Life took on a new meaning while I learned to read symbols printed onto lines and spaces, what they meant in relation to the pitch, silence, transitions, and duration of voice I was to produce through a trumpet. Music taught me to perceive the world differently in the third grade. I can still recall the indifference my father expressed when I explained this breakthrough, the vast expanse separating our worlds. This public-school formation was something many of my peers took for granted, which too many young people of color are being denied today. A class visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art soon after cemented my fascination with the abstract and ancient as a Bronx Puerto Rican with a vivid imagination.
It should come as no surprise that I’ve dedicated my life and career to arts and culture both on a personal and community level. This inner journey toward discovery has been overshadowed at every turn by the financial anxiety many Latinx/POC artists know too well. The pressure along this fault-line only intensified when I started working at cultural organizations of color, most of which were formed in response to the historical inequities that have undervalued and excluded us.
Arts nonprofits serving Latinx/POC communities have long been burdened by the onus of “fiscal innovation,” stretching every dollar as far as it’ll go. Blatant disinvestment continues to haunt our life-affirming institutions, who often pick up the slack for the vacuum created by the elimination of arts programming in our public schools. This commitment to problem-solving needs to be carried by all economic sectors if we’re to build a more equitable world than the one faltering and imploding before us. It’s often said that thriving arts and culture are the hallmarks of a healthy and civilized society. History has shown how despots terrorize our communities to kickstart their ascents to power, followed by larger-scale devastation of the culture-at-large. The current economic crisis continues to plague arts nonprofits serving Latinx/POC communities in particular, institutions that already suffered from biased practices set into motion long before the appearance of COVID-19 and the shutdowns.
Latinx/POC communities also contend with drastic underrepresentation in NYC-based nonprofits boards and leadership. Hispanic/Latinx individuals made up 29% of the city’s population in 2018 (US Census) yet we held only 7% of CEO/Executive Director posts and made up only 6.8% of total board membership citywide the same year. African American/Black New Yorkers totaled 24.3% of the city’s population. They held 14.9% of CEO/ED positions and attained 16.4% board membership. Predominantly white organizations on the other hand claimed 69.3% of CEO/ED positions and 64.7% of total board posts even though they made up only 31% of the population in all five boroughs. This imbalance perpetuates power where it already exists and must be adjusted if we’re to achieve true equity in the nonprofit sector where most arts and culture organizations operate (See: “What Lies Beneath: The State of NYC Nonprofit Board Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion”, Nonprofit Coordination Committee of NY, 2018).
No one understands these disparities better than the institutions that develop and showcase the creations of Latinx/POC artists, in what is considered the cultural capital of the world. Our administrators, photographers, musicians, playwrights, painters, dancers, writers, and creators have long mastered the art of extracting maximum value from scant resources, practices that those existing and working outside the cultural sector could learn from. This legacy of creating representation and cultural value where it’s needed has been central to the formation and missions of the Bronx Academy of Arts & Dance, Bronx Documentary Center, Caribbean Cultural Center and African Diaspora Institute, El Museo del Barrio, Pregones/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, The Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center, Repertorio Español, and Flushing Town Hall, who’ve united as the Latinx/POC Legacy Arts Consortium.
Each member of the Consortium shares the vital mission of producing, promoting, exhibiting, and supporting the work of living arts and culture workers of color, providing cultural links to more than 2 million youth, adults, and older adults in New York City, with an emphasis on working-class communities of color. Temporary closures of their galleries, theaters, spaces, and offices, which double as community hubs, have upended the livelihoods of more than 3,000 creatives throughout the city, and disrupted access to the arts and culture for more than 1,000,000 participants of all ages and cultural backgrounds. These institutions embody the very inclusivity and diversity that non-Latinx/POC organizations claim to be reaching for, founded by design to fill the voids of representation and arts engagement our communities experience.
The migration of programs to digital platforms, the devising of alternative means of engagement, have come with added labor, financial, and logistical burdens during the lockdown period. The Consortium’s collective losses due to the COVID-19 lockdown exceed $4 million, ushering in the specter of reduced capacity and community engagement in areas of the city most devastated by the pandemic such as Flushing, the South Bronx, East Harlem, and the Lower East Side/Loisaida. These Latinx/POC strongholds were already contending with the pressures of historic disinvestment, and more recently, gentrification. Innovation in finance and philanthropic practices will be required to remedy this crisis as the economy reboots. The Latinx/POC Legacy Arts Consortium has put a call out to foundations for more equitable funding in the meantime.
