Last month ACTA invited traditional artists in the San Diego region to a community dialogue to begin a conversation about the status of the traditional arts – the needs and challenges – as well as opportunities in the region. It was an afternoon filled with new connections and rekindling old relationships, laughter and tears, and moments of inspiration and common understanding around the shared values of those engaged in traditional arts practice.
An amazing array of people attended the gathering at the World Beat Center, representing many of the cultural communities of the region, some hailing from south of the border: Luiseño, Kumiai, Jewish, African American, Native Hawaiian, Filipino, Kiliwa, Chicano, Mexican, Somali, Samoan, Hungarian, Persian, Mixteco, and Juaneño. Also present were administrators from the Museum of Man, Mingei International Museum, and California Arts Council, joined by the Alliance board and staff and a few academic cultural specialists from the fields of folklore, anthropology, and ethnomusicology.
Teodora Cuero, a Kumiai elder from Baja California, opened with a blessing in her native language, circling the room with prayers and burning sage. Afterwards, when facilitator and Alliance board member Chike Nwoffiah began the meeting asking people to reflect on the importance of what they do, a well-spring of emotions and ideas gushed out:
“There is healing in the arts. Coming from a community who has lost everything, the thing we brought was our culture and our traditions. For the moment we come together in the tradition, we forget the pain.”
– Yasmeen Hamud (Somali), Bridging Culture and Community
“There is no exposure [to culture] in the schools. We do it to save young Filipino Americans. When they connect with tradition, they connect with their parents.”
– Anamaria Labao Cabato, PASACAT (Philippine-American Society and Cultural Arts Troupe)
“A strong cultural foundation leads to ownership and activism within the community. Engagement in your community results in a core sense of self.”
– Mary Lou Valencia, Danza Mixcoatl
“If I don’t share these dances, they will die.”
– Anne Blakenship, Kuma Hula, (traditional teacher of Hula), San Diego
“In my community there are just five speakers left. We haven’t been able to do anything about it. All the elders are gone. The younger ones don’t want to learn anything. They have a different way of working; they don’t want to work with us. I learned all of this from my grandmother and mother and aunts. I speak more Kiliwa than Spanish. I don’t know what is going to happen because I haven’t seen that there is any support. A lot of students come from Ensenada to learn from me, but they take their recordings and I don’t know what they do with them. I don’t like to turn anyone down because I feel it’s so important.”
– Leonor Farldow Espinoza (Kiliwa)
Doña Leonor’s comments brought tears to many, and provided a segue to sharing the many challenges of sustaining work in traditional arts. Racism, including negative stereotyping, was another shared theme voiced by Muslim, Middle Eastern, Chicano, Mixteco, indigenous people, immigrants, and African Americans. Due to longtime discrimination, members of cultural communities may not value their own culture making it difficult to spawn transmission and value in old ways. For California Indian basketweavers, U.S. Government National Forest policy constrains access to vital plant materials used in basketry. The lack of local funding to support individual artists and emphasis on contemporary culture hinder the development of traditional arts. Issues related to “loss of audience” arise due to the very loud and well-funded dominant culture. High costs of presenting venues drive ticket prices too high for young people to afford. Generational divides within the community can prevent cultural sharing and transmission. U.S. immigration policy hinders cultural exchange and transmission amongst groups living on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as amongst transnational communities worldwide. Artists lack of business skills hinder them from supporting themselves. The media does not cover local efforts in traditional arts.
Facilitator Nwoffiah quickly moved the energy into a strategy session by breaking into small groups to work collectively on these many varied challenges. While solutions are clearly complex and many requiring long-term intervention, participants were able to begin to share ideas to address some of these issues. Some of the many creative concepts that were shared involved:
• Working outside the mainstream media and with community-based media. The World Beat Center was a source of inspiration, with its own radio station which can promote its activities, among other vital actions, alleviating the need for the mainstream media attention.
• Building skills in marketing and public relations to attract media attention.
• Becoming more proficient with technology.
Leveraging support from audience and volunteers.
• Creating new and nurturing existing nonprofit structures to receive grant funds for unincorporated groups.
• Advocacy for the needs for multicultural arts funding from the City of San Diego and other funders. Collaborate with local university to develop video to “make the case.”
• Implement exchange programs between elders and youth.
• Use nonprofit support agencies and local foundations resources for researching sources of grants and participate in grant writing workshops.
• Identify specific audiences and tailor marketing to their uniqueness to develop their desire to participate.
Underpinning these practical strategies, were several philosophical ideas to help guide the necessary hard work:
• Value your elders and make them feel important.
• Persevere through obstacles and remain true to your art form.
• A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.
As we ended the day, it was clear many new connections had been initiated and that much effort was needed to support the vitality of the good work in evidence in the region. The meeting helped the Alliance board and staff better understand the needs and opportunities in the area and is committed to work in concert with these traditional arts leaders to help build a stronger system of support for this unique California cultural eco-system. It was the first step of a long journey.