February 19, 2019

Participation in arts and culture that is rooted in community can catalyze transformative social change.

Our work at ACTA facilitates the engagement of artists and organizers with deeply rooted traditional arts processes and values as a way of informing local social justice efforts. The practice of community-centered art helps build sustainable opportunities for co-creation, engagement, and change.

What does this look like on the ground?

Local Power: Activating Cultural Assets

“This is where I began to value myself as a human being. In our own country, people don’t know much about us because we are poor. We are hardly ever heard. But after hearing what was said and sung today, I learned something. That our culture and our country is beautiful. And everyone that was here tonight said it with such pride, and now I too say it with pride.” — Caridad Vasquez, Street Vendor, Boyle Heights

Every neighborhood has its own powerful cultural practices, histories, and leaders. An asset-based approach to community development informs ACTA’s process in locales from Boyle Heights to the Eastern Coachella Valley.

Collective Impact: In a major policy win, street vending was legalized in Los Angeles in 2018. The efforts of many Building Healthy Communities collaborators in Boyle Heights, including ACTA, contributed to this grassroots effort to recognize the legitimate entrepreneurship of street vendors in LA.

Local culture-bearers convene community members within a framework bounded by cultural ways of knowing—lifting up local or ancestral knowledge and practices as a source of strength, resilience and creativity to counter the forces of structural racism which manifest in the vast disparities in health, education, jobs, and individual freedom.

We engage in participatory cultural asset mapping methods to make visible and honor the people, places, events, and groups that hold value and foster spaces of belonging—an essential prerequisite for social change and work towards racial equity.

Voices for Change: Collective Songwriting in Boyle Heights

“Collective songwriting really brings the community in to do the work of music. Having part in that process gives them a sense of ownership to the ideas, to the discussions that are taking place while they are creating music. It shows that a community can theorize for themselves, and they can imagine and articulate it. And maybe not in the boardroom ways everybody thinks we need to hear it, but in the ways in which they do it. The ways they feel comfortable. Through music. And that’s how organizers need to think about community.” — Martha Gonzalez, Chicana Artivist, Professor at Scripps College

The East L.A. community of Boyle Heights is a thriving hub for Chicano art with a long and significant history of activism. Located just east of the L.A. River, Boyle Heights is home to one of the largest Latino populations in the US.

“Hey Mr. Mayor! We want to feel safe! We want peace of mind in our space! Live up to your responsibilities! Help our families in need!”

Boyle Heights 4 Youth Songwriting Session

ACTA has been working in Boyle Heights since 2011 through Building Healthy Communities (BHC), a 10-year statewide initiative of The California Endowment. It focuses on building power locally by funding non-profit organizations in 14 communities across the state that have been devastated by health inequities. The Endowment has invested in those communities to facilitate collaboration toward policy change around three different areas: schoolsneighborhoods, and preventive health. In the case of Boyle Heights, where gentrification has been changing/threatening the neighborhood, a fourth area was added: anti-displacement.

Co-creating: Collective Songwriting workshop participants.
Co-creating: Collective Songwriting workshop participants.

Another engagement and social change methodology contributed by local traditional artists, including Quetzal Flores and Martha Gonzalez, is collective songwriting. A communal practice with strong roots in Chicano activism, collective songwriting workshops bring community members together to openly discuss local issues that affect their lives and channel their voices into music with meaning. Activism around policies like reduced sentencing, deferred action (which would allow children who immigrated to the US without documents to stay in the country), and restorative justice practices that open dialogue inside schools take center stage through the production of art. Artists and participants share a reciprocal space of storytelling and creativity, mobilizing toward a shared goal.

