- Campo Santo & Studio Grand
- 1.26.16: The Power of Music
- 1.23.16: Reflections on the Business of Imprisonment
- 1.18.16: MLK Vive, La Luchá Sigue
- 1.12.16: On David Bowie
- 1.8.16: Radio Valencia
- 1.7.16: El Hielo
- About Margarita Azucar
Between the #OscarsSoWhite boycott and announcement that Joseph Fiennes has been cast to play Michael Jackson, media attention (and satire) on the lack of diversity in the Academy Awards nomination has extended to lack of representation in the stories about people of color. I had promised I would spotlight more local cultural workers in the Bay who might serve as models for other communities, so I wanted to share with you the work of Campo Santo.
Campo Santo is Spanish for sacred ground. Like the roots of our name, we are taking the sacred form of storytelling and using at as a tool to bond community through socially relevant plays.
As a multi-cultural ensemble, they are committed to developing and premiering new performance and theater that reflect the experiences of people of color integrated into society at large. In telling the stories that they bring to the stage, they are also nurturing diverse audiences for the performing arts that might not otherwise see themselves reflected in these spaces. “We want to show the audience the world we live in and see in the audience the world we come from.” The storytelling happens not just through acting, but also includes original lyrics and culturally relevant choreography, and the use of live drumming or dj’s and MC’s. In the last 20 years, Campo Santo has collaborated with other institutions in San Francisco such as Intersection for the Arts and the deYoung Museum to create the spaces to bring our diverse stories to life.
Their work over the years has covered themes such as the invisibility of immigrant communities from the mainstream, and coping with loss in Tree City Legends, the government involvement of the crack epidemic in communities of color in Super Heroes, dealing with the trauma of community violence and the aftermath of police violence in Chasing Mehserle, and more recently in "Babylon is Burning," the history of hip hop (see the video clip below).
Since I need to officially sign off as a guest blogger, I wanted to leave you on a hopeful note related to one of my previous posts. While there is still a lot of work to be done to prevent the disproportionate rates of incarceration of people of color, there at least has been a little bit of movement on the incarceration issue - California has moved to end indefinite solitary confinement. At least this will decrease the amount of cruelty and long term impact on inmates, which would make reintegration easier for those who are eventually released.
Hopefully, the other 43 states with supermax prisons will follow suit in banning indefinite solitary confinement.
Much has been written about the dramatic changes of our urban spaces due to gentrification and the displacement of the working poor and people of color. In the SF Bay Area, tensions between ‘locals’ and the influx of tech workers has also been well-documented the last couple of years. Despite the evictions, visible increase in homeless people in tents throughout the Mission/SoMa/Potrero Hill (who are now in the process of being "evicted" for the SuperBowl 50), and the closing of historic book stores and long standing, locally-owned, ethnic food spots, #WeAreStillHere. There are still cultural workers holding it down in urban spaces across our country, and creating spaces for our experiences to be reflected in the arts, for communities to gather and engage in political discourse or celebration.
Last week, I had the great pleasure of hosting a showcase on the radio, curated by Oakland’s Studio Grand I wanted to highlight this non-profit organization because they can serve as a model for community access to the arts. Studio Grand was founded by Holly Schneider, who was an artist in a local all female Bomba group. Holly’s vision was to create a family-friendly, artist-centered, affordable options in a very visible commercial strip in Oakland. Although she passed away suddenly soon after founding the space, her compatriotas have carried on the torch with this volunteer and artist-run space, offering programming that reflects and serves the diverse communities that surround Oakland’s Lake Merritt. The transdisciplinary offerings include Zapateado dance classes, Puerto Rican Bomba classes, photography exhibits, spoken word poetry readings, and live music events. Spaces like these give me hope that we can continue have visibility and have spaces to tell (or sing) our stories despite newcomers using the police to challenge our cultural practices. Having our own spaces allows us to stay connected to cultural traditions and experience the affirmation that comes from seeing our experiences reflected in the arts is crucial.
You can listen to some of the Studio Grand artists doing live performances, and talking about the role of this studio in their development as artists, on Margarita Azucar and learn more about how the Studio Grand vision came to be in the brief video below.
The Power of Music
I’ve had the Bob Marley song “Trench Town” running through my head the last couple of days. Specifically the lines
'...There I vision through the seas of oppression, oh-oh! Don't make my life a prison' and '...We free the people with music; Can we free the people with music?'
My love and connection to music has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember. I am a little embarrassed to say that it has been a foundational aspect of my connection in most of my relationships (including with my siblings, my friends, and romantic partners). Doing a weekly radio show has been a constant reminder of the power of music to heal. Witnessing the amazingtalents and artistic creativity of musicians at a live concert, or going to see dj’s that move me to spiritualheights on the dancefloor, lyrics that reflect a heartache I’m carrying (due to anything from class struggles, political realities, environmental disasters to love lost), or words that have enhanced my political consciousness, or music that brings out that cultural pride that reminds me I'm not alone in this struggle, and of course some music that just exudes pure poppy joy, all bring me back to “Can we free the people with music?” There is something to be said about feeling connected to others through the experience of sharing a common reference that moves us emotionally. Singing at the top of our lungs together at a show does not erase evictions, health disparities, police violence, unexplainedwave of fires…. but it does remind us of our common humanity in both directions. Is it a place to build bridges and have conversations across differences?
