March 18, 2005

Voz Alta: Being and Becoming

By Michael Klam

Maybe it all started with a pin drop. But not that faint sound that makes all heads turn in a quiet room. The noise, in this case, hit the floor, the walls, the ceiling and made the kind of explosion in silence that can tear an ear completely off. BOOM! The performer flew back in a flash of pyrotechnic lightening, his feet flying over his head. Some audience members scrambled for the exit. Others sat in ear-ringing shock. Others cheered. The smoke detectors went off. It was part of a game-skit put on by the Anarchist Think Tank called Imminent Jeopardy. The point of it all: Bring the Bushite war on terrorism home and throw it in the laps of Americans.

Voz Alta board members (left to right) Adrian Arancibia, Cecil Hayduke, Stephanie De La Torre, and Norberto Cisneros.

A question had been posed in the category of Bush or Stalin? The contestant, a shill, a stunt performer named Junk Boy, answered his query incorrectly and was subsequently “blown up.” A small charge on his chest, between his shirt and a protective vest, sent him and half the audience reeling.

What does an anarchist show that employs chaos theory to blur the line between art and reality have to do with Voz Alta, a Chicano-run space originally created to provide opportunities for emerging young Latino writers? Perhaps the answer lies in an ever-changing and progressive theory of identity for Voz Alta.

According to cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, “Identity is both being and becoming.” Identity as being offers a sense of unity and commonality. Identity of becoming, on the other hand, is a process of identification, which shows the discontinuity in identity formation.

Adrian Arancibia, Vice President of Voz Alta’s board of directors says, “What Chicano was and what Chicano is are two different things. Identity has to go through its transformations and its progressions.” He considers Voz Alta to be a center for cross-fertilization during an era of renaissance in San Diego. Forming coalitions with the broader community is evolution. “We may come in a variety of different colors and sizes. You can’t pinpoint us down, and at the same time we can create a kind of critical mass without falling into the traps of having a monolithic way of thinking about it,” says Arancibia. He describes Voz Alta as an intersection of communities, and yet the organization has not lost sight of its goal as a space for emerging Chicano artists. “We have young Chicano groups like Cabeza de Vaca who play broken español, Chicano groove, reggae. Now they have gigs at Croce’s and Humphrey’s. We provided them with a space to begin, to be able to work their way out,” says Arancibia. Brujas y bellas, Third Word, and the upcoming Palabras y Flores are all Voz Alta programs run by Chicanas.

Voz Alta Director, Stephanie De La Torre, agrees, “We started as a literary space to provide for emerging young Chicano writers, but it evolved into something we never expected which is kind of strangely beautiful.” Voz Alta has erased its borders in a progressive move to support a variety of artists and artistic styles. Consider the eclectic nature of Voz Alta’s last community meeting. Those present included: Cecil Hayduke, the anarchist curator of SD Slam; Rebecca Romani, representing the Arab-American community; Ellen Weller from Trummerflora who is part of the La Jolla Jewish Community Center; a group of young anarchists from the Independent Media Center; young Latina writers from Brujas y Bellas; and up-and-coming Latino rock stars from Cabeza de Vaca. “These are strange intersections of community but it’s necessary in a lot of ways because it creates dialogue and it forces people to come outside of their own communities and interact,” says De La Torre. “Everybody realizes Voz Alta’s mission as a Chicano/Latino non-profit organization, using multidisciplinary artforms to promote social change. It comes through art, through activism. The community runs the space. The space doesn’t run the community.”

Voz Alta as a gallery has also provided a valuable service to two major institutions in the San Diego Arts community: The Children’s Museum and Sushi Performance and Visual Art. “The city has displaced them. We provide space to the two institutions because the city has not provided alternative venues for them to do exhibitions. We are under-acknowledged and under-funded,” explains De La Torre. Voz Alta has also given a home to the Independent Media Center for their films and education projects.

It has not always been smooth sailing for the Voz Alta board of directors. On the contrary, Voz Alta has had to survive a few storms. The project was born from struggle. The space emerged from a need to carry on when many in the Chicano/Latino arts community found themselves locked in a stalemate between local artists and activists and the Centro Cultural de la Raza.

