After two decades of living as a Puerto Rican transplant in Greater Cleveland, Nebeska Aviles yearned for a cultural uplifting.
She had a steady career as a bilingual investigator for the U.S. Department of Labor, and was busy raising two kids and participating infrequently in the Puerto Rican Day Parade. Each year, Aviles saw cultural celebration plummet post-festival. She saw her community needing more than flag-waving, a mere afternoon of floats.
Her solution? “I would take it upon myself,” she says.
With a call to a Puerto Rican mask-maker and master artisan, Kenneth Melendez, Aviles set out to reintroduce Clark’s Hispanic population to the Spanish tradition of vejigantes (colorful, monstrous costumes originally used to frighten non-churchgoers in 12th century Madrid). The parade’s organizers adored her spirit so much, they invited her and her vejigantes back this year.
Problem was, Aviles didn’t have the funding.
“So I presented the idea to [the Hispanic Business Center], to make ‘em just as I did it the previous year,” she says. “‘[I said,] 'This is the idea for the doll. And it would be great if we could have 10 [of them].’”
With high demand and stiff competition for arts funding, many Latinx painters, sculptors, and actors are often forced to relegate their passion to mere hobby, rather than earnest profession. For someone like Aviles, this means spending $200 to $300 per vejigante out-of-pocket (not including time spent on labor).
These realities underscore a long-time issue in the arts: Though people of color represent 37 percent of the national population, just four percent of all foundation arts funding is allocated to groups whose primary mission is to serve communities of color, according to Helicon.
Thankfully, the tide is turning, at least here in Cleveland. In December 2018, Cuyahoga Arts + Culture (CAC) awarded the HBC a $50,000 grant. Being right-place-right-time with CAC’s 2018 policy shift—to re-focus their Support For Artists program on minority creatives—the HBC utilized the grant to formalize a long-running need in Northeast Ohio’s Latin community: a solid network of linked artists.
Using the funds to award worthy “artrepreneurs” micro-grants of $500 to $5,000, the HBC formed the Artist Colectivo—an online directory that helps local Latinx artists get more exposure, increase their reach, and receive business development support. According to HBC associate director Jason Estremera, approximately 30 artists are part of the Colectivo so far, with more in the pipeline.
“It’s always been so word-of-mouth in our community,” says Estremera. “We’ve never seen a concerted group like [the Colectivo]. ‘Oh, here’s a Latino group with resources?’ In the past, we just worked alone.”
Some of the artists currently listed in the Colectivo directory are Puerto Rican painter Bruno Ocasio; Colombian musician Carolina Borja; and Panamanian actress Sylka Edmondson.
As an actor for Teatro Publico, a Spanish-language branch of the Cleveland Public Theatre, Estremera knows firsthand the overwhelming potential of boosting fellow Hispanic creatives.
In fact, in 2018, he worked with CPT actors Dante Larzacal (from Uruguay) and Monica Torres (from Puerto Rico) to birth what Torres calls Ohio’s first entirely Latin-owned theater companies, LatinUs. Though LatinUs isn't part of the Colectivo since the Colectivo is geared at individual artists, Torres says the HBC was instrumental in making LatinUs a reality.
"They helped us navigate the red tape of becoming a nonprofit and gave us great advice on how to get off the ground," says Torres, a former pediatrician who acts as the company's executive artistic director. "Even though we didn't get [a micro-grant], it's kind of an in-kind contribution from them to us."
Over the last few years, LatinUs has received a collective $40,000-$50,000 in grants from various organizations, including a $5,000 Project Support II grant from CAC for 2019. The funds have helped her mount three performance projects, including "La Muerta Y La Doncella" at Cleveland State University's black box theatre in March. “I’m pinching myself all the time, that this has happened so fast,” she says.
Estremera hopes that the Colectivo will also have a residual effect of elevating Cleveland artists to be considered for high-profile local opportunities. "We're always importing other artists from other places to take on big [art] projects here in Cleveland," says Estremera. "It's time that people realized what we have right here at home."
This article is part of our On the Ground - La Villa Hispana community reporting project in partnership with Dollar Bank, Hispanic Business Center, Esperanza Inc., Greater Cleveland Partnership, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, and Cleveland Development Advisors. Read the rest of our coverage here.