I leave you with some songs, from a variety of genres and artists of a variety of backgrounds, that have me contemplating on the power of music to free us from the seas of oppression.
Reflections on the Business of Imprisonment
Like many Americans, I spent a couple days during my New Year’s holiday break bingeing on the Netflix Series Making a Murderer. I have to admit, when I was telling a friend about it the next day, one of the first things I said in describing the series was, “…and he’s White!” This was met with a funny look. I don’t know how other people experienced it, but I was immediately struck by the fact that it was a White male protagonist who was at the receiving end of being prejudged by the penal system and wrongfully convicted. I was also quite disturbed, though not surprised, that the youth who was also convicted in this show had some significant cognitive deficits that made him vulnerable to the process leading to a wrongful conviction. At a recent stand up show in San Francisco, Dave Chappelle summed up what I was feeling by saying that if it was a Black or Brown man in this series (where there is are wrongful accusations, possible evidence planted, and questionable police interrogation techniques), it would be called “Duh!”
The 2012 documentary, the Central Park Five told a similar story as Making a Murderer, only in this case, the inappropriate police interrogation techniques led to the pressured false confessions of 5 young Latino and African American youth, one of whom was in Special Education, and was not at the park during the crime but happened to be visiting a friend when the police came by and suggested he should come to the station as well. They were subsequently wrongfully convicted for the highly publicized violent assault and rape of a highly educated, professional, White woman who was jogging through Central Park. The film follows their lives through the convictions being overturned and the challenges of having spent their respective youths incarcerated instead of graduating high school, establishing work experience, developing relationships, and so forth.
While it would be impossible to gather statistics on how often this type of corruption happens in communities of color in the United States, this possibility is certainly part of the lore in low-income communities of color that Black comedians going back to Richard Pryor have included in their stand up shows. Projects like these bring to light an increased awareness of the flaws in our justice system related to the disadvantages of being low-income. In more recent years, we have seen convictions overturned thanks to DNA evidence, and in the case of Illinois, the death penalty abolished, due to and increased awareness by people in power larger of systemic issues and structural racism that have led to false confessions, disproportionate rates of incarceration, and harsher sentencing of poor people of color.
There is clearly a lot of concrete work that needs to be done in this area, at every juncture of this pipeline, from improving our school buildings, diversifying our teachers, decreasing significant bias that continues to represent us as dangerous and less capable, divesting from prisons so that corporations are not profiting from imprisoning our brothers and sisters. In the Bay, schools are implementing Restorative Justice, or Restorative Practices, in an attempt to increase awareness and reduce disparities in suspension rates and attempt to keep students involved in education.
Continuing on the theme from my MLK post, I'm still thinking about increasing our visibility in the landscape of our country, and especially within our communities, through our stories. We know that one tool that works to counter prejudice and bias is increased contact with the "Other". We also need to see positive reflections of ourselves in our society so that we don't feel invisible, or dehumanized. I recently saw Alicia Garza, co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter at a YouthSpeaks event. She spoke about how initially, she didn't realize her words were going to spark a movement for an entire generation. She was motivated by the love she holds for her community, and a wish to convey to them that they are worthy of love and that they are valuable individuals, and was driven to write a love letter essentially saying "I see you." "I want to Live" is a project from Youth Speaks that gives young men of color a forum to tell their stories of police encounters, while having a chance to say who they are, their dreams, where they come from, their joys and fears, to express their sense of humor, share their talents, in other words, to expand the representation and humanize young men of color so that they are not "Other"ed.
Various artists are also bringing attention to the impact of the prison industrial system on our communities by bearing witness and bringing out stories that humanize individuals. Anna Deavere Smith did a one-woman show Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education sharing some portrayals; Marcus Shelby and his Quartet embarked on a series of performances and dialogues with his jazz trio. After volunteering weekly at a San Francisco Women's County Jail, singer Naima Shalhoub recorded a live album with the women, with proceeds going back to re-entry programs.
In the time I have remaining, I hope to highlight the work of artists and cultural workers in the Latin@ community who are bringing light and love, and working in solidarity with other communities to tell our stories. I'm also open to dialogue of how we can continue to share stories of our traditions, our successes, and the beauty of our respective cultures, without losing sight of giving voice to those who have struggled and are in pain.
A little soundtrack for your soul to accompany the posts above and below, here's is last week's episode of Margarita Azucar. In honor of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday, Ms. Margarita brings you some music reflecting our ongoing struggles for social justice and civil rights, as well as uplifting music in recognition of progress we've all made.
MLK Vive, La Luchá Sigue
Martin Luther King, Jr. photographed by Marion S. Trikosko, 1964. LC-DIG-ppmsc-01269. Source: Library of Congress. Also consult this article about the pastor's legacy on Latino and Latina Civil Rights leaders: "7 Latino Activists Inspired By Martin Luther King, Jr."
