Thursday, 29 January 2015 08:23

Arts, Culture, and Shifting Demographics

Arts, culture, and shifting demographics: The time to realize this great sense of hope

The demographic shifts due to the continued increase of our Latino populations have become recurring talking points over the years and it is not uncommon for them to appear as some form of topic in conversation ranging from general consumer confidence to ecological stewardship, international trade policy and cultural equity, electoral politics or economic inequality, and, of course, our own field of arts and cultures.  

One thing these discussions signal for us at NALAC is the emergence of a great sense of hope, quickly followed by a deep responsibility to help realize this hope. For over two decades, this responsiveness has guided our dialogue with peers, colleagues, and dedicated cultural workers out in the field who see first-hand how talk of these statistical shifts actually impact their immediate communities, or more often than not, fail to yield any meaningful results beyond a floating talking point.  And yet, we must ask ourselves how the current discussion is different from prior ones or, at the very least, ask ourselves how we have become different.

Latin Number by Brian EugenioDuring our Regional Arts Training Workshop at Albuquerque in 2012, we were honored to have Brian Eugenio Herrera deliver a keynote address where he spoke on just how perceived shifts in our population affect Latino arts specifically as well as the broader field of cultural production.  In particular, Dr. Herrera cited four different Time Magazine covers from four different decades (2012, 1999, 1988, 1978) to help illustrate how the notion of Latinos gaining unprecedented relevance in the mainstream or dominant social order as a result of their increase in number reappears in the media only to quickly fade every ten years or so.  He essentially described a process of collective performance through which our communities are perpetually being "discovered".  This odd social ritual that Herrera describes functions as a way of heralding our new found ability to effectively influence American culture while, at the same time, postponing that very ability by locating it in some future time.

Hispanic Populations Scaled BackWhen we look at the revised population projections released by the U.S. Census Bureau this past December, it becomes clear why questions about how our community's heightened physical presence will effect society at large are once again so prevalent.  According to their projections, the Hispanic population is expected to reach near 106 million by 2050, making it almost twice what it is now.  Soon after that press release, the Pew Research Center stated how "the new Hispanic population projection for 2050 is lower -by nearly 30 million -than earlier population projections published by the bureau" (Krogstad, Jens Manuel 'Hispanic Trends Project).  The article attributes thescaled back increase to a notable decline in migration from Latin American since 2008.  Once we consider the raids on our communities, followed by dire relocation to encampments along the borderlands, it's easy to see how a draconian immigration policy begins to directly shape these population forecasts.  

Things get further interesting when we think about the internal dynamics  of our own communities in relation to, for example,  the fact that the median age for Latinos is 28.1 years, or, when we observe the increasingly multiethnic and multiracial nature of our communities.  Those who may remember the first President Bush speaking in Spanish to an imagined Latino voter in 1984, the launch of former President Bill Clinton's Spanish-language campaign in 1996, or more recently the elation of President Obama's first victory in 2008, are far from being the same individuals we were then and, more significantly, the communities we belong to are not the same either.  

From our perspective at NALAC, the demographic shifts we are experiencing include the introduction of further difference into our Latinidades.  We share unfixed racial identities, multiple belongings or affiliation, and an inclusion of genders, orientations, and age that bring with them a welcome complexity.  We are not just more, but also more diverse.

Lighting the Road; Installation by Patricia Carzola and Nancy Saleme; 2013 NALAC NFA Artist/Ensemnble GranteeSuch an inclusive characterization of our expanding Latino population make the new NEA reports from this January all the more compelling.  By looking at the factors that drive or hinder overall arts participation while studying the economic impact of the arts and culture industry, all three reports convey information meant to help arts institutions and organizations establish a stronger level of engagement with the larger populace.  On one hand, the reports suggest that exposure to the arts during childhood leads to adult attendance.  On the other hand, there is a measurable decrease in overall arts attendance, making questions of participation a crucial matter in our field.  But what kind of participation?  How will new approaches speak to a heterogeneous Latino population?  Is the diversity being sought through this research itself reflected by the organizations surveyed?  Can long-established arts providers connect with future attendees who do not adhere to any one static definition of their selves, or their interests?

Quite steadily, a multi-generation of Latinos have been leading our cultural work out in the field.  Whether it is millennial Latinos in the digital commons, seasoned leaders or practitioners who invaluably serve as catalysts for progress, or elders who have made their life into a practice and commitment towards better ways of being and of being-together, the shared networks made up by our particular cities and regions have not remained still because our communities themselves are not fixed.  Indeed the study of how our populations change is exactly what drives the rhetoric on demographic shifts and its speculative betting on what is yet to come.  In other words, what this moment reveals is an opportunity for our selves and our communities to redefine and reframe what our future will be through a shared agency.

