Yollocalli Arts Reach is an award-winning youth initiative of the National Museum of Mexican Art. Located in the heart of the Little Village neighborhood in Chicago’s south-west side, Yollocalli offers free arts and youth culture programming to teens and young adults. Yollocalli works to strengthen the students’ creative and cultural capital by engaging them with their own cultural discourses through art making alongside practicing contemporary artists. Yollocalli is much more than a physical space, it is a fluctuating energy field where everyone is encouraged to ‘Keep it weird.’ Their mission is to highlight the value of youth culture by providing them with access to communal, artistic and cultural resources that allow youth to become self-aware and creatively engaged community members. It is through this work that they have created a very unique space, a caring, loving and creative space that the young and young at heart call home; their name after all means ‘house of the heart’ in Nahuatl.
Organizations like Yollocalli Arts Reach that serve communities of color often face the challenge of having to navigate the philanthropic world whose language romanticize the disenfranchised and assigns terms to youth of color like ‘at-risk’ while authentically engaging its participants and their extended communities. Like artists of color who are always balancing race and identity and whether or not their artistic practice has to reflect their personal identities, organizations that offer programming also face this challenge as they decide what artistic practices are valued and encouraged through their programs. The following is an example of the ways in which people of color begin expanding the idea of what is possible.
A few weeks ago, we received an invitation from one of Chicago’s leading art institutions. They invited us to be a part of a youth summit centered around Social Justice work within urban areas to talk about the work we do at Yollocalli Arts Reach in terms of Social Justice because of the demographics of community we serve (Latino and Black youth). They said they admired our commitment to engage with youth from these types of communities as well as our connection to cultural discourse in our work.
I read and re-read the message a million times, I didn’t know how to react. Was I angry? Confused? Sad? Annoyed?
We have worked with this institution before, our students have participated in their contemporary art happenings for youth, but our young folk have never been asked to showcase their personal struggles of living in their neighborhood. Why should they? They are teens with likes and dislikes—they nerd out online over memes, they are allowed the dignity to just be.
I imagined our brilliant, Brown youth sharing their lives to a group of people unlike themselves—not from the South Side, not Mexican, not economically disenfranchised. Yollocalli Arts Reach is a well-known youth-centered art program in Chicago, and we are known because our creative space allows youth, Brown and Black, to just be. Through being, they can explore learning and the world on their own terms. And yet, here I had to decide if our Brown and Black youth should represent their marginalization to a non-marginalized audience.
If we were not Brown, would we have to decide?
As a cultural program provider, I find myself having to defend a practice that to many is not based on social justice or community engagement. This isn’t because it isn’t. It’s because the aesthetics of social justice are expected to be politically inclined. If you Google social justice poster, you will find countless fists and peace signs. Moreover, art projects/initiatives that take place within Brown and Black communities or with Brown and Black youth are expected to reflect social justices aesthetics and causes. For example, in our case, because we are an arts program for primarily Brown and Black youth, we are expected to create art that highlights the injustices faced by our youth. Why can’t youth of color be expected to create work that reflects their joys? This is an injustice in itself.
Educators know that there are multiple and valid levels of engagement for students. In a classroom full of teenagers, there is a multitude of interests—no matter their race. Beyond their race, they are teens. Let’s provide them with opportunities to learn, explore, be in awe, fall in love, get grossed out, smile, laugh, make mistakes, make friends and experience what every teen should experience in a safe and caring space.
If it is clear that Brown and Black youth face many injustices, and it is clear that social justice practices are fighting to create just distribution of wealth, opportunities and privileges in our society, why are we limiting the expression of Brown and Black youth? Why are we only allowing our Brown and Back youth to represent themselves as the reflection of everything wrong with society?
Communities like ours deserve to choose, to have their realities understood and their humanity respected. Luxury is being allowed to create emotion, to enjoy experiences, learning and openness—who gets this luxury? Who gets to just be?
Artists have the opportunity to learn techniques, explore concepts and aesthetics their way. Some are even deciding to take on social justices by engaging with communities. Community engaged practices are on the rise. Funding for these artistic practices is also on the rise. Foundations want to support artists that are compelled to help disadvantaged communities through art. Artists want to document and share the disenfranchised narrative. Organizations want Brown and Black youth to share their stories of growing up in the violence ridden South Side streets of Chicago. Architects want to build ‘new homes’ for abandoned communities. Newspapers want Brown and Black dying youth to make the headlines. Cops want hooded young men to be guilty until proven innocent.
There is no denying Brown and Black youth are in need of resources, opportunities and love. It is because of those needs that we shouldn’t be using them to stroke our egos, address our guilt, make our art practice noticeable or claim them to validate our lifestyles. By doing this, we are turning those youth we want to help into the subjects of our own narratives. We need to let them be authors of their own lives, communities and practices.
At what point did we decide that artists needed to save communities? When did being a nice person stop being enough?
I am a born and raised Chicagoan. My parents fled Mexico to a land where their love could flourish. We built our lives in the Pilsen/Little Village neighborhoods of Chicago, two richly Mexican immigrant communities. At the age of fourteen, I joined an after-school art program, Yollocalli Arts Reach. At Yollocalli, I met people like me who just wanted to make stuff, see things and live new experiences we didn’t find at home or at school. Back then, teaching artists would sometimes talk to us about representation, identity and make us read Chicano literature. I found it interesting, but felt, like some artists, that I too had to sometimes show, prove, my Mexicanness. My parents helped me understand I did not have to prove anything to anyone. I was their daughter, their brown joy. I learned that people will always want to label you and others like you not because they want to understand you but because they want to know you without actually getting to know you. Years have gone by and now I form a part of Yollocalli’s staff. I see myself in the youth that wander through our halls, scribble silly and emotive images on paper, scroll through their phones in search of that inspiration to who knows what. As a staff member, I don’t want students to feel like they have to prove anything to us, they shouldn’t have to comfort our disdain with society. We, the staff, work to provide a space where Brown and Black youth can live in order to grow on their own terms for their own pride, live unapologetically with dignity and grace.