A dialogue with Calles y Sueños’ artistic director: Christina Obregón

From  Pilsen, Chicago to Juchitán, Mexico, we talk about how  Calles y Sueños (CYS) serves as a crossroads for cultural hopscotch, but also as an intersection for geography, language, art, space and economics.

Image of Christina Obregon by Sarah Jane Rhee

Claudia García-Rojas: In your perspective, how has the work of CYS evolved, since you first learned about it to where it is now, and the work that you are doing?

Christina Obregón: CYS has two places: one here in Chicago, and another one in Juchitán de Zaragoza, Oaxaca. When I first became involved [with] CYS it was just one space here on 19th and Carpenter.  For about seven years, the physical space was open. Then it closed for the time that it needed to close: about ten years. During those ten years it was a transition. Jose David, and I supporting him, said, “Well, let’s go see what we can go do in Juchitán.” We had different artists with whom we worked in Juchitán and different individuals from here in Chicago, primarily artists who have exhibited over there. Coming back to its original space two years ago, the audience is different. The neighborhood is different because Pilsen is gentrified. I notice it and I see the difference. We still are reaching out to the community, but i can see that in our audience that community is more of the people who have come into the neighborhood and who have actually gentrified it.

CGR: So you have a lot of hipsters attending?

CO: We do. Is that good? Is that bad? I don’t know. One of the things that I try and do with the neighbors who have been here for so many years is to maintain a closer relationship with them than with hipsters. If I can’t get them to come to the show because they don’t feel they are a part of, or they might feel intimidated by the hipsters, at least I go and I talk with them. I share food with them.The neighbors’ kids are the ones that actually come over here. We try to do activities with them. That’s my main focus. If I can’t get [the neighbors] to come see an exhibit, at least I [establish] a personal relationship with them. I think for a lot of them it is also a question of trust. They know the work that Jose David was doingbut then they see me who obviously was born here. A big difference is that Jose David was actually born in Honduras. So there is a cultural difference.They are like, “Oh you know you are…

CGR: Mexican-American?

CO: Yeah. I think that does play into people’s views… [I’m] trying to find a balance in-between that .

CGR: In a way, CYS serves as a space to build relationship despite the fact that some people in the community don’t go to the space itself.

CO: Yeah.

CGR: Which is important considering the fact that there are a number of people gentrifying the neighborhood that might present a boundary in terms of allowing those relationships to grow. Because as you say, people might not feel comfortable going into a space where they are not being represented all the time.

CO: For me what is important, even if it is not the same community members that are coming [is that] their stories are still being told. Whether it is issues of immigration, the discrimination of individuals who are “undocumented”, the racism that different cultures face or the war on terror, all those topics are what marginalized, oppressed communities face. It’s telling their stories to those of privilege and saying, “Look, you think you can just come in here with your resources and your privileges and own this? No! These are the stories of the people who your wealth oppresses. Your decisions to invest in corporate America, how that is affecting how people who live here, who are working class people of color?” That is the big difference that i see.

When I was volunteering at CYS, I identified with a lot of the issues that were being represented because I was [a] younger [woman] in my early twenties, and as a female, I felt that I found a place that was sharing the stories of women who were oppressed because they were Latinas or their parents or grandparents came from Mexico or just because they are female. That was really important to me. One of the things that I am trying to do is to make sure that [these stories] are being told – the stories of working class people who face many barriers and boundaries – so that the 1% gets it.

CGR: Let me backtrack and ask: why Juchitán, Mexico out of all the places you could have taken CYS?

Two years before CYS closed, we had a cultural exchange between three youth activists who were involved in the student movement in Mexico.Two of them were and are still connected to Juchitán. That’s where they grew up, that’s where their families are from. They were the ones who proposed that we do an intercambio cultural [cultural exchange] in Juchitán.

Juchitán has a very rich history in terms of political and social movements, especially during the 80s.  When Jose David went it just made sense: this is the place. We have people that came to Chicago that are from Juchitán who extended the invitation. There was already [a] connection there.