Latinx/POC contributions toward wealth creation are worth mentioning and could be rectified through more equitable philanthropic and tax code legislation for starters. The tax breaks and shelters foundation giving offers have long attracted wealthy backers interested in advancing social issues of import. The Tax Reform Act of 1969 ought to be revised with this in mind, for example. It currently mandates that a minimum of 5% of foundation endowments be disbursed yearly, which includes the administrative and operations costs they incur. A mere 1%-2% increase allocated to Latinx/POC-stewarded nonprofits would make so much possible. Innovation practices in giving by those with access to unprecedented amounts of wealth could kickstart the long-term, purposeful changes we deserve. As for tax codes and revenues, New York City is home to more billionaires than most countries can claim. The wealth is here.
Ford Foundation President Darren Walker published a piece in the New York Times recently, which illustrates his vision for the future from the perspective of a poor and queer Black man who transitioned to the wealthiest 1%. He’s calling for “the transformation of financial systems in a meaningful way”, while also pointing out that the Era of Tokenism has lapsed. Relief funds are a thoughtful gesture, but they aren’t enough. Restorative measures will be needed, a reshaping of law and policy, fresh collaborations. Arts institutions that serve Latinx/POC communities don’t typically benefit from wealthy donors and high-powered boards monied institutions lean on. Philanthropic and financial innovations will need to lead the way in our case, the infusion of investment tools to ensure the sustainability of our organizations and the wellbeing of the communities we serve. Art and culture belong to everyone.
We’re calling for significant, intentional investment.
The fossil-fuel economy has exposed its vulnerabilities during this highly polarized moment in history. Healing on a national scale will only be made possible when people from all sides of the divide meet in the middle to discuss what’s driven them apart, how to move forward. The cultural sector is best equipped to accommodate these dialogues, which I’ve witnessed hundreds of times at storytelling activities and creative writing workshops I’ve organized. World leaders are already envisioning a more integrated fusion of the arts, finance, and philanthropy for working toward a greener, more equitable future. Collaborations as such occur on a project basis but would need to be scaled up to create the long-term financial capacity our institutions will depend on to deploy our photographers, filmmakers, dancers, writers, and actors—our healers—where they’re needed most. This call to action will only become more urgent.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) has called on governments, businesses, and the philanthropic sector to unite and envision “The Great Reset” as they’ve coined it. The focus on putting people and the planet first will depend on the reversing of poverty, marginalization, and social exclusion for the most vulnerable if we’re to succeed. COVID-19 and pandemics to follow will continue to hit the poor the hardest, as we’ve already seen. The Great Reset even identifies the role philanthropy could play in supporting communities, workers, and social movements pushing for significant systems reform such as #BlackLivesMatter, implementation and accountability. Donor collaboratives, teams of foundations who rally behind specific causes, currently engage in this intentionality and should be encouraged to continue and give more.
Philanthropic, finance, and arts visionaries could move us in a fairer direction through the revisioning and activation of systems that benefit greater swaths of society, such as creative entrepreneurship. We’re aching for the transformation of an economy that lifts few and excludes too many. The divisions and cruelty alive on our streets and screens are symptoms of a sickness that can no longer be ignored. Bolder investment in systems rebuilding will hinge on the deep soul searching of those wielding the power and wealth to make it happen. This will require sustained, purposeful collaborations between those with access to massive caches of dormant capital and those left out in the cold. Our legacy arts organizations of color could serve as key intermediaries for guiding this process in the communities we call home since we know what works and what doesn’t.
We cannot be excluded any longer.
Editor’s Note: Latino Rebels is part of Futuro Media Group, a nonprofit POC-led media company based in NYC that was founded by award-winning journalist Maria Hinojosa. The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of Futuro.
Charlie Vázquez is an arts innovation consultant, founding member of Latino Rebels, and the author of Fantasmas: Puerto Rican Tales of the Dead (CV Publishing, 2020), a collection of horror stories inspired by family folklore. His work appears in the graphic novel collection Ricanstruction (Somos Arte, 2018), which donates proceeds to hurricane relief in Puerto Rico. He served as editor for the anthology DREAMing Out Loud: Voices of Undocumented Students (PEN America, 2019), as well as having edited the first two volumes of Bronx Memoir Project (BCA Media, 2014/2018). Charlie is the former New York City coordinator for Puerto Rico’s Festival de la Palabra and was awarded a Commendation from the City of New York for his contributions to Latino literary heritage. He lives in the Bronx. Info/newsletter: www.charlievazquez.com