By Amy Kitchener, Executive Director
October 6, 2015

“The arts help us see what is so exceptional about who we are and where we live. We have this opportunity to celebrate our differences rather than viewing them as a means of division.”   – Jane Chu, Fresno Town Hall, 10/20/25

Last month, National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Jane Chu made two visits to California – in Fresno on September 20 -21, and Los Angeles on September 22–23.  Chairman Chu was visiting California to visit two of her National Council for the Arts members in their hometowns: David “Mas” Masumoto in Fresno, and Maria Rosario-Jackson (also an ACTA board member) in Los Angeles.

ACTA served as the organizational co-host to writer and organic peach farmer, David “Mas” Masumoto in Fresno, and started planning for the visit in early June with Chu’s staff in Washington, D.C.  We were asked to recommend ideas for people to meet and places to visit, and between Mas and me, we had enough to fill a week! ACTA, in the role of state folklorist for California, worked to put the spotlight on the Valley’s artists who are maintaining cultural traditions and expressions that are part of their community’s history and identity.

Day 1 began at the Town Hall hosted by ACTA and moderated by Mas, at Arte Américas, one of Fresno’s cultural treasures.  This public event gave artists and arts leaders from across the Central Valley the opportunity to dialogue with the Chairman. Chu expressed that she wants people in every corner of the country to know that art isn’t meant to be elitist. “That’s what we want to dispel,” she said. “What we really are here to do is celebrate art and how it belongs to all of us.”  Her visit to California came just days before the NEA’s 50th anniversary year kicked off in Washington, D.C. which is a vital moment to reflect on the impact of the art in public life and the impact of the NEA’s work.

We closed the town hall with a performance by two Mixteco (indigenous Oaxacan) immigrant farmworker performing groups – Danzantes de los Diablos de San Miguel Cuevas and Banda Brillo de San Miguel Cuevas.  ACTA curated these two groups for the Chairman’s public visit because we wanted to underscore the uniqueness, quality, passion, and resourcefulness of the Valley’s arts and cultural life, and these two groups are wonderful exemplars, although they are little known beyond their Mixteco communities in Oaxaca, Mexico, and U.S. sites of immigration, many of which are concentrated in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

As the crowd exited the building, the 10-member brass band started playing the traditional entrance tune for the masked Devil dancers to promenade.  Cracking their hand-braided leather whips, and prancing into the dance space, the diablos (devils) focused all attention with their long-haired chivarras (chaps made from Angora goat hair), silk scarves, and hand-carved wooden masks with exaggerated devilish characteristics.  The tradition of the diablos dance from the Juxtlahuaca district of northern Oaxaca emerges from the history of the Spanish conquest of indigenous peoples from a dance drama introduced by the Spanish priests – Moros y Cristianos – representing the battles between the Moors and Christians from 7th century Spain and in which the devils dance at the conclusion of the dance. Only a few of the more than 70 attendees at the event had ever seen this dance form or music performed and there was an electric charge in the air. At the end, Chairman Chu, Mas, and I jumped into the line of diablos to dance with them in our excitement and recognition of their cultural contributions to the fabric of our community.

Following the town hall, I hosted the Chairman for dinner at my favorite Fresno restaurant, B & K Asian Kitchen, inviting two Native California artists and culture bearers – Carly Tex (W. Mono) and ACTA board member Paula “Pimm” Allen (Yurok/Karuk) to share their experiences as leaders and practitioners in the renaissance of Native California culture and language.  Pimm Allen is also a former apprentice in ACTA’s Apprenticeship Program who was mentored by master maple bark skirt artist Holly Hensher (Karuk). Holly and Pimm worked together to gather and prepare soap root, bear grass, acorns, basket material, medicinal herbs, and the innermost layer of maple bark, the latter for use in creating maple bark skirts worn by girls and women in tribal ceremonies, including the Ihuk Ceremony (Flowerdance), celebrating a girl’s entry into womanhood. Pimm shared a beautiful documentary photography portfolio of her daughter’s Ihuk Ceremony with the Chairman, in which the maple bark skirt Pimm made was worn by her daughter.