Some history: In 1999 a new administration took over the Centro. Their task was to somehow find the money and the resources to repair the building’s deteriorating structure and achieve fiscal solvency. The new administration chose to acquire corporate support to keep the Centro alive. Many in the Chicano community saw the move to corporatize, and the Centro’s business-style reform, as a divisive affront to the Centro’s original mission: To promote, preserve and create indigenous Latino, Chicano and Mexican art and culture. A group called the Save Our Centro Coalition (SOCC) continues its boycott of the Centro to this day. The SOCC’s threat to picket Mapping Chicano Art’s “Chicano Visions” exhibition (organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art), and the inability to find a common ground, led to the cancellation of this important event for Chicano arts in San Diego. A series of articles ran in La Prensa from July to September, including a call from CSUSM professor and artist David Avalos to unite for the sake of community: “Let’s forgive, not forget, and learn from our mistakes.” The SOCC responded with an explanation of the boycott, and called for “all people of conscience not to cross the picket line.” Adrian Arancibia of Voz Alta chimed in, offering Voz Alta as a “possible venue for conflict mediation/resolution.” And the Centro responded by attempting to “correct” some of the accusations made by the SOCC, and “deeply” apologized for any “missteps” they may have taken.

The wounds are deep and continue to affect Chicano arts in San Diego. The issues spread through the board at Voz Alta. Disagreements about identity, the boycott, personality conflicts, accusations of inflated egos, power struggles, all would lead to the departure of eight board members in 2004.

Fortunately, in spite of their differences, all of the board members of Voz Alta, past and present, have continued the work. Red Calaca Press publishes rising artists and fosters community awareness. Victor Payan helped coordinate Día de la Mujer, and continues to moderate and support events at Hot Monkey Love Café (Tuesday night open mic) and Chicano Perk. Payan also edited the program book for the Latino Film Festival. An outspoken proponent of the SOCC boycott, Payan has also committed to creating a dialogue with the Centro. Although, he remains cautious: “We want the Centro to fulfill its original mission. We want a transparent accounting of [the Centro’s] actions. Unify, yes, but do not accept an injustice. Unity for unity’s sake is slavery.” Payan supports Voz Alta’s contributions to the arts community in San Diego and says, “the community thrown out [of the Centro] is doing the cultural work.”

Cecil Hayduke, new board member of Voz Alta, had perhaps the most condemning comments, regarding the struggle between present and former board members: “I don’t see the need for unity between the feuding factions (Calaca vs. Voz Alta). If organizations have different visions, they should proceed in advancement of those visions. Just as I don’t want to get along with corporate Republican scum and wimpy Democrats - I don’t see why the Calaca people need us to see eye to eye. In my position of hindsight, I think the feuding was based much more on ego than on politics - slightly varying versions of 60’s politics was all it was. My personal politics are much more extreme than both groups and I don’t really see a large coalition adopting my beliefs so I think everyone should just be themselves and move on.”

Arancibia looks to the future, “Isn’t it beautiful to be able to say that you were part of something and you tried your best and you could be criticized for it or hated for it and liked for it at the same time, too, and see some tangible results. For me, one of the highlights of my life will probably be the day that we had 400 people for the grand opening of Voz Alta a year after everybody left, and who was in the audience? Those people that left.”

Voz Alta’s current series, “re/de clamando la linea/ re/de claiming the line,” brings back former board members and Taco Shop Poets along with emerging local poets in four shows. “re/de clamando la linea/ re/de claiming the line” documents the experience of living on the border, re/claiming urban space and de/claiming the physical border, transforming notions of identity and re-territorializing space from taco shops to the academy. The next show is this Friday, March 18, 2005, 8:00 p.m., and features Tomas Riley, Lizz Huerta, and Diego Davalos. Check for details.

“We have the vision of where we want to go. The community is taking ownership of the space. Now we have to really look at new ways of conceiving Chicano identity, of ways of theorizing about it and how to organize it. 400 people in Voz Alta. That’s critical mass,” says Arancibia.

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