Weaving Worlds: Embroidery and Dialogue in the Eastern Coachella Valley

“There are a lot of un-met needs here, but they are like muffled voices. Because we go back to the fact that we come from another country and many are undocumented. So the fact that we are here talking and sharing the changes that are taking place of which they can be a part of, I notice that they are more empowered to say, ‘I want changes to be made. My needs are important. I want to be heard.’” -Sandra Ramirez, Schools Action Team of Eastern Coachella Valley

A center of agricultural production for the state of California, the Eastern Coachella Valley is home to a number of farm workers and their families. More than half of the area’s population is Latino, some of whom are undocumented. While money, media attention, and public interest are invested in the annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, the issues around healthcare, education, lack of safe drinking water, and structural racism in the Eastern Coachella Valley remain underrepresented.

Purépecha embroidery by master artist Natividad González Morales.
Purépecha embroidery by master artist Natividad González Morales.

ACTA initiated work in the area in 2011, applying funds from the California Endowment to support community development through the traditional arts as part of Building Healthy Communities – Eastern Coachella Valley. In the example of the Women’s Tejidos Purépecha Group of North Shore, ACTA organized a regular meeting of women from the community around the practice of embroidery from the indigenous Purépecha people of Michoacán, Mexico, who have settled in the farm worker communities of Mecca and North Shore. In the process of gathering together to learn the new and culturally relevant skill of embroidery at the home of master artist Natividad González Morales, these women had the opportunity to meet one another, break bread, and discuss the problems they face in their daily lives. Advocates from the Building Healthy Communities’ Schools Action Team of Eastern Coachella Valley and the cultural empowerment organization Raices Cultura joined the meetings to learn about local priorities and provide resources for action.

The practice of embroidery created a safe, communal space to give voice to the issues and questions that had been unspoken for many women.

Change, empowerment, and growth happens in these communal spaces.

“We are women who enjoy learning the traditional teachings of our local Cultural Treasure Natividad. We are not only learning her beautiful traditional tejidos; we are also learning and enjoying her delicious food and her generous hospitality. We are Hispanic women of different cultures who come together for our love of art. We are women who are proud of our cultures and who are learning from each other as we rescue our traditional heritage. We are entrepreneurs in making changes, we are workers, friends, daughters, mothers and professionals. We are strong women who want to change our community and help our children excel in their education in order to achieve a college education and have a better future outside of the fields.

We come together because we like to learn and share with one another. Within this space we have been able to share our various experiences and struggles. Throughout our conversations we have been able to support each other and solve some of the problems affecting our lives. In coming together we have formed a women’s support group for the women of North Shore and its surrounding areas, including Thermal, Mecca, Oasis, Coachella, Indio and Cathedral City. We reunite weekly, no matter how exhausted we may be from our daily jobs, to destress all while sharing a delicious meal with pleasant company.

Our intentions are to learn the aguja maravillosa tejido practices that are a part of our cultural and ancestral knowledge from the Purépecha women of Michoacan, Mexico. Many of us have seen this type of tejido work but have not had the opportunity to learn this art form. Throughout our weekly participation we have learned to further appreciate and love this art form. Our interest in learning this art form gave us the opportunity to learn some Purépecha words, which is an indigenous language from Michoacán, Mexico as well as learn more about the diverse cultures of Mexico through art.

We also had the amazing opportunity to relish the different dishes that Natividad and Conchita prepared for us that are traditional to Ocumicho, Michoacán. In these ways we were able to learn about the different cultures that make up a part of our cultural treasures. As we learned to embroider we also shared our own knowledge. Throughout this process we realized that we have similar needs and experiences, particularly challenging experiences, which we have been able to overcome through our strength and courage. We continue to move forward with a strong desire to uplift our families without leaving behind our roots which serve as the unifying foundation for our communities.

We wish to continue learning various cultural art forms, especially the culinary traditions from the Purépecha community, cross stitching, knitting, crocheting, tejido deshilado as well as continue sharing traditions that our grandmothers have passed down to us. We want to advance our English and learn some basic computer skills in order to be able to help our children with their studies. We also want to continue learning more about the educational system and the different programs that form part of our children’s education in order to inform ourselves and to advocate for our children.

