Michelle Ramos, Alternate ROOTS’ Executive Director | July 19, 2018
One of Michelle Ramos’ first moves as ROOTS’ new executive director was to announce the #ROOTSRoadTrip – that she’d be packing her bags and hitting the road to meet ROOTers in their communities. Responses came rushing in, and from April-June Michelle made twelve #ROOTSRoadTrip visits. This is the last of a three part Travelogue in which Michelle reflects on her journey. You can read Part One here and Part Two here.
This ROOTS’ community presence here is strong and vibrant and the afternoon spent in Charleston, was one of incredible engagement, great questions, and so much passion about the community, the artists, and the challenges they face. I had not been to Charleston in over a decade and since that time, the pain and weight of the traumas of our time has become that much more palpable. I was keenly aware of this as I drove the four hour trip, which allowed for time of reflection in between the markers of confederate flags and senior centers with various first names but all ending in a common word that communicated a lot about where I was — “plantation.”
This community also shared concerns about ROOTS losing its Southern identity and its obligation to continue to support those artists in the South that didn’t have the same opportunities and funding as artists on the coasts or larger cities across the US. There were many elders present and I had wonderful one-on-one discussions with them and learned about ROOTS’ early days and how there had to be a ROOTS, especially in places like Charleston. The conversation turned to gentrification which folks wanted to riff on for a while (are we detecting a pattern here?). The cross-generation discourse was riveting, and I left feeling like a trip back was a must and soon, this community was remarkable and these artists, I want to know a bunch more about!
Following my visit in Charleston, SC I drove another 3.5 hours to make an evening convening with Dan Brawley and Cucalorus in Wilmington, NC. I had not been here before and fell in love with the city’s architecture, waterfront location, and the community where our ROOTers hold space. I was greeted by a group of 6-7 dancers who happened to be in the middle of a residency. I spent about an hour with these amazing young women before making my way back to the movie theater where I enjoyed several hours of discussion with about 20 artists from the region – about three ROOTers and others interested in learning more.
A ROOTS elder shared some positives and negatives during the conversation – like any 42 year old social justice organization, we know ROOTS’ journey has not been without struggle and contention. Another member who had been an Artistic Assistance grantee talked of her experience and how that grant changed so much for her and her organization. I also had a discussion with a woman interested in the arts and criminal justice nexus and shared our plans to start a Criminal Justice Work Group. I look forward to returning to Wilmington and spending some time on the ground there with many of the amazing artists that came out and look forward to a deeper connection with many in this community.
San Diego, CA
While traveling to California for the Dance/USA conference where I serve as Board Chair, I was persuaded by Samuel Valdez to make a stop in San Diego to meet with San Diego/Tijuana artists in that region. Several people in attendance had been to ROOTS Week and it was clear that experience for them was pivotal and had really left an impression. I started off the meeting explaining to folks that although I am half Mexican, my Spanish speaking skills were in need of much practice, but that I was good at understanding when someone spoke Spanish to me. Needless to say, over half of the people in attendance chose to speak Spanish and as a result I was able to practice my bi-lingual listening skills on this Road Trip visit.
Folks shared about the challenges of not having a dedicated Latinx theater in the region and how, as in most cities, a limited number of arts organization received all the funding for the city’s arts sector leaving little, if any, for the remaining small scale artists. We were blessed to be offered space for this convening at Community Arts Center, and founder Jennie Hamilton treated us to a tour and walking history of this remarkable space which she founded in 1998 to support Black theater artists in the San Diego region. I was humbled to learn that she had never received funding but, through a labor of love, funds and runs the theater off of earned income and individual donations through her community. The light in her eyes as she spoke of the hard work and challenges required to provide a space for her peers was radiating throughout the meeting. Her gracious demeanor and soul-filled smile made it easy to see how one might want to support her and yet my heart ached knowing how long and hard she must have struggled to make this theater a reality for her and her community, and yet very few knew in her community or beyond about this amazing space we shared together this evening.
Artists talked about the contrast between the amazing art happening in Tijuana ( in a third world country) seeking equality and fighting misogyny and the work in San Diego (in a first world country) seeking representation and a dedicated theater for their work. We also heard that most theaters won’t present their work because of cultural themes, women directed, or subject matters these artists were addressing including misogyny, racism, immigration, poverty, sex trafficking, LGBT issues, and other topics these artists are passionate about.
Artists wanted to know if ROOTS could be more engaged in the region, they stressed although they are in San Diego (considered a big city) their issues were just as challenging and their opportunities just as marginal as many artists in Southern cities. They thought networking with other ROOTS artists would be meaningful, being able to apply for ROOTS Artistic Assistance grants and being the 4th largest Latinx audience in the country felt they could also support and partner with ROOTS for our goals of better connections with our Latinx members and communities.
This was a beautiful and full community of exceptional artists who clearly hold a love for ROOTS and want to be better connected to others in the network. I committed to this community to work on our support of their goals and to continue the conversations about how we can have a meaningful partnership with artists from this region. Looking forward for what’s to come. Hasta pronto, Amígos!