The Power of Culturally Specific Artistry

Posted by Jade Cintrón Báez , Sep 20, 2022 0 comments

Note for readers: As the community continues to navigate how we’d like to be addressed, you’ll see me use both Latiné and [email protected] to capture multiple genders and identities. Both are used throughout the community as well as the more frequently seen Latino, Latina, Latinx and Hispanic. I personally try to navigate this with the inclusion of non-binary and trans folks, understanding that with time and reflection this will grow and change. For now, I try to use Latiné in general for the community and [email protected] if I’m addressing a noun that might typically be gendered. I understand that this is an ongoing conversation that also traverses generations and hope that while those decisions are discussed, we can focus on inclusivity and the topic at hand.

My Superpower Was Once My Kryptonite 

As founder and director of ¡Looking Bilingüe!, a storytelling platform for Latinés who feel ni de aquí, ni de allá (neither from here nor from there), I have the pleasure of listening to people’s stories, exchanging perspectives on issues our community faces, and uplifting the U.S.-born Latinés who can’t speak Spanish fluently, face racism, and/or who generally feel they can’t claim their Latiné culture. These guests and I amplify these topics, archiving where they are on their journey, and acknowledge the patchwork quilt that is Latinidad: not a melting pot, but how we stitch together who we are today based on our shared and distinct multicultural and multirace histories. 

This work was once something I ran from. The idea of using my cultural identity professionally was something I felt embarrassed about. It felt inappropriate, rude, and something I had to keep neutralized for the sake of homogeneity. As an actor, I’d been conditioned to think of how I could fit in certain “ideal” boxes, and this had bled into my personal life. 

Was I American or was I Latina? 
Couldn’t I be both? 
Was I an actor or a thespian who used theater as a tool for education? 
Does not pursuing a traditional actor’s life make me less than?

I’d grown weary of 30-second elevator pitches of my cultural identity and artistry. I wanted to find a way to be myself in both professional and personal spaces without having to tick everyone else’s boxes—to make my story mine.

Fearing Specificity 

As artists, many of us have had the unfortunate displeasure of having people doubt our career paths and the “WHY” of what we do. People have asked me “who cares?” or even “what’s the point?” When I saw my calling was to mix my artistry with my cultural identity, I had some of the same recurring doubts that society had fed back to me. 

Who cares that you’re Latina?
Why does that make you special?
There are lots of [email protected]…why YOUR story? Why YOU?

Admittedly, I also felt like I was cheating. How is using my identity to promote storytelling fair? Though I was always happy to partake in my cultural traditions and speak Spanish, I didn’t enjoy sticking out as a result. I wanted to blend in, but what in society had conditioned me to feel negatively towards publicly and professionally celebrating being Latina? 

Racism and Discrimination 

It’s become clear to me that white dominant spaces had made me feel lesser than, called me exotic, looked at me like I had 20 heads if I spoke in Spanish, and used me for quotas. As an actor, being handed a scene or role that was “culturally specific” meant a scene where one of us was young and pregnant, a maid, or a gang member. 

Sticking out meant opening myself to vulnerability, danger, and exhaustion. At the end of the day one can detach themselves from their work, but from being [email protected] or their bilingual, multicultural reality? Nope. You can’t shut that down after 5:00 p.m.

The Power of Specificity

It was during my master’s program in arts administration at Drexel University that my professors really pushed me to unapologetically embrace this journey. I let go of my biases and was specific about my artistry and interests in the context of bilingual, bicultural arts programming and education. Suddenly everything changed. I found that I actually felt no shame, that there was a community that craved and needed the specificity of this work, and that I was finally ready to embrace this part of my story.

Screenshot of a Zoom call between two people having a lively conversation.
Jade Cintrón Báez interviews Arleny Pimentel on the ¡Looking Bilingüe! storytelling platform, image courtesy of the author.

What ultimately was born as ¡Looking Bilingüe! took two more years to cook up, but my journey to get there as well as the state of the world was necessary to see what needed to be done. The murder of George Floyd, the arts and culture sector beginning (hopefully?) to face its racist roots, stay-at-home conditions, wondering when we were going to share public spaces and experiences together safely again…all this made space for listening and specificity. Though there was a lot of noise, there was also opportunity.

The Power of Storytelling For All

If you’ve ever found yourself chomping at the bit to tell someone a story or were thrilled to be listening to one, that is just a taste of the power of storytelling: a way to share or even commune with people around you as a way of connecting and understanding. After we tell or hear a story, we can feel closer to those around us—or perhaps even farther (though that may not necessarily be a bad thing). Imagine the impact of that story sharing when you share a cultural understanding with each other!

After every interview I’ve done with ¡Looking Bilingüe!, my guests and I both express a feeling of catharsis. The act of sharing something only we Latinés that were raised here understand, helps us feel heard. We’ve unlocked another layer of our story and it’s meaningful.

By sharing our stories, we reclaim our space in society and invite other Latinés and potentially other first through third generations of Americans to find the commonalities in our experiences and also to tell their story. As artists and makers, there are endless ways to share a story and our culture(s) are a part of that. The joy of the journey has been finding a way to tell mine. How do you tell yours?

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