We formed this space to share knowledge and to destress ourselves from our daily responsibilities. This space has become not only a support group, but has also become a space where we can share new ideas as well as our hopes for our communities. We must continue to meet and form new friendships, learn from each other, and support each other in our efforts to improve the educational system for our children’s future.

We want to continue advocating for our communities in a united effort in order to meet our family’s needs. We hope that our neighbors and community members will support us in these efforts. We want to be able to attend our schools and community meetings. Better and more frequent transportation is needed for both our children and our neighborhoods in order for this to be possible. We have also been waiting years for a new school in North Shore in order to meet the urgent needs of a growing community. We need resources and our community’s support in order to push for these and other needs, such as better street lighting and accessible rural bus routes for our schools and our neighborhoods. We also want to have more cultural and artistic opportunities to enrich our lives. Access to art and dance workshops, grocery stores that offer fresh fruits and vegetables at accessible prices as well as a clinic in North Shore are all necessary components that are urgently needed in North Shore in order for us to further strengthen our community. As a community we must not remain silent. Our power grows when we unite to demand what we deserve.

We propose to achieve our goals with active and dedicated participation. Hard work, responsibility, perseverance and dedication are all necessary for us to reach our goals. All of the women who have joined together to write and share this comunicado are field workers who pick the nation’s food including grapes, limes, oranges, chiles, green beans, figs, lettuce, sweet anise, watermelon, garlic, squash and many more fruits and vegetables. Not only do we work the fields during the harvest, we also prepare the lands throughout the year all while staying dedicated to our families.

Nevertheless we continue to come with a dedicated effort to our tejidos. We, the women of the rural communities, are the force that enriches and uplifts the Coachella Valley.”

Making a Difference: Traditional Arts and Systems Change

“When I think about art and the impact that it has, it’s like the glue that holds everything together and gives it the life and culture and vibrancy for it to be a sustainable movement.” -Omar Torres, Director of Social Responsibility, Weingart East Los Angeles YMCA

Our community development programs at ACTA are built on the idea that, at its core, traditional arts are about honest and open communication, strong relationships, and shared understandings. We invest in frameworks of traditional arts practices that are rooted in depth of participation, mentorship, communal aesthetics, and the acuerdos (agreements) that come with those communal aesthetics. When a community comes together to practice a traditional art form, they are enacting these core values. In Boyle Heights, we continue to deepen and integrate our work led by artist fellows and their mentees who engage with local issues through a range of art forms.

Building Healthy Communities—Boyle Heights Artist Fellowships

Omar Ramirez, Artist Fellow
Mural-making, zine-making, radio broadcasting
Juana Mena, Artist Co-Fellow

Vaneza Calderon, Artist Fellow
Marcos Macias, Mentee
Mariachi music, collective songwriting

Dalila Mendoza, Artist Fellow
Photography, printmaking, gardening

Ofelia Esparza and Rosanna Esparza Ahrens, Artist Fellows
Luz Marlene Cordero, Mentee
Altar-making, visual art, handmade craft

By coupling these embedded social values with active mobilization around issues like restorative justice and displacement, ACTA repositions traditional arts as powerful community assets and forces for change.

Integrating song, reflection, and moments of pause into organizing spaces, the traditional arts offer a possibility for regeneration in a field that can be incredibly taxing on one’s physical and mental health. We use the convivio, or convivial gathering, as a principal method to heal and help people reconnect to each other and the true values behind the work. The cross-cultural act of convival gathering enables a deliberate and intentional coming together, an opportunity to create a reciprocal process of sharing stories and space, of being validated and offering validation.

These are the practices that sustain a grassroots base.

They create paths for everyday activists to live into and practice the changes they want to see in their communities and beyond.

Learn more about our work in Boyle Heights in the Building Healthy Communities Report Approaching Community Health Through Heritage and Culture in Boyle Heights.

ACTA’s work with Building Healthy Communities is supported by The California Endowment.

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