By Russell Rodríguez, Program Manager & Photos by Dan Hong
March 6, 2014

As part of the Activating Cultural Assets Project organized by ACTA and The California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities Initiative, a task force of Merced community members spent six months seeking, identifying, locating, and interviewing their community’s cultural treasures — the people, places, events, and groups that are culturally valued by the community.

During this period, over 100 surveys were collected.  While some cultural treasures were part of Merced’s landscape, other treasures had to be searched out and found.  For example, there are still a few people that practice textile arts such as quilt making, crocheting, and embroidery, yet do not have a public space to share their work or teach these skills.  Also evident is that cultural recipes of food continue to be shared within the private space of families, wonderful dishes that come from nations like Mexico or Laos, or even from the U.S. South.  Dishes that are somewhat familiar and others that would be considered by the U.S. mainstream as “exotic.”  The task force meetings illuminated this fact by including meals at each meeting, which were catered by community members.

As the task force surveyed Merced and found cultural treasures in odd and usual places, the vision for a culminating gathering of this work began to foment.  We thus set out to organize an event that would feature a variety of the Merced cultural assets.  In this process, the task force selected cultural expressions, artists, and practitioners to represent three of the cultural communities in Merced: the African American community, the Hmong community, and the Mexican community. 

The event occurred from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm on January 25, 2014, at the downtown Merced Multicultural Arts Center (MMAC).  Utilizing various spaces in this three story center, the task force converted the front lobby into a bazaar like space where many things were shared, such as delicious food that included pan de muerto (bread used for the Mexican Day of the Dead holiday) baked by Maria Salazar, gumbo cooked by Shirley Winzer, Nab Vam, a tapioca dessert prepared by Geulee Yang, and a lemonade with chia that Brisa Chacon prepared; amazing textile work by Ye Her of Hmong paj ntaub or flower cloth using reverse applique technique, Mexican deshilado (open embroidery) and embroidery by Teresa Ceja, and African American crochet work by Doris Caldwell; a booth that featured information about Mexican children games in which Eduardo Rodriguez shared knowledge; and a map and listing of the 109 cultural treasures in Merced county and inviting new submissions.  Also included in this space were videos on some of the cultural treasures developed by the California Voices Youth Producers.

Throughout the morning in the main theater of the MMAC, four videos produced by ACTA were presented featuring four of Merced’s cultural treasures that were selected by the task force.  The videos were 5-6 minutes segments that provided a peek into the complex lives, experiences, and histories of the cultural assets in Merced.

Those featured were soul songstress Cheryl Lockette, who was born and raised in a family of musicians, her mother a well-recognized gospel singer and her father a founding member of the famous Merced Blue Notes.  A second video focused on the cultural and communal significance of the Hmong qeej (pronounced “gheng”), a bamboo reed mouth organ utilized for ritual ceremony and secular social events.  This featured members of Ber Xiong’s school that is hosted by the Merced Lao Family Community.  Another video featured the Grupo Folklórico Juan Colorado of Planada Elementary School, an ensemble composed of 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders, learning the folk dances of Mexico.  The group is voluntarily taught and directed by the committed community member Carolina Arceo, who is also a member of the BHC task force.  The fourth video featured a long time icon and well-recognized organization of the arts landscape of Merced, The South Pacific Dance Company that teaches, presents, and practices Tahitian and Polynesian traditions, which is led by master artist Rebecca Ka’awela Manandic, endearingly known as “Auntie Becky.”

The afternoon highlighted a variety of performers in a showcase presentation that included the Grupo Folklórico Juan Colorado, the Hmong dance group Ntxhais Ntxim Hlub (Cute Little Girls), and the Hmong qeej ensemble Noojsisloob, both of which are affiliated with the Merced Lao Family Community.  Also included in the performance showcase were youth from the African American community, Janiesha McMillan and Todd Marion Jr., both whom shared soulful gospel singing with the audience.  Equally inspiring was a special performance by Jessica McDaniels of praise dance. 

The afternoon was rounded off with a series of workshops that included oral cultural expressions led by Loretta Spence (African American storytelling) and Palee Moua (Hmong oral expression); Tahitian and Polynesian dance with Chrys “Auntie Kreeky” Ramirez; David Washington-Halekenny presenting upon the connection between African American and Native American communities; and Jerome Rasberry Jr. shared a perspective on the significance of gospel within the Merced region.  The workshops included participatory engagement by the public attendees and in depth discussions on cultural practice, cultural traditions, and ethnic and racial identity within Merced.  The close of the event demonstrated a successful and productive gathering as community members, cultural treasures, taskforce members, and volunteers slowly exited the MMAC, stopping to talk each other sharing more information and letting people know that they felt really good about the gathering.  Various community members told task force members to please keep them informed for next year—leaving the looming question, “How can I help with next year’s event?”  This illuminated a need and a desire for the organizing of cross-cultural and cross-communal gatherings—something that task force members have identified as missing from current public life.  A desire within this county is to organize significant dialogue that will lead to possible cultural, social, and maybe even political transformation in this area of California.

The Alliance for California Traditional Arts would like to thank TCE staff: Brian Mimura (Program Manager, Merced) and Beatriz Solis (Director, Healthy Communities [South Region]) for their encouragement and support through this initiative; and congratulate and thank the Merced BHC staff–Tatianna Vizcaino Stewart, Jordan Cowman, Isai Palm; the task force–Loretta Spence, Carolina Arceo, Maria Salazar (and family), Jerome Rasberry, Palee Moua, Marilyn Mochel; and the many others that joined our meetings—for immeasurable efforts in surveying Merced for cultural treasures, organizing this culminating event, and for encouraging significant dialogue across communities.