As I reflect on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday, I sit in gratitude for the opportunities and advantages I have had thanks to the gains made by our ancestors in the Civil Rights movements. And I also sit with heartache for our brothers who are lost to violence in the streets and at the hands of police. The statistics reflect a system of structural racism that places tremendous barriers for Black and Latino boys from the point of early childhood development compared to their White counterparts.
At times, I sit in despair when I see evidence of "the more things change, the more they stay the same." Take this Hammer is a 1963 documentary that came about when, during a visit to San Francisco, James Baldwin challenged his hosts’ notion that SF is more progressive or less racist than other parts of the country. The film follows Baldwin visiting predominantly Black neighborhoods, interviewing young men about their experiences with police harassment/brutality, job discrimination, being pushed out of their communities due to new developments, and so on. As the youth tell their stories, you can’t help but feel like this could have been filmed in this decade.
Other times, I am inspired by the actions by cultural workers, activists, and artists essentially saying “basta!” to the police brutality by not letting these stories become buried or just become part of the folklore that stays within communities of color. Instead, their actions are bringing a spotlight to these stories, and countering the narratives that are told in the popular media, attempting to depict us as dangerous or less valuable.
Beginning with the BART police killing of Oscar Grant, artist Oree Originol creating a series of portraits of those who have lost their lives to police homicide locally and nationally, including undocumented immigrants and trans people of color, who are often disempowered from having a voice. Documenting each story from the perspective of the family and the community is a crucial form of reclaiming our narratives. Another similar project out of New York, Say Her Name, documents the stories of Black women who have lost their lives to police violence. As a whole, these projects also serve to point out patterns and raise questions about the underlying issues: namely, the impact of implicit bias of how people of color are perceived.
When you know where you came from, and you see these virtues or traits in your family tree, by extension, they fortify you and make you whole, and that is so empowering.
– Regina Mason
As a therapist, much of my work involves bearing witness to the experience of others. When I work with adults, they tell me that I have been the first one to ask about their stories: their hopes, their joys, their traumas and pains. Most children of immigrants that I know don’t know their parents’ or grandparents’ stories, what they experienced in their respective home countries or as recent arrivals. As Americans, our stories of the Latino/a experience have frequently been buried, and our access to these histories has been under attack in certain regions. We can’t leave this arduous task of documenting our stories to our brave historians and creative writers, our artists and singers. The more we can start having these conversations within our families, and accessing our narratives as a community at large, the better we are armed to counter the stereotypes that are put out there by the media and politicians.
On David Bowie
©Lalo Alcaraz 2016. Additional commentary on David Bowie's passing can also be found here: "Why My Friends Love David Bowie"; "Voices: Goodbye to Starman David Bowie, From A Latina Fan"; "David Bowie Will Always Matter to Me as a Latino Artist"; "Mexican Celebs React to Death of Rock Legend"; "Rest in Power, Ziggy: 8 Latin American Tributes to David Bowie"; and "The Little-Known History Behind David Bowie's Mexican Comic Book."
Yesterday morning (Wednesday, 6 January) started with report of ICE raids in San Francisco's Mission District and Oakland's Fruitvale district; an extension of Homeland Security reviving raids and deportations across the country this week. Youth and families in these two predominantly Latin@ communities were calling in to schools, missing doctor's appointments, and saying they were keeping their kids home due to their fears of being deported. Just when I was starting to feel that we were finally getting the Obama we elected, the deportations started up again.
As someone who's been working with newcomers, unaccompanied minors, asylum seekers, long term undocumented residents, immigrants... refugees, this just breaks my heart. Through my work, I know the intimate details of many individual stories of chronic violence that fuels the motivation for their exodus from their home countries, as well as the hopes and wishes that come with reuniting with family members from who they have long been separated. Even though their experiences in the United States often are defined by struggle, discrimination, disillusionment, and sometimes traumas that come with living in low income urban communities, they usually feel that the advantages they gain by being here outweigh the fear of the threats that await then back in their respective countries. I hope this unnecessary targeting comes to an end before too many people are returned to regions that are marred by drug war violence.
Since music provides comfort for me in times like this, I'm sharing some tracks that inspire me.
Ozomatly - Chota
With more than fifteen years of community and college radio experience, Ms. Margarita Azucar hosts a weekly music program on Radio Valencia, based in San Francisco's Mission District. She often curates her sets, and accompanying commentary, in reflection of current events locally and globally. And other times, she brings you music for the joy of dancing and grooving, to take a break from the challenges in our world. In the ever changing landscape and demographics of our urban centers, Ms. Margarita also hosts local artists and dj's to continue building community as we struggle to remain in the Bay Area. When she's not taking in the local music scene, Ms. Margarita is a faculty member at the University of California, San Francisco, where she works with children, youth and families with histories of chronic trauma from a culturally informed lens. Feel free to drop Ms. Margarita a line via Facebook if any any of her musings have sparked further thoughts or ideas. She welcomes the opportunity to further conversation.