It was just a handful of youth, but the words coming out of their mouths were powerful, funny, heart-breaking, inspiring. Gathered under the shade of a few trees in a small park bordered by city streets, these youth fought the noise of a nearby construction site to make their voices heard. They represent the multicultural population of San Jose, California, and they are part of MACLA – Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana, an “inclusive contemporary arts space grounded in the Chicano/Latino experience that incubates new visual, literary and performance art in order to engage people in civic dialogue and community transformation.”
This past Saturday I attended Mi Palabra, a monthly youth-run open mic series that just recently got started at MACLA. Though the group was small, it was very welcoming, and there was a variety of talent to be seen. Most people shared spoken word pieces, and two youth collaborated on a song. They even invited me to perform, though I hadn’t come prepared (that’s where cell phones and websites come in handy…).
After the event, as I sat in the office chatting with Rhiannon Beltran, Programs and Curatorial Assistant, one of the youth came in, and they started discussing the low attendance at the event. She was concerned that no one was coming because it was the timing was bad, but Rhiannon was insistent that they just needed to strategize and do better outreach so people would know it was happening. She told the girl (paraphrased), “Let’s work on this together. You and I and the Program Coordinator need to sit down and rethink our recruitment strategy. I’m going to make sure you have access to all the resources we have and that you have everything you need to make this a success.” It amazed me how with just a few words she made the girl an equal partner in the process, gave her a large amount of responsibility, and also an offer of complete support.
MACLA is an organization that, like a few of the others I’ve visited, serves a variety of functions, and operates in many senses like an arts-focused community center. In addition to their youth programs they have an art gallery, they have a black box theater that serves both as a presenting space for touring performers and community events as well as a performance venue for their own productions, and they run a variety of programs that do community development through the arts.
They have an interesting history, in that they were created in the late 80’s as “the result of a broad community mobilization in the City of San Jose and nationwide on behalf of multicultural arts” (MACLA’s website). Around that time someone realized that, though a fair amount of money was being set aside for the arts in San Jose, the bulk of that money was going to for-profit, high end arts venues that 1. primarily served an elite population and 2. didn’t really need the money, as they had a strong foundation of private donors. As a result, MACLA was created out of some of that excess money, to fill the need for a strong local arts organization focusing on the multicultural community.
So if you ever find yourself in the Bay Area, be sure to check them out!