Carly Tex is a two-time former apprentice in ACTA’s Apprenticeship Program – with her grandmother Avis Punkin and her sister Mandy Marine.  Carly learned from her grandmother the entire process of making a traditional Mono coiled cooking basket, including gathering, preparing, and storing materials, as well as the actual weaving process.  During her apprenticeship with her sister Mandy, Carly learned the process for making a traditional woven tumpline from handmade milkweed string, a strap used to suspend a pack/load from the top of the head.  Carly, a professional linguist, continues to work deeply within the Native community – artistically, culturally, and linguistically – and is currently a Board Member of the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival.  During dinner with Chairman Chu, Carly spoke about the intensive work and strategies required to revive native California languages, some of which one have only a few remaining speakers and the personal, familial, and tribal bonds that are perpetuated through the practice of traditional gathering practices and weaving.

The next day, Chairman Chu made site visits with two NEA grantee organizations – Radio Bilingüe and Centro Binacional Para el Desarrollo Indigena Oaxaqueno (CBDIO), both of which position the folk & traditional arts at the center of their programs. Radio Bilingüe, is the national Spanish language public radio network headquartered in Fresno. At her visit to the studios, Chu was interviewed for the national daily show Línea Abierta, in which she talks about her special projects marking the 50th anniversary of the arts agency, her initiative to help build bridges between immigrants and the larger community, and how the arts can help revitalize neighborhoods and solve challenges in society. (Listen to the inteview on Radio Bilingüe’s website, beginning at the 40 minute mark.)

At Centro Binacional Para el Desarrollo Indigena Oaxaqueno, or the Binational Center for the Development of Indigenous Oaxacans, Chairman Chu learned more about the upcoming festival supported by the NEA for the first time—Guelaguetza California 2015. The festival features folk dances and music from the seven regions of Oaxaca. A group of intergenerational and intercultural staff, volunteers, and board shared their experiences and challenges in organizing this large scale festival which has involved the formation, training, and support of several local dance groups to represent the variety of Oaxacan regional dance traditions.  CBDIO works on many fronts, including health and wellness, civic engagement, youth development, and arts and culture. Their work reminds us of the many ways that culture, arts, and language are foundational to community belonging, engagement, and development.

In Los Angeles on day 3 of the California visit, ACTA program manager Quetzal Flores joined the Chairman and a delegation of city officials and arts leaders on a tour of some of the sites to be included in the upcoming Promise Zone Arts, a cultural mapping and community engagement program with site-specific arts and cultural events which was recently awarded the NEA Our Town grant.  ACTA, LA Commons, and the Youth Policy Institute are the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department’s principal partners on this new initiative.  One of the highlights of the tour that explored the MacArthur Park neighborhood was a stop at CARECEN, the largest Central American immigrant rights organization in the country.  Quetzal invited Rosanna Perez, an El Salvadorian poet active in the Sanctuary Movement in Los Angeles in the 1980’s, and a refugee from the El Salvadorian civil war, to share her work.  She shared the following poem:

Vestida de Novia

Esta mañana ha llegado vestida de novia
por la ventana el aire con sus frios dedos
me toca las mejillas y me despierta…
la melancolia se  ha sentado en mi regazo…
me mira a los ojos fijamente
y déjà caer sus brazos sobre mis hombros…
pesados como la vida y el recuerdo que acompaña…
Adonde estan los amigos?
que fue de ellos en estos dias de eterna
ausencia… distancia… olvido… silencio…
quiza en las reconditas memorias… nos encontremos
buscando… queriendo hallar los mozos años que se
nos fueron…
y nos dejaron esta mirada desconocida…
llena de experiencias vividas a diario
como si fuera la ultima…
una cebadera llena de empolvados sueños… que
cuelga en el armario
cuadernos con flores secas de esperar por el amado…
inconclusas notas… que se iran cuando… yo me vaya…

Chairman Chu’s visit to Fresno and Los Angeles provided many of us a special lens to focus on what we feel is most significant in our local arts and culture ecologies.  Even when these stories don’t make the news, they are the stories that we remember to tell ourselves about who we are – as a neighborhood, a town, a city, a state… a community.  Thank you, Dr. Chu, for helping California share our stories!