Empowering Latinx Arts Practitioners at the Latinx Artist Retreat
Last year, a former colleague, who is Curatorial Assistant at a small New York-based institution, emailed me two weeks out from the opening of their pop-up exhibition inspired by Santeria Botánicas. In New York City, botánicas are stores, typically found in communities of color with ties to the Caribbean, that sell products associated with the spiritual practice. In their email, they expressed that they had no exhibiting artists of color and asked me to recommend artists for them to invite.
“This exhibition sounds very interesting, but unfortunately I don’t feel comfortable drawing up a list of names […] I would feel strange recommending artists of color to be a part of an exhibition that is struggling with representation. Centering on a theme like Santeria Botánicas, which is found predominantly within communities of color, I’m certain that the artists I know will take offense receiving a last minute invitation.”
Nearly seven years ago, when I was an assistant in a museum education department, I was asked to “keep track” of how many Latino families were participating in our free, drop-in public program. When I asked them how I was supposed to identify Latino families, I was told just to keep an eye out (read: to profile brown families). Experiences such as these, often occur because I am one of few, or the only person of color, in the rooms of predominantly white institutions, where the coded language of access, diversity, and “opportunity” veils the practice of tokenism. Experiences like this are not uncommon to my fellow artists and arts administrators of color across the country.
On May 19-21, 2017, the Latinx Artist Retreat (LXAR) convened for the first time at the Chicago Cultural Center and the National Museum of Mexican Art, where Latinx artists, educators, curators, and administrators shared our individual and collective experiences in the arts. During the facilitated dialogues, we addressed broad topics such as gender, race, sustainability, and advocacy through the Latinx lens, framed by complex colonial histories and our positionality in the contemporary American narrative. The retreat was organized into four discussion-based sections facilitated by the LXAR Core Group (organizing members) and some invited co-facilitators such as myself, Suhaly Bautista-Carolina, and Tiffany Joy Butler. Instead of traditional panels or presentations, the retreat encouraged question-asking and deconstructing through an open-format structure where all approximately 40-50 attendees sat together and participated in the conversation, occasionally separating into smaller breakout groups throughout the first day.
Each conversation during the retreat was an important starting point, but the most pressing discussion occurred during “Revolution Within the Racial Imagination: Contemporary Projects,” a session led by Tiffany Joy Butler, a Black Puerto Rican filmmaker and writer, and Anthony Romero, an artist, and member of the LXAR Core Group. The panelists asked us how Latinx people identify anti-blackness and whiteness in our communities, a critical place to begin examining our relationships to race. In the United States, there are catch-all labels such as Latino/a or “Hispanic” that attempt to categorize brown people with heritage from Latin American or Caribbean Spanish-speaking countries. This oversimplification establishes a problematic assumption that all Latinx peoples are brown, speak Spanish, and are first-generation. In “LATINX Dialogue: Open Engagement 2016,” a conversation between Romero and J. Soto (an artist also part of the LXAR Core Group), the two organizers touch on the complexities of a unifying label. Romero states:
“[…] what we call Latinx actually refers to people who come from many numerous countries and speak several different languages; peoples who are […] products of colonial histories which have given them a sense of being in-between, of being in the middle.”
Afro-Latinx, Black Latinx, Asian-Latinx, and Indigenous individuals (to name a few) especially experience this in-betweenness, often encountering erasure from sources both internal and external to their communities. A common narrative shared during this session by many participants was the generational anti-black rhetoric by Latinx parents and grandparents, including those of the African diaspora, as a result of internalized white supremacy and colonial thinking. Identifying the impact of white supremacy in Latinx communities felt important and unusual, since there are rarely spaces to address the prejudices and biases in our own communities.
From personal and familial stories, we moved into conversations about our role in contemporary American society, where the legacy of slavery still infiltrates our policies, systems, and institutions, from Jim Crow law to the broken criminal justice system. In our discussion, we recalled that George Zimmerman—the man who fatally shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager in Florida—is Latino, acknowledging the complexity of race relations in America. This session, which was one of the most taxing, felt like the most necessary because in the arts People of Color are frequently lumped into one “diverse” pot and asked to speak for other minority groups and communities. Many of us are rarely afforded space in the art world to unlearn and learn together, to dismantle the confined boxes we are asked to operate within, or to hold each other accountable. Speaking to Miriam Ruiz, an artist, administrator, and educator from St. Louis, she expressed the need for this kind of gathering: “I think the biggest takeaway was how uplifting it can be when we carve out a space for ourselves in a very white world that both ignores us and places the burden of difference upon us.”
The retreat ended with a Sunday brunch and the final session facilitated by Gibran Villalobos and the Core Group: “Arts and Organizing Locally and Nationally.” The discussion specifically addressed advocacy work, funding, and the administrative support needed to support programs, exhibitions, and so forth. While it was heavy on institutional critique, participants and facilitators proposed to move beyond criticism and toward strategy building and action. A significant question that framed the conversation was: For what and who do we advocate? We expanded on our experiences within institutions and the different types of resources at our disposal as artists, administrators, educators, and curators. New York artist and organizer Antonio Serna reflected on the last day,
“On the last day, I took away messages of empowerment when many people openly voiced their ideas and frustrations with the cultural system. Although there is still a lot of work to be done, there were many success stories […] and first steps toward increasing general representation, support and education of our youth, and talks of cultural worker empowerment inclusive of educators and museum workers.”
This final gathering felt generative, even if only the beginning of many profound conversations, as Philadelphia-based writer, publisher, and organizer Marissa Johnson-Valenzuela pointed out,
“The weekend was a great and overdue starting point. I appreciated how the organizers were willing to dive into hard topics. It’s important to have [these] discussions individually and in groups–especially in spaces where many share a similar Latinx experience […] some of the best parts were the informal conversations and it was nice that there was a lot of space for that.”
After spending time getting to know new Latinx people from Chicago and across the country, it was in the final hours that we had established a foundation for deepening our work, challenging established conventions together, and most importantly, supporting each other throughout the process. The Latinx Artist Retreat was a great beginning, not to a conversation, but to a community that I hope evolves and grows into a family of makers, thinkers, and doers who are committed to making change through art and culture.