OE Perspectives: J. Soto & Anthony Romero

In an effort to further the conversations that occurred during the conference and share with a wider audience, we are initiating the platform OE Perspectives—first person reflections on OE 2016 provided from a select number of entrusted colleagues and friends of OE.

LATINX Dialogue: Open Engagement 2016

Anthony Romero: Perhaps we can begin by outlining some of the reasons why we have recently begun to move towards self-organizing Latinx peoples? At the time of writing this, we will be moving into the first full summer term for the Latinx Artist Visibility Award, a scholarship that we established at OxBow School of Art and that allows Latinx students to attend a summer class of their choosing, you will have just co-organized Open Forum, a sharing event that worked to network and map contemporary Latinx art making. I will be headed to Open Engagement, where I will report on some of the conversations that we have been having with your collaborators on Open Forum, including Mia Lopez, Josh Rios, Gibran Villalobos, and Brit Barton, around what a Latinx artist retreat might look like. When I think about this kind of work, and similar work that we have done in the past, I think that on the one hand it is an attempt to understand the internal diversity of groups that fall under the Latinx umbrella and on the other hand it is preoccupied with both the distribution of resources within and towards Latinx artist communities as well as how these communities are represented institutionally and organizationally. Underpinning this is the recognition that there are problems of access, visibility, and agency within these communities and that as Latinx people (first) and artists (second) we might be able to redirect resources, advocate for, or otherwise provide opportunities for our communities. For me, it is this recognition and the frustration that flowed from it that has motivated us to do the work but I want to ask you the question as well and maybe generalize it a bit more in hopes of expanding the conversation. Why do you think we moved towards self-organizing in this way?

J. Soto: Rather than move from a position of deficit, I think we found it more self-actualizing, more energizing, to move from a place of what is readily available and who is willing to listen and dream with you from a present place and present moment. This points to a sense of urgency and this is in response to the lack of access and visibility that you mention. I also think that it is tied to the electoral landscape of the last year, where some of the U.S. presidential candidates have been courting the Latinx vote and the term “hispandering” has reemerged as popular, which illuminates a discordance between white politicians and their desired Latinx constituencies. In response to this climate of misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and general lack of visibility and access to opportunities in the arts, we began to self-organize.

Personally, I also wanted to create opportunities for Latinx artists that were not so influenced by institutional tastes that the artists receiving them needed to perform their otherness for the sake of outlining themselves as marginalized. One of my primary concerns is that as we move toward more inclusion, we begin to lose the nuances of the inter-cultural, inter-class, and inter-generational dialogue that is taking place. There is no single brown, no single experience that we can all speak to if we are really trying to listen to each other and take up space together. For this to happen, for the work that we do to attempt to make space for the complexities of embodied latinidad, it seemed that we had to do it ourselves.

A.R: One of the things that I am always wrestling with is how to articulate the complexity of latinidad, as you say. When I mentioned the internal diversity of Latinx peoples earlier, I was thinking of how difficult it is to understand Latinx peoples as a unified group when what we call Latinx actually refers to people who come from many numerous countries and speak several different languages; peoples who are, as you observed the other night, products of colonial histories which have given them a sense of being in-between, of being in the middle. The reality is that many Latinx peoples share more differences than they do commonalities, with migration and colonialism being amongst the most prominent shared experiences. In some ways, I think what we are trying to do with this kind of organizing is to build that commonality in a way that celebrates and incorporates those differences. For me, it is a matter, as you’ve said, of re-educating ourselves, of coming to a better understanding of the landscape of Latinx peoples, in order to better advocate for each other when we are in a position to do so. Were you thinking of the Open Forum event you recently co-organized in this way, as an opportunity to learn about Latinx art and artists?

J.S: Yes, I was. Open Forum: A Visual Conversation on Latinx Art, as we called it, was born out of several conversations that Minneapolis-based curator Mia Lopez and I had over the last six months. We wanted to come to a better understanding of the contemporary Latinx artist landscape and welcome the complications that are brought forth by an open-ended invitation to present contemporary Latinx artists. The terms were intentionally very broad. I feel like we are always battling invisibility and silencing and this was one way to push against that. Oversimplification is another form of silencing. And because capitalism stifles inter-cultural differences that cannot be bought and sold, and because of the practice of omitting the histories of colonized peoples and their descendants, the story of how our experiences intersect or the differences that we can build relationships around often get reduced to the single-symbolic in order to be easily consumable to audiences. With Open Forum, we wanted to counter those patterns and welcome complication by hosting an event that sat adjacent to and was programmed concurrently with the Latino Art Now! conference in Chicago.