CGR: You say that Juchitán has a very rich history of social and political movements,  particularly in the 80s. Tell me about those movements and how they are in dialogue with Chicago? What are the similarities between Juchitán and Chicago?

In the early 80s, there was  a section in Juchitán where the people, the campesinos, the Juchitecos, who are Indigenas Zapotecos, took arms and fought to have this area called Chegigoto, to modernize it where people could have electricity, running water, plumbing, that the houses were more stable. The campesinos and las mujeres (the women) fought for that. To preserve their land and to have access to resources. There was a whole movement behind that.

There is [also] this saying that women mandand a los hombres in Juchitán; women are more liberated. But it is not true. Unfortunately, there are more issues of domestic violence and alcoholism and drug use because of the influences of Western culture and capitalism.

When I [went] in 2001, I could still notice that it wasn’t que “la mujer mandaba” but that the women and the men worked together to economically stabilize the household. A lot of places that I have seen in Mexico…that does not really happen. The one who makes the money, which the majority of the time is el hombre [the man], is the one that decides what goes on in the household or how the money is spent. What I saw in Juchitán is las mujeres en el mercando, working, selling, and the men also working in el campo [in the field], so it’s not just one person working but both of them together.

Artistically, many different artists have gone [to Juchitán], many different writers like Frida Khalo, Diego Rivera, the Italian actress/photographer Tina Moditti. There are a lot of people who have gone to that area who were really influenced by the stuff that is going on in that particular area.

CGR: How do you think that the movements or the situations that you just describe happening there compare to Chicago?

CO: Well, I just went back after four years. What I saw was the impact of globalization in terms of destroying culture and society. Now you have Walmart destroying local businesses that women, and artisanos [artisans], and farmers cannot compete with. it is the same thing here. Local business get swallowed up by these enormous corporations. That creates the issues of unemployment, people losing their homes or [they] can’t compete with that.

La gente ya estaba jodida [people were already fucked]. They live off of $100 or $300 dollars a month, while the prices of milk and eggs are going up. Their cost of living is also rising, but they are getting paid less. Their natural resources, which they can live off of, are being taken away.

CGR: How does CYS give voice and space to those dilemmas?

Support the local artist by continuing to do cultural exchange. Bringing the artwork of these local artists, who are involved in the community, and selling their work here to people who have access to resources who can buy the artwork. Give a huge percentage back to the artist: 80% or an exchange for materials that they need or trade. We send the stuff back to them so, if they are working with the community, they can do social service projects. That is one of the ways that we do it here in Chicago.

Making people consciously aware of issues that happen not just in Mexico but in all of Latin America. It’s all unified for me at least, what goes on. It is a different impact but similar issues. If you see what is happening in Juchitán, it is the same thing that is happening in un pueblo [a town] in Venezuela or in Bolivia. The way I see it…it is just how corporate America is taking over.

CGR: The last event that I attended at CYS which I was duly impressed with, was “El Concierto de las Guitaras.” I went because I support CYS, I support the mission and I support you. At the end, I ended up learning about the different guitar music genres that exist in Latin America, and how interconnected these styles are with different world regions. That was admirable in and of itself. What was also admirable was how many people were there from many different places in Latin America and in the U.S. How do these intersections contribute to the work that CYS is doing?

CO: This past weekend we had the opening of “Visions in the Dark” which featured three visually impaired artists. Never has CYS in its existence gone to that extreme to bring in three artists who are visually impaired, and along with that, not just their visual art, but the audio and the written. We ended up having an audience where I would say at least 60% of the individuals who attended had some type of disability whether it was physical or visual or oral. For example, we had a gentleman who was visually and hearing impaired. We had another gentleman who was in a wheelchair. We crossed paths with another community that has always been there and that has now set a standard for us.

The concert that you are talking about has set up a standard for us. Set a standard and set your expectations, so when we are crossing with other people, we’re meeting in a place, we’re not crossing just to cross these paths. We’re doing it with the intention that it’s going to unify, it’s going to critically challenge people to be more socially and politically aware of what is going on, using art and using culture. It is very rare to find[that]in Pilsen. (And I am not saying that events don’t happen in Pilsen. There are.) I don’t see anybody else saying, “OK. We’re going to cross into another terrain to bring these people into the work that we are doing.” I don’t want to conform. Conforming would be like saying, “Let’s just support the artists in Juchitán. Let’s just have our shows about them or the art that we are comfortable with, which is Latin American art.” No. We have to step out and work with other communities who are also marginalized and CYS has always done that. I want to do that with more intent. Especially [because of] the gentrification that Pilsen is going through.

CGR: CYS is a unique space in Chicago. You are a public art and culture space, you are a community-run space, and you do not inhibit people from attending events because of prices or memberships. I know that allows you to open up to different communities and different people. Also, the quality of the work CYS chooses to exhibit is very unique and very original, and much of it comes from Latin America. I feel that it sets a different tone that doesn’t exist anywhere else in Chicago.

CO: Part of it Claudia is that anybody can do art. There are a lot of artists out here,that water down our culture. In terms of Latin American culture, they just keep repeating the same images, the same themes that have just been played out. It’s like, “Really? Is that how you see our culture?” There ismuch creativity and there is much going on. They should be evolving. We should not be stagnant. We need to develop if we really want to make changes.

I honestly believe that artists in general should not be accepting these commercial gallery fees or being exploited. A commercial gallery keeps %60 while the artists keep %40. That to me isn’t fair. The artist is not just producing an art piece. The musician, the poet, is handing over a piece of their life, handing over a piece a of their struggle, handing over a piece of their vulnerability. That means something.  And that person who is creating knows the importance of making a change through art.

CGR: What Chicago communities have you collaborated with?

CO: I have my full-time job in Humboldt Park. I get a lot of support from my job and the work that I’m doing [at CYS]. I have collaborated with a few of my [Humboldt Park] co-workers. The LGBTQ community is another big group that we work with and has strengthened because of my job. Then, one of my neighbors too, who identifies as a trans-sexual. She’s been very supportive helping me out and coming to the space. I do have to acknowledge that one of the organizations that has been part of our support base is Cuentos Foundation in Rogers Park. They have been very concerned with how we are doing and getting us resources.

CGR: Is one of your main purposes to service working class communities that are focused on different social justice issues?

CO: Yeah. CYS isn’t so much the space. It’s the idea. It’s the vision that Jose David had. The intent of CYS is to offer an alternative space to marginalized and oppressed artists and that can manifest itself in so many different ways. The important [thing] is to get the message across through the artwork, or the performance, or the poem, or the story that needs to be shared.

CGR: Do you think that CYS serves as a platform for cultural self-perception and identity? Does it help affirm and/or challenge it with the artwork it exhibits?

CO: Oh, yeah! That is part of our work. How does an individual see [himself/herself] in the current dominant culture. If they are not satisfied or if they question. What I really like about CYS is its ability to provoke [and] leave people walking out the door with even more questions. Then I feel that people are going to become critical thinkers and critical analyzers and we don’t have enough of that because we let the dominant culture rule our lives. And it’s almost like you become numb.

CGR: Do you think that your position as a woman and as a coordinator affects how you collaborate with other groups and what you tend to show?

CO: I’m trying to support more female artists than anything. Not to say that men don’t deserve that acknowledgement either, but I’m really more interested in supporting women. There are still spaces in the community that men can go and show at. It is easier for a male artists, or a poet or a musician than it is for a female.

CGR: What is the future of CYS and how does the work that you are doing with different people, and your collaboration with various communities going to impact that future?

CO: Well, that is a good question. Personally, I know where I would like to be within CYS. I would like to be a funder, not the coordinator, and just hand CYS over to the community. If CYS is really going to survive, I would like for the same community to take complete ownership over it and that they run it.

CGR: When you say “community” who do you mean?

CO: The community of artists [that] really support and believe in the mission and vision of CYS. There is that counsel of artists and cultural workers and cultural activists who really believe in what has been done, here at CYS, and they take ownership over it. And it is not going to be about who has power or who is a leader because anybody can be a leader at CYS. Everybody has that opportunity.  But it’s like, “Do you have las ganas? Do you have the passion? How much are you willing to put into it?”