It’s all about a Latino voice to tell the Latino story.
For two years, Tacoma’s Latin Arts Festival has flown mostly under the radar, drawing about 1,000 people each time. This year, the festival will join with the Hilltop Street Fair on Saturday, and the combined event is expected to attract more than 10,000 visitors.
It’s also expanding, adding puppet shows, a microbusiness barrio and film contest to the art show and costume parade. The goal: to reach more people, and to give Tacoma’s Latino community a stronger voice.
“(Art) provides a unifying voice of who we are and what our culture stands for, and to see that voice expand in many different ways,” said J.P. Avila, a judge for the festival’s art show.
Art provides a unifying voice of who we are and what our culture stands for.
- J.P. Avila, Latin Arts Festival juror
“The festival is about education and entertainment to tell the story of (Latino) immigration,” said Susanne Marten, director at Centro Latino, which organizes the festival. “There’s a lot of discussion right now about the negative side of immigration, and we want to talk about the positive side.
“We need to learn more about our neighbors.”
Telling Latino stories through art
One big way the Latin Arts Festival talks about the Latino experience in the Northwest is through art.
Since mid-August, a juried art show has been on the walls of Centro Latino, supported by the Tacoma Arts Commission and with submissions from Tacoma to California to Argentina.
In addition to showing diversity in genre, medium and technical skill, the stories of the artists — printed next to the art — tell an even more diverse tale.
There’s René Julio’s charcoal drawing of businessmen’s feet trampling skulls and skeletons, Mauricio Robalino’s whimsical print of flying fish and Christie Tirado’s serigraph series, “La Loteria,” which gives a dual-culture spin to the card game.
“It’s fascinating,” said Avila, associate professor and chairman of the Art Department at Pacific Lutheran University. “Whether amateur, trained or working outside of their field, (these artists) are using art to realize their experiences, the places they’ve been to.”
9.4 Percent of Tacomans who are Latino
For co-judge Alfredo Arreguin, a renowned Northwest artist who migrated from Mexico in 1957, the festival is vital for artists as well.
“There are so few opportunities for Latinos to have work in a gallery,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate that my work has influences both from my background as a Mexican but also here in the Northwest. That was my salvation economically.”
But, Arreguin noted, despite having work in collections such as the Smithsonian Museum and in more than 50 shows in the Northwest, he’s still seen as a Mexican rather than a Northwest artist.
“If an artist comes from Minnesota, in three years he’s a Northwest artist,” Arreguin said. “In one sense, it’s not logical. But in another, it’s enabled me to have a foot in both cultures.”
Blanca Santander is another artist who’s fought to have her work recognized. The winner of last year’s art show, she was commissioned this year by Centro Latino to create a piece inspired by a panel in February at the University of Puget Sound on the Latino experience in the Northwest.
“Everything I heard was positive. They are passing barriers with the language, aiming to be professors,” Santander said.
So she painted a large, neorealistic landscape of Tacoma and Mount Rainier, rimmed by snowy mountains, with a huge, benign figure of Mother Earth on whose trailing purple hair stand small farmworkers — honored at the top of the painting.
“There are so many farmworkers here who are invisible, who enabled their kids to study and attain political positions,” Santander said. “And they make the food that we depend on every day. I’m celebrating their hard work.”
Like Arreguin, Santander — who moved here from Peru in 1996 — embodies the experience of a skilled immigrant who has to build a life again from scratch.
“It was really hard, because I had a successful career in my country,” she said. “Here, I worked in restaurants to make money for art materials.”
Lately, Santander has gotten grants and projects, but also has hit cultural barriers.
“In my country, I was a painter,” she said. “Here, I’m a Latina painter, a woman painter. Here, I first learned I was brown, from a child I was painting with.”
The art show, as with previous festivals, helps Latino scholars: Arreguin is donating his serigraph, “Duwamish,” for a silent auction, which will fund a college scholarship. All the artists will be honored at a reception 6-8 p.m. Saturday.
Puppets, costumes, traditions
Another way the Latin Arts Festival tells the Latino story is through traditional arts.
As in previous festivals, a big part of the day is a procession of flags and costumes from 23 countries in North, Central and South America, plus Spain and Puerto Rico. The procession will expand this year, marching from Centro Latino at 1208 S. L St. along South L Street to South 13th Street, then up Martin Luther King Jr. Way to People’s Park, where a Latino band will play songs from the various countries.
This year, there will also be puppets.
Martha Davies, who at 83 still makes and repairs costumes for the parade, was inspired by a child who bought a set of traditional Peruvian finger puppets she had at her small home-store.
So Davis has recruited two puppeteers from Mexico and the Dominican Republic who will bring hand puppets and marionettes in a traditional theater to People’s Park during the festival. They’ll tell folk tales and will invite kids to take part through music and storytelling, giving out paper dolls to keep.
“I’m hoping kids would be interested enough to make their own puppets and stories,” Davies said.
For Davies (née Hernando), who came to Tacoma from Peru as a bride in 1951, the Latin Arts Festival is important to unite the Latino community.
It helps us remember where we came from. Knowing your roots builds your self-esteem.
- Martha Davies, Latin Arts Festival
“It helps us remember where we came from,” she said. “Knowing your roots builds your self-esteem. Even though we’re in a minority, we haven’t had any kind of union. But now it’s been noticeable — I’ve had help from Columbians, from Peruvians, from Mexicans …”
Entrepreneurs and filmmakers
Two other new components of this year’s festival aim to help youth and entrepreneurs in the Latino community. A barrio (marketplace) of local Latino microbusinesses will be set up in the south parking lot of the Tacoma Housing Authority, which borders People’s Park.
And in Centro Latino, the winning entries in a first-ever film contest will be screened. With just four entries, the contest — the result of a summer filmmaking class at the library for Latino youth — is small, but will be the start of something larger, Marten said.
“We know young people make movies on their phones,” she said. “We want to get them to a level beyond that. It teaches them editing and writing skills, and teamwork.”
Latinos make up about 9.4 percent of Tacoma’s 200,000 people.
Two Latino Town Halls in March and May brought up issues such as language barriers, lack of political representation, lack of resources, discrimination and worries about undocumented immigrants.
Bringing the community into the spotlight with the Latin Arts Fest — and bringing many more participants thanks to the Hilltop Street Fair — is a crucial step.
“For me, being Latino in Tacoma is an important role,” Avila said. “To be able to express my voice, my opinion, to represent my culture and heritage in the best light possible.”
Latin Arts Festival
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Centro Latino, 1208 S. L St., Tacoma; People’s Park, South 11th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
Events: Art show and film contest (all day, at Centro Latino); microbusiness barrio (all day, at Tacoma Housing Authority parking lot); 11 a.m.-4 p.m. puppet theater (People’s Park); 1-3 p.m. flag and costume procession (People’s Park); 6-8 p.m. artist reception (Centro Latino).