For the event, any Latinx artist or cultural producer could present on their own work or on the work of another Latinx artist. We called it a “visual conversation” because we wanted to make it possible for presenters to say as little as they wished, verbally, and to intervene on the expectations of the traditional academic conference format. Here, images carried the same weight as words and the result was a very dynamic evening of sharing and emotion. The evening served as a way to gather together informally and welcome both the commonalities and differences of being Latinxs in the present moment.  By design, the presenters had some relationship to the idea of identifying as Latinx. I am being particular about the language here because not every presenter felt comfortable identifying as Latinx. For some, the pressure to identify as Latinx was an outside one felt only after living in the U.S. For others there may have been tension around moving from the widely-accepted masculine “Latino” to the gender neutral Latinx. A hope for that evening was that as these conversations emerged, so would the personal tensions around identification and language. I think it is important to listen to and honor these sentiments around language with each other.

Since Latinx is an umbrella term that feels applicable to many, I think we can run the risk of seeing it as simply inclusive. But one identifier may operate at the exclusion of another based upon the context in which it is being applied, and how one identifies is a very personal choice. I think it is crucial that we talk about these meaningful tensions in how we can identify both collectively and apart.

Also, I am interested in open structure systems that allow for many different outcomes depending upon the group that is in the room. I place a lot of trust in collaboration and on the fact that people who gather with intention, without a single agreed upon goal, with varied questions and a willingness to ask them publicly, is a deeply valuable thing. Fortunately we were able to find a partner to work with us and trust the structure of Open Forum. We approached ACRE and from the beginning they were on board, essentially turning over their programming space in Pilsen to us and providing tech support and staffing support.

It feels important to note that while the presenters that evening had a relationship to the idea of identifying as Latinx, essentially brown folks presenting on themselves or on other brown folks, the audience as well as the hosts were a diverse crowd including white friends and collaborators. It is also important to say that within the conversations about Latinx representation in the arts that Mia and I were having, was an additional, and equally important conversation about the lack of representation and opportunities for women. Organizing around this conversation is an ongoing goal and value within these projects.

A.R: I completely agree with you. One of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about, especially after introducing the work we’ve been doing (Open Forum, panel discussions, etc.) in preparation or as a lead up to the retreat is to think about how non-Latinx folks and more specifically white folks fit into the events leading up to the retreat as well as the retreat itself. Given the grassroots nature of the event, it seems crucial the we have organizational and institutional partners that have resources that we may not have on our own as artists but the question remains: what is the place of those partners and allies within our desires for the retreat? Another question by extension would be: how do we create situations that respect the collaborations taking place between non-Latinx partners while privileging and claiming space for Latinx peoples?

J.S: I think it is a two-way street built on mutual respect. Allies and partners understand the urgency and necessity of Latinx peoples gathering and taking up space together. My best response to this thus far is to be transparent in your needs, transparent in your support systems, and clear about your boundaries. I once invited a new acquaintance to a POC gathering where we were considering separatism together and they politely said, “I am not a person of color, but I am happy to attend by taking notes for you all.” To me, this was very honest and generous, and an example of a white ally who is willing to help out and also understands sometimes the best way to help can be to provide a skill or a space. It also brings up the challenges of identification and passing; the many nuances of which are experienced across racial paradigms. As we continue to grow and gather collaborators in different parts of the country, and consider partnering with institutions, we want to prioritize open discussion around the values of each, not only envisioning ways to move forward together, but also around the varied resources which brought us into conversation with one another.

About the contributors:


J. Soto is an interdisciplinary artist and poet with a focus on project-specific collaborations in writing, performance and arts organizing. Most recently, Soto co-founded the Latinx Artist Visibility Award (LAVA) for Ox-Bow School of Art. Soto received his MFA in Performance from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He currently lives in New York. Image credit: Stephanie Acosta.

Anthony Romero is an artist, writer, and organizer committed to documenting and supporting artists and communities whose narratives and practices are often excluded from art historical narratives. He currently teaches in the departments of Community Practice and Social Engagement at Moore College of Art and Design.

Anthony Romero is an artist, writer, and organizer committed to documenting and supporting artists and communities whose narratives and practices are often excluded from art historical narratives. He currently teaches in the departments of Community Practice and Social Engagement at Moore College of Art and Design. Image credit: Dana Bassett.

Open Forum was held on April 7, 2016 Organizing presenters included: Mia Lopez, Brit Barton, Gibran Villalobos, Josh Rios  and J. Soto Image credit: ACRE

Open Forum was held on April 7, 2016
Organizing presenters included: Mia Lopez, Brit Barton, Gibran Villalobos, Josh Rios
and J. Soto
Image credit: ACRE