Immigrant Artists, Culture and Community Health: ACTA at Grantmakers in the Arts


ACTA - Posted on 14 November 2012

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Master artists Juana Gomez (left), Charya Cheam Burt (middle) and Apprenticeship Program Manager Russell Rodríguez (right) at last month's Grantmakers in the Arts conference in Miami.The Alliance for CA Traditional Arts (ACTA) is part of a professional organization known as Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA), which annually convenes to discuss issues of philanthropy and service to the field.  As part of a pre-conference this year on the topic of arts from immigrant communities, ACTA’s executive director, Amy Kitchener, served as moderator for the State of the Union panel, "Arts in Immigrant and Refugee Communities," and we were also privileged to organize a panel to reflect this wide topic which reflects so much of our constituency of traditional artists, the majority of whom are part of immigrant communities.  While ACTA has developed relationships and knowledge of many immigrant communities throughout California, we felt it was important and compelling to bring the artists themselves as first voices to represent this topic at the Miami conference last month.

Charya Cheam Burt performingin "Pka Lolab Khiev" ("Blue Roses").We contacted two master artists that have participated in ACTA’s Apprenticeship Program, Juana Gomez and Charya Cheam Burt, whose positioning and investment is of high regard by their respective communities.  Cheam Burt, a native of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, has been studying Cambodian classical dance since her childhood with a group of master teachers that miraculously survived the dark history of the Khmer Rouge.  She apprenticed with dance master Soth Som Onn, locating her in an important Khmer classical dance lineage through direct training.  This training began in 1982 at the School of Dance at the University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh.  In 1990, she received a teaching certificate and became a faculty member in the same institution.  Since moving to the United States in 1993, Burt has worked as a teacher and performer in Santa Rosa and the Bay Area, striving to keep Cambodian tradition alive.

Juana Gomez passing on her knowledge to her daughter Johanna Gomez.Juana Gomez a native of Juxtlahuaca Oaxaca, Mexico, grew up assisting her maternal grandmother Sotera Velazco, a community healer, learning the medicinal qualities of the variety of herbs and plants that grew in the vicinity of her region.  She first learned to identify plants, trees, flowers, herbs and seeds, then how to measure doses of these materials.  She ultimately learned the qualities of the plants and how to prepare remedies for particular ailments.  Having learned the uses of natural medicine as a child, she would not implement her skills until later in life when she moved to Mexico City and then later establish herself as a healer in the United Sates.  Once residing in Madera, CA, she became venerated within the Mixteco community in Madera, and recognized as a healer by other Oaxacan and Mexican immigrants in the San Joaquin Valley.  What added to her status in her US community was her integration to the Radio Bilingüe programming as a host of La Hora Mixteca, a radio show that provides service and cultural programming, and call in announcements that broadcast transnationally in the United States and in locations in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Gomez and Cheam Burt presented twice during the conference at an off-site location, the Little Haiti Cultural Center, located in the Little Haiti community of Miami.  The beautiful facility was vibrant with an intense photo exhibit, murals, sounds of music, arts and crafts, and children and youth playing, singing, dancing and joyously running around.  The panel they presented on was titled "Immigrant Artists, Culture and Community Health," which was organized by Amy Kitchener and included myself, Russell Rodríguez, as a discussant.  I framed the panel by providing a very quick historical synopsis of immigration policy in California and the United States, a list of reasons that often force people to migrate, the experience of trauma of crossing national borders with documentation or not, and the incredible creativity that emerge from aggrieved communities of immigrants.

