Cultural Equity Dialogues: Media

ACTA - Posted on 11 July 2010

Share this

Participants discuss topics relating to cultural equity and folk & traditional arts.Editor’s Note: This is the third article in ACTA’s Cultural Equity Dialogues.  Based on ACTA's community forum, Building Cultural Equity Through the Traditional Arts, held in Los Angeles in February 2010, the Cultural Equity Dialogues are a series of online, interactive articles exploring topics relating to cultural equity and folk & traditional arts.  You are invited to join this conversation by posting your own comments and stories below.

Jerry Yoshitomi, Meaning Matters LLC
How does media impact cultural equity?  What are the issues –the portrayal of culturally specific traditions and communities?  The participation of people of color and underrepresented communities at decision-making levels in broadcasting?  Commercial vs. public ownership?

Hugo Morales, Executive Director, Radio Bilingüe
I think we have to be really careful about the misuse or the abuse or the use of our traditional values and cultures by commercial interests for gain.  Again, I'm in media and I think one of the examples is commercial Spanish television and radio in the United States at this time.  If you tune in to commercial Spanish-language media, the top-rated formats are, essentially, targeting traditional communities that speak Spanish, mostly Mexican, but playing on the wrong values: demeaning African Americans, demeaning Filipinos, demeaning Japanese-Americans, Chinese-Americans, demeaning the handicapped, demeaning women.  That's what Piolín is about.  That's what he's about.  But he's making a lot of money, he's getting to the White House now, he's friends with Obama.

So I think that it is really important that everybody in this room and others – we who recognize the importance of authenticity and respect traditional cultures and practices and practitioners, the masters – we have to honor them.  That's why it's so important for us to have control of spaces and build our spaces.  Because there are these forces that are just coming along, and corporate America in the late '80s discovered the “Hispanic market,” as they call it, to the point where Hispanics don't own the commercial airwaves that are so prominent nowadays.  So this is something that we all need to be careful about.  And we should be discriminating.  There are a lot of people who don't want to talk about it, thinking that Hispanics might get insulted if that escapes.  Well the people who own Univision, for example, they're just investors; they don't even know what's coming off the air.

Danielle Brazell, Executive Director, Arts for LA
Hugo, thank you so much.  How are we in this room identifying value?  And mainstream, what does that mean?  Especially as the population in California continues to shift so dramatically?  Mainstream is becoming something entirely new in a sense.  But I think that the notion around commercialism and non-commercialism is really an important one, to which we should pay a lot of attention.  I don't think value is polarized, I think there's a big continuum with that.

And in Los Angeles, being the entertainment capital, that's very much rooted in the notion of a commercial product.  Exporting, importing that product, and then kind of regurgitating to sell it back to the masses.  And masses being international, right?  And I think it's very effective.  But I think that we need to be really mindful that there needs to be a layer.  And the secrecy comment is also incredibly important because this is history and culture and identity that can very much be stripped away.  We've seen it time and time again.

And for me, that speaks to the fact that there's so much power in it.  There is so much power in the authentic, creative voice that's rooted in tradition, that is authentic, and of that we must be mindful.  But on the same tone, this idea that content and the vehicles to get our content out is completely changing, is a radical notion.  So we can kind of keep that, perpetuate it, but then how do we ensure that the commercial side doesn't get hold of it and kind of try to kill it?

Ofelia Esparza, Altarista

I'm an altarista, I'm an artist.  And I've been affiliated with Self Help Graphics for many years.  In fact, that is where I began building public ofrendas for Day of the Dead, a tradition that I learned from my mother and that I've been doing for most of my life.  But now it's become a great part, an important part of my life after my retirement from teaching.  And I'm confronted all the time with the commercialism, because it's so popular to celebrate Day of the Dead.  I do other altares, but of course those are the ones that I'm mostly known for.

And I have adhered to the traditions I have learned, not only from my mother but along the way from other people whom I've encountered, who've practiced this tradition.  My favorite thing to do outside of the actual building of the altars is lecturing.  I'm called upon mostly by friends, word of mouth, to speak to students in colleges mostly.  And it is my favorite thing to do because they really only know from the media or from the celebrations that are everywhere now for Day of the Dead, which are many times far removed from the actual meaning of Day of the Dead.  And they are hungry for this information.  So those connections are very important to me.

And so I say I'm confronted with this because I'm often invited to do altars at huge events where there's a contest for the best altar.  And I just don't do that.  In fact that's very popular.  One of the places is Hollywood Forever, that has enormous attendance.  And I went to one just to see. And it was amazing.  And many people, they don’t have a belief, but they base their meaning of the Day of the Dead on these kinds of events.  It was all commercial. There was almost nothing authentic.  And so this is something I'm confronted with, and sometimes as I speak to my daughters who are learning this tradition and who are helping me for many years now, that I feel sometimes as anachronism to do an altar in a public place—like a gallery or a museum.

Although I am open to new ideas because it's a living tradition, we're far from where it originated, in Mexico in the ancient times.  And so of course there's changing.  So what I say, I'm not an expert but I adhere to what I learned from my mother, and what she learned from her mother and her grandmother.  And that is what I still do.  Sometimes I add some other elements that might look a little contemporary, which is fine.  But the basic essence of the ofrenda is to honor our ancestors with love and respect, and making that connection over the generations, in fact, bridging countries now.  And so that's a constant dilemma about these times, as it becomes more popular.  And so, I'll do it as long as I can, and I feel my daughters will continue with it.

We invite you to think about this topic and post your own comments and stories.  In your experience, how does media impact cultural equity?  What changes need to be made to encourage cultural equity?

ACTA's Comment Disclaimer

What if it is a steep climb to media ownership for your organization? There are some steps we could risk taking right now, especially in regards to your suggestion for using the internet, that would bring us closer to realizing a sacred space for culture making that is not like instant soup.

I mentioned food and farming and investment. These three things have converged into a movement that utilizes the internet as a tool, not the end point, galvanizing disparate communities across the US who can now offer investment shares in their farm that can be paid in either food or dollars while also alleviating "food deserts" in certain community. The MacArthur Foundation recognized the efforts of one urban farmer in particular, Will Allen, who managed to create a culture of farming in the surrounding communities simply because that's what small farms need.

Since most of our art cultures are participatory (or at least instruct deep knowledge of the form over time), what we offer that is different than mass mediated work is interaction AND instruction. Imagine if an "audience" member pays not to attend the "show" but to become a part of it? I'm not thinking about recognition at a special dinner or in the program booklet either. This likely brings up issues of "culture vultures," but this is an interesting risk, one worth taking.

I recently sat on a panel sponsored by Arts4LA with Sammy Hoi who envisioned tiers of engagement, facilitated by immersive media, proximity to the actual performance, ability to perform alongside the artists, and even to simply watch from wherever one happened to be. It was an intriguing idea, not all of which translates to traditional arts where specifically trained/ordained people must be the performers and/or everyone's sweat and breath must be physically present. I wonder if ritual based arts already have a system similar to this in place but simply must take the next step to create a "sand box" for the uninitiated to learn the rules of engagement.

What is the return on investment for a person diving into your cultural productions (yes, this is crass language, but the answers need not be)?

Are there any companies/organizations doing this type of work already? What role is media playing in how you engage people in and outside of your circle?


It seems that owning our own sources of distribution will be crucial to the survival of our cultures and values.  And it may not be over traditional media.  Internet based distribution methods will be very important.

I'm not sure equity is the central issue here. Maybe we should talk about leverage?

Mass media is merely a by-product of mass production; all those "goods" not only need to be sold anywhere and everywhere, but to anyone and everyone. Standardized product requires standardized customers and therefore works against the vagaries of specificity. Mass marketing and its byproduct, mass media, erase the space once allotted to specificity, especially that which is generated through practice, through doing, by remembering.

To continue practicing, doing, making through media-driven consumption and product-driven amnesia is astonishing, powerful and unanticipated by "the market." How do we leverage the media to successfully sacralize the right to muscle memory? to blood memory?  How do we reposition the heart as the main recording and transmission device?  And then, how do we put media in the service of conveying "slow culture?" It's working for food, farming and investments...

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.