A Conversation with Valeria Fuentes, Founder of Roots & Raíces

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Some of Baltimore’s nicknames come across as yearningly hopeful, but somehow also result in a cynical, self-righteous apathy, a kind of recognition of the problems but a shrugging-off of the responsibility. You know, how can the Greatest City in America have a public transportation system that barely functions; wide-ranging and obvious income gaps; food deserts; underfunded, underperforming schools, scant resources for people experiencing homelessness; rampant police corruption, and on and on and on?

But this is also an active city. People see disparity and try their best to amend it, boots-on-the-ground style, giving credence to the notion that Baltimore really is the greatest city in America.

Valeria Fuentes saw a need for more immigrant-centered artistic collaboration and support in this city, and founded the multidisciplinary art collective Roots & Raíces in 2017, while still a student in MICA’s architectural design program. The idea for such a community, however, began to germinate years ago, as Fuentes organized around environmental rights and immigrant rights throughout her youth and college years.

Roots & Raíces held its first festival in the spring of 2018, with artists selling their work and performing all day long in Station North. On the first night of this year’s two-day festival this weekend, hosted at Creative Alliance, the organization’s inaugural gala features the premiere of the film series Somos Migrantes (directed by Torianne Montes-Schiff), food catered by Cocina Luchadoras and Mera Kitchen Collective, an awards ceremony, and performances by DJ Gustavo, Son del Sur, and Folkloric Dance. Artist Lizania Cruz (of the DIY newsstand We The News, featuring first-person immigrant stories), will give a keynote speech.

Day two of the festival, hosted at Le Mondo, features more live performances, food, and an artist market called El Mercado, all free from 6–9 p.m. The after party, co-hosted with La Factoría, begins at 9 p.m. ($10–$15).

I spoke with Fuentes over the phone about the upcoming festival, how the organization began to take root, and how to better support immigrant artists.

Roots & Raíces team, left to right: María Isabel García, Anthony Nguyen, Ariel Cavalcante-Foster, C Kim, Luz Orozco, Adriana Fuentes, Abbey Parrish, Amanda Velez-Cortes, Valentina Cabezas, Karla Casique, Torianne Montes-Schiff, Valeria Fuentes, Philip Dayao. (Photo courtesy of Roots & Raíces)

Rebekah Kirkman: Could you give me a little bit of history about the organization? What prompted you to start it?

Valeria Fuentes: I grew up in Baltimore, I have been here since I was 5. I immigrated from Bolivia with my family, first to New York, and then to Baltimore in 2001. I’ve always been involved in organizations that worked with immigrants, and always been a part of immigrant communities in Baltimore, in Southeast Highlandtown. I lived in Highlandtown for most of my childhood, then went to Bolivia for one year and then came back. I’ve been back and forth a few times. I moved out of the city and went to a magnet art school and ended up going to MICA for college. I noticed that at MICA, there was a huge lack of access for the Latino community, in terms of grants and resources for the community I had grown up with. I noticed there was this gap in terms of access for artists between those that come from an institutional background and those with non-institutional backgrounds. Since getting grants was almost impossible due to language barriers, among other things, folks from the immigrant communities I grew up with have to fund things from their own pockets. Even at MICA at the time, there wasn’t a strong Latino community group. I co-founded the first Latino club and did a lot of programming and events that centered around identity and inclusion as well cultural bridging with other identity-based clubs on campus. 

My thesis was actually a festival, the Somos Latinx Art and Cultural Festival at Motor House.

It was a combination of me and my work at MICA and in Baltimore as an organizer, an artist, and a designer; I tried to bridge that gap between the MICA community and the immigrant community, specifically with the Latino community. It was a nine-hour event with around 35 performers and artists that sold their work there. I brought in both people from Southeast Baltimore and people from Station North, folx identifying as Latino/Latinx who hadn’t ever met these people, connecting people with immigrant families that just migrated here. 

People really wanted to see this happen again, this bridging of culture and celebration of community within the diaspora. I realized we put ourselves in these boxes. All immigrants right now are facing similar struggles nationally. In the beginning, when I started Roots & Raíces, it was because I recognized that there is a lack of access to the arts and representation in Baltimore as an immigrant artist. Now we have developed into a collective that supports each other, our voices, and uses our creative and artistic powers to raise awareness and action around immigrant rights. Roots & Raíces is for people who are immigrants or children of immigrants; it is also for allies to understand how they can support immigrant artists and their rights. It started at The Crown as monthly music events and then it grew. This was all happening as I was working on my Graduate Social Design thesis at MICA around increasing civic engagement on campus, and separately I started doing design classes for city college youth.  I was teaching kids how to make clothes and they got to be a part of my festival last year which took place on April 28, 2018. 

That was a big endeavor, 12 hours long, it was crazy. It was outside of Graffiti Warehouse, Graffiti Alley, and the Motor House parking lot. It was amazing. It was Somos Latinx Festival times 10. Despite the weather and other factors, it was a beautiful event, a coming together of different cultures, from an art market to a fashion show to DJ sets to live performers.

I learned a lot and taking that forward for next week, we learned we need to scale down a little bit in terms of how ambitious that was. It was only me running it with two other people—two other people were running the art market in addition to our Artist & Repertoire team who helped create the lineup. I realized that you get burnt out and it’s better to do a really good job and not over-compromise. 

In terms of timing, it was a bit funky because I was organizing that festival and my thesis dissertation in the same week. That was definitely crazy. And I was doing the fashion show—a lesson I learned: Do not perform in your own festival.

Too much at once?

I don’t know what I was thinking—I was teaching kids who are really ambitious; they had no experience making clothes and I taught them to produce six garments in a month and pretty much 25 percent of that happened within a week of the festival, so I think I was burnt out from working with the kids and working on that small piece of the festival.

Right before the festival, I was up finishing the garments, the details on them, until 6 a.m. the day of the festival. I wanted things to look good, and I wanted them to participate. They were excited, so I didn’t want them to not be able to present their work because the seams weren’t finished.

In the future if I’m gonna do a fashion show I shouldn’t be the designer, you know? It made me tired for the whole event, and a little hazy. I had no sleep and was running a 12-hour festival. It still went really well—I had a really supportive community, and I knew I couldn’t do this by myself. It was a wakeup call: Hey, you have a beautiful community that can jump in.

Over the past year, I’ve been working on building this team of volunteers and people to collectively create programming and events that are more intentional. This work can’t be done alone. 

How many people are currently involved with Roots & Raíces?

Fourteen individuals are part of the collective. I only pay people on a contractor-level, like graphic design or social media. We don’t have paid positions; we are operating like a project and a collective.

Are all of them based in Baltimore too?

Most of