Master artists Charya Cheam Burt and Juana Gomez at the Grantmakers for the Arts conference in Miami in October 2012.The two women from this point drew us into different worlds of art making, of community struggle, cultural survival, and ultimately different ways of knowing.  The two panelists provided insight on how their cultural practices was/is foundational to their ability to maneuver within US society, to offset acts of discrimination, marginalization, and dismissal.  Upon their arrival to the United States, Gomez and Cheam Burt did not imagine themselves as community leaders, master artists, nor advocates for culture yet their experience as immigrants in the United States has led them on a path to fill these roles and responsibilities.  Cheam Burt talked about how she was advised by her teachers not to marry because her life would change and she would not be able to continue as a dancer.  Going against their wishes she did marry and moved to the United States, but she knew she had to continue dancing for her own well-being, which was fortunate for various Cambodian communities in California.  Cheam Burt, in addition to working locally in Santa Rosa and San Francisco, works with the growing Cambodian community in San Jose, CA and Stockton, CA.  She is also directly linked to the Khmer in Long Beach, one of the largest Cambodian populations outside of Cambodia, where she works with her sister Sophiline Cheam Shapiro and the Khmer Arts Academy as a choreographer, teacher and director.  Her commitment to the Cambodian population throughout California is guided by her desire to share dance because it has helped her find balance and well-being, and she believes it helps others in the same way.  In her work she focuses much on youth and the next generation.  She realizes that Cambodians born in the United States and the youth did not experience the detriment of the Khmer Rouge and the rule of Pol Pot, in which 90% of Cambodian Classical dance practitioners perished, but believes they need to know that history that has proven Cambodian people to be survivors, resilient and strong.  The survival of Cambodian Classical dance, which was also known as the Royal Court Dance, now in the United States takes on new significance as Cambodian culture and history in general must be preserved and practiced—they are things that cannot be forgotten.

Gomez and Cheam Burt maintain a shared experience coming to California from another country and many other experiences of being aggrieved, as well as being successful.  Gomez, for example, explained her arrival to the United States was a sad experience.  She came to join her husband and left her children with her mother in Mexico.  Realizing that this is a common experience among immigrants made her sadder.  She eloquently discussed the reasons why indigenous people leave their homes, first to big cities in Mexico, then eventually north to the United States.  Mixtecos come to the United States without education, without language skills (in English and many times Spanish), and often times undocumented and are targeted to be severely exploited.  Being sad about this was not going to help yet her sadness transformed when she began participating in community gatherings and specifically listening to programming on Radio Bilingüe:

SORPRESA que gusto escuchar que en EU se habla mixteco y tocan mis chilenas y sin mentirles llore y llore mientras escuchaba mi tan añorada canción mixteca, que describe como se siente un inmigrante—pasaba de la tristeza a la alegría.

Surprise, what a joy to hear in the US people talking Mixtec and playing my chilenas (folk songs from Oaxaca) and without lying I cried and cried while I listened to my long missed Canción Mixteca, that describes what it feels like to be immigrant—the sadness transformed into joy.

Gomez reinforced this transformation as she became known in the community as a healer through word of mouth.  She then later came in contact with people at Radio Bilingüe, such as the executive director Hugo Morales and radio host Filemón Lopez, developing a relationship with them, eventually becoming a co-host of La Hora Mixteca show on the station.  It became evident to Gomez that culture, whether it was public culture such as music and dance at a public festival such as the Guelaguetza in Fresno, or private home practices like preparing mole and other food dishes or tejido (knitting/crochet), and  punto de cruz (cross-stitch embroidery), was important in transforming the sadness into well-being.  As a result, Gomez continuously encourages people to practice their culture, promotes traditional practices and practitioners on the show, and provides resources so that residents can attain health, legal, and social services.

In Miami, Charya Cheam Burt and Juana Gomez became inspired soul sisters who did not share a common language yet bonded to each other, sharing time, food, stories, history and culture, because they shared a significant role to disrupt the popular imaginary of what is an immigrant, and provided a source that explains what it is to be people who are categorized as immigrants.  Because of this social classification these traditional practitioners deal with specific parameters, social and cultural barriers, and political discourses that deem them second class citizens and illegal.  It is within this type of marginalization that both Cheam Burt and Gomez find inspiration and well-being within their communities, culture, and history to which they are committed and accountable.  New innovative work by Cheam Burt such as "Blossoming Antiquities," illuminates the contention of preserving traditional culture within a new context.  Gomez in the same manner learns about what types of remedies help people deal with depression and stress from the trauma of crossing the border and living in the United States, a condition that often disconnects people from family.  As demonstrated through their trip to Miami, their experience as immigrant cultural artists and practitioners serves as a wonderful resource for their respective communities, and importantly they are graciously open to share with anyone else who is sincerely concerned with learning the hidden histories and unknown backgrounds of immigrants from their homelands.

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