Our present circumstances can be a stark reminder that we do not live in a world where the desired change automatically happens, but rather a world where changes (plural) take place -sometimes competitively, oftentimes collaboratively.  In either case, when social changes meant to benefit communities of color are put into effect they are the long result of negotiation.  Of interest is how years after Richard Florida's notions of  a creative class-struggle at the turn of the century (which gave policy makers a language with which to relocate the arts away from culture and back into tourism, along with a now largely contested paradigm for 'soft' displacement of poor communities in the name of  a strangely biased revitalization with a weakness for the benevolent inclusion of difference), the dominant art institutions in any given region continue to display a noticeable absence of Latino artists and programming.  This, in turn, is matched by a corresponding lack of funding made available to Latino-based arts organizations.  A more comprehensive and tremendously insightful analysis of this social practice can be found in Dr. Arlene Davila's 'Culture Works' (New York University Press, 2012), where she contextualizes these trends by locating their relation to forces and interests beyond the culture sector.

Such undeveloped cultural competency proves rather curious in particular after local, regional, and national organizations alongside rather formidable funding entities invested their efforts into ongoing 'community-building', 'community-engagement', and all manner of  'social reconciliation' projects for over ten years.  Exemplary of this exclusionary practice at a local level is San Antonio's Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, while at a national level we see the standard being displayed by the Kennedy Center Honors Program.  Are institutions of lighthing the road 01this sort capable of incorporating and recognizing Latino artistic expression through the use of strategies in line with those reflected in the NEA report's findings?  Or, are their trajectories far too mired in outdated world-views, separatist and elitist in principle?  The answer remains to be seen.  Moreover, perhaps the impact of this cultural work on behalf of dominant institutional networks has not been felt by communities of color in a way that register with our values and sense of place in the American story or, and we do not think this irrational or implausible, perhaps the outcome was precisely meant to be just that -the appearance of a shared social ethos, purely a surface or veneer through which to brightly reflect the change in demographics in order to be dispensed from actually integrating bodies and minds of color.    

There is one definitive outcome of these partial or false attempts at responding to the physical changes of our presence in our nation: the adoption and adaptation of our narratives, repertoires, and affects by institutions and social agents in the service of the existing state of affairs.  Of course there is nothing unusual about the cooptation of any subordinate group's cognitive or immaterial labor, so that seeing the practices and hearing the language of social struggle or emancipation movements coming from conservative sources as a very means of preserving the status quo is, if not worse, a wonderful example of a progressive-reversal.  So that, in the end, if these unprecedented demographic shifts in our Latino communities primarily result in mere stylistic changes of policy or the appropriation of our social rhetoric for the sole purpose of discursive or inconsequential platforms, then it becomes crucial for us to feel all too comfortable modifying the language, ideas, and critical thinking behind our social movements in order to meet the goals of a different, alternate, future.  All in effort to articulate and then reconcile the very real demographic shifts in our communities with the corresponding discrepancies in terms of recognition, representation, and inclusion in the overall field.  

The immediate effects of cultural appropriation make themselves known in two key ways.  First, the ineffectual practices of social inclusion and diversity on behalf of formerly elitist institutions are legitimated through their newly co-opted rhetoric, which now accompanies a kind of cultural work that is heralded as innovative (an often vague term, capable of misrecognizing the ingenuity in methods of assimilation as a form of "newness") by capital F Funding sources.  Secondly, subordinate communities and organizations that devise and continue to rely on these social practices for everyday survival are now labeled unimaginative or incapable of innovation due to a strange form of creative unviability.  Meanwhile, the conditions for which these strategies are in direct response to continue to be very much in place. Our communities are therefore put in an interesting bind when asked or prompted to develop new fiscal plans, organizational programming, and new kinds of infrastructure as if we are now dealing with an entirely new situation that somehow manages to still possess much of the same qualities as before.  Possibly, all we are being asked to do is invent new language and reposition our ideals in that sense.  Or maybe it is yet another phase in the vicious cycle of cultural displacement where marginalized groups have to repossess or re-appropriate their creative work through experimental models.    This present situation, where the roles have been inverted between artists and organizations of color and the dominant order, is the challenge we as a multitude of ethnic, racial, gendered, sexual, and class differences are left to address.


The National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC) is a legacy organization investing in the Latino heritage of this nation. For over 25 years, NALAC has built a strong foundation for the promotion of Latino arts and culture and its advocacy efforts have advanced issues of cultural equity and raised the visibility and understanding of Latino artistic and cultural expression. The National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC) is the nation's leading nonprofit organization exclusively dedicated to the promotion, advancement, development, and cultivation of the Latino arts field. In this capacity, NALAC stimulates and facilitates intergenerational dialogues among disciplines, languages, and traditional and contemporary expressions. NALAC serves thousands of Latino artists and hundreds of organizations representing a national and international community of multiple Latinidades; a network that crosses many cultures across the Latino Diaspora.

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