Unidos por el Arte shines light on local Latinx artists

After seeing a lack of representation of Latino actors and artists like themselves on the stage, silver screen, and on the written page, Letitia Lopez was inspired to speak her mind. So in 2017, when Lopez saw that Cuyahoga Arts and Culture (CAC) was looking at the question of whether diversity and equity were missing from their roster of artists, she came forward. 

Julia de Burgos Cultural Arts Center’s Unidos por el Arte supports local Latino artists.Lopez, executive director of the Julia de Burgos Cultural Arts Center, was at the table when the slide on demographics—the number racial and ethnic heritages of the artists receiving support—went up to a roomful of executives and she saw that only 2% of Cleveland arts funding was apportioned to Latinx artists.

“I asked, ‘are Latino artists being made aware of this and prepared to apply for it?” Lopez recalls asking when discussions turned to the CAC Support for Artists grants that offer stipends to individual artists.

At that moment Lopez says she conceived of Unidos por el Arte, a program focused on supporting Latino artists in Cleveland, and launched the program in 2019. CAC was convinced of the need, too. 

The CAC established a special program in 2020 and provided six Latino artists with $5,000 stipends that year. This year, CAC provided $70,000 in funding, expanding the reach and providing 10 Latino artists in the Cleveland area with $5,000 stipends to produce work in a range of disciplines, from film to stage to poetry to visual art. The remaining money was used to cover administrative needs and other resources.

The 2021 artists include Elisa Clark, Stephanie Ginese, Bridgett Martinez, Alicia Vasquez, Carlos Cruz, Arcelia Gandarilla, Manny Santiago, Higo Gabarron, Nathalie Bermudez, and Moises Borges.

Representation of Latinx artists, who have quite a lot to say about contemporary issues such as immigration policy that separates children from parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, is a current that runs through the work of the artists selected in the 2021 Unidos por el Arte program. The artists speak of a need for more channels for Latinx artists to be heard.

Here's a look at three of the artists.

Elisa Cuervo Clark
Some of the artists, like Elisa Cuervo Clark, a filmmaker and an executive for the non-profit organization, Hispanic Filmmakers of Cleveland, explore social justice through the lens of family histories. The connection to Lopez was a spark for Clark, who holds Lopez in high regard (calling her “a soulmate”). 

When Clark showed Lopez her first film, which she made by cobbling together her own money and $500 that she garnered as a finalist of Cleveland Camera Rental’s Incubator Project, Lopez’ reaction was immediate. 

“[Lopez’] response was, ‘This is incredible. How did you make it for so little money?’ Clark recalls. “She was so supportive and encouraging.” 

That film traces the journey of her Mexican great grandmother who settled in Lorain, Ohio and waited 25 years to be granted a green card. “She couldn’t speak English and wasn’t literate,” Clark says of the central figure in the film. “The courage she had speaks to the kind of woman she was.”

Clark went on to make a short film, “A Long Drive Home,” which won a Telly Award, the annual film and television awards from international media network, Telemundo. 

With her Unidos por el Arte/CAC award, Clark was able to produce her latest film, “Separated,” about an act of violence that leads a mother and child to flee from Mexico to the U.S. where they are separated at the border and have to navigate a U.S. immigration hearing. 

“[It’s about] the absurdity of having a minor who doesn’t understand the language let alone the process of what you’re putting them through, and the mother who is not told where her child is,” says.

Clark, who studied acting and whose bit parts in film and TV shows like “Army Wives” opened her eyes to entertainment production, is forthcoming about inventing herself as a writer and director. She did it in order to find avenues for stories about Latinos.

“I was frustrated and said, ‘why are they not writing more of our stories?’” she says. “So, I started writing a fictional narrative from the news and it flowed.”

Stephanie Ginese
Just like Clark, poet Stephanie Ginese uncovered stories laced with prejudice but was also inspired by the perseverance of her elders. For her soon-to-be published book of poems titled, “Unto Dogs” Ginese reflected on her great grandmother, a poet who lived in Puerto Rico. 

Seeing old film footage of her great grandmother reciting her poems from the front porch of her house resonated with Ginese. “She wrote about family—she had 14 children—so, [she wrote about] family and politics,” says Ginese. “She was one of the first women on the island to exercise her right to vote, and she voted every year. She had to show up at the polls when she was 100 years old to prove she was still living.”

Ginese also turned to poetry to process hardships and injustices.

“[My] book focuses on the story of Puerto Rico where experimental programs in birth control essentially used women as guinea pigs,” says Ginese, a single parent raising two boys. “It deals with my journey as a Puerto Rican woman here in the mainland and how women’s bodies are colonized. And there’s some mysticism and spirituality thrown in.”  

Ginese appreciates the time and space afforded by the Unidos por el Arte grant and that it came from a center that carries the namesake of a famous Latina poet.

“There weren’t too many hard lines or boundaries. It was nice to cover the basics,” she says. “For artists to have the time to not be so tethered to their survival allows us to experiment, to explore our vision.”

Bridgett Martinez
Bridgett Martinez is a recent graduate from Kent State University’s Musical Theater program who produced and directed her first play with her Unidos por el Arte grant. Her last act before the pandemic was directing a staged reading of a play at Kent and working with Gum-Dip Theater in Akron on a ‘devised play’ — where director and actors collaborate on writing the script — in this case for “Denied Admission” a play about asylum seekers who are detained at the U.S. border and sent to Youngstown to await a hearing. 

When the Unidos por el Arte grant came up, it was like a light in the fog of uncertainty after college, she said, when she was searching for an opening in the theater world. Her grant was instrumental in producing her own devised play, “Like Me” about teenage girls finding ways of expressing self-love. 

Martinez was moved by the willingness of the cast to write, often for the first time, from the heart about identity in an age of artifice and overexposure from social media. 

“They decided they wanted to do characters like themselves, inspired by their own lives,” says Martinez, who converted the lobby at Julia De Burgos into a black box theater and held a Q&A with the audience after the performance. “A lot of (audience members) asked how the girls were able to be so vulnerable.” 

“I was so grateful to find the resources and inspired that I can have new ideas and bring them to a space where they will be heard,” says Martinez.  

Read more articles by Marc Lefkowitz.

Marc Lefkowitz is a sustainability consultant with more than 15 years of experience writing, speaking and advocating for a more sustainable Northeast Ohio. He served as Director of the GreenCityBlueLake Institute and editor of its well-known blog at gcbl.org. He has a B.A. in English from Ohio State University and an M.A. in urban planning from Cleveland State University. He is a regular bike commuter and transit rider. Photo: Liz Cooper.