelled to express profoundly through culture and the arts. I remember standing on Puvungna and understanding as clearly as I have ever understood the  Hawaiian mantra, "ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono." I enjoyed being on hold when calling Radio Bilingüe until I discovered I could listen to people's radio all day on streaming internet. In 1996, I went to California erudite from National Folk Festival and Smithsonian Folklife Festival experiences, but learned from organic community festivals like the Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture and the Pacific Islander Festival why they are important to people. So now I am back in Chocolate City where I can go to the original Busboys and Poets on U Street tonight and listen to poets who are half my age and far wiser than I was when I was at their crossroads, but I do miss you all and marvel at the work you continue to do from here on the other side of the country.

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