Imagine this world without art. I say “this” world, because given how limited we humans are, I would like to believe there are other worlds where shopping, watching television, texting, surfing the net, and recklessly going into debt do not exist. Imagine this world without theaters; no museums, no music, no dance, no films, no photography, no poems, and whatever else we have named ART. Personally, I consider newspapers a form of art, and letter writing as well, two genres on the endangered list. Imagine all we have left are malls and war, homelessness, disease, hunger and despair without creative voices to respond, encourage, uplift, challenge, resist or bring the healing power of art into our lives.
Recent invitations to perform and create new work have the hairs on my neck competing with those of the porcupine. Event planners and producers want it now, they want it cheap, and they want proof of worth in the form of expensive media kits, publications, degrees, and most importantly they want to be reassured that my work will make everyone comfortable, assuage all racist guilt with “Hispanic Heritage Month” fare, and feel entertained without being challenged. For insulting honorariums I am interrogated and investigated for everything but head lice. I could be making a fortune telling Juan Bobo stories, wearing a pava and teaching all things “folkloric” that do not offend. I have often been told that in “Hispanic” events food is always the best part; now I must compete with pernil and arroz con gandules, if I want to continue to be a working artist.
Raised by two working poor parents, both of whom defied tyrants, Franco (my father a Spanish Roma) and Trujillo (my mother born in Puerto Rico and raised on the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti), taught me that integrity and the struggle for justice have a price that is worth paying. They assured me I would never have troubled sleep, and they were right. I’d rather clean toilets, than be anyone’s “hot blooded Latin” or “cuchi-cuchi mamacita” for diversity day. I will have to work until the day I die, since transgressive creative production has assured me of a poor retirement plan. The good news is, I love to work.
An artistic trajectory of over 35 years as a cultural worker and I am still relegated to the margins. I have the good fortune of knowing and collaborating with world-class artists on a regular basis, and they are also expected to don their “ethnic” attire and speak rice and beans, chop suey and sweet potato pie. We refuse to sell-out so we tighten our belts, continue to raise the bar and produce our own events.
A few years ago the demise of the Hispanic Playwright’s Project at the South Coast Repertory Theater in California, left many Latino playwrights feeling betrayed and scrambling for new venues to develop and present new work. It also propelled many to self-produce and bypass the gatekeepers. Unfortunately, sometimes the gatekeepers look like us; the classic story of the oppressed becoming the oppressors. When competition takes precedence over collaboration, Darwin gloats. However, it is not always the fittest who survive, but those who fit into the dominant paradigm of feel good mediocrity.
In Western Massachusetts we now face the cavalier disposal of New WORLD Theater at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. For over 30 years NWT has provided venue for countless artists of color, programming and training for youth, and have gained national and international recognition for bringing the work of diverse artists to the mainstage, putting the arts in Western Massachusetts on the international map. They were the first to organize an international theater conference in the area, Intersections, that brought artistic luminaries of the arts to Western Massachusetts and opened doors of opportunity for many of our gifted local artists.My letter of protest to the University was answered in a proscribed and perfunctory manner with something along the lines of “I have complete confidence in...decisions about their programs that are in the best interest of the campus.” The campus? What about the rest of the community? The elimination of NWT does not just impact “the campus” but all of Western Massachusetts and the countless faithful audience members who for decades attended events from all over the Pioneer Valley. At a time when the University of Massachusetts is nurturing a “creative economy” partnership with the City of Springfield, I find it difficult to understand the logic in excising the major provider of venue and voice for marginalized as well as mainstream artists of color and youth in Western Massachusetts at affordable prices that welcome diverse audiences across class, and from all walks of life.
Community Partnership? Am I missing something?
Since the salaries of UMass employees are available for public viewing, I did a little research and was appalled by what some of the pencil pushers earn as compared to the budget of NWT (which was supplemented by their own grant-writing efforts.) Let’s not kid ourselves, every major institution has its share of the elite inept on the dole. I personally know a few, in various institutions, who by playing it safe and going along with the status quo, have made a nice, fluffy nest for themselves. I’m certain that there will not be much noise coming from those who comfortably wear their golden handcuffs in regards to this travesty.
Not all bullying happens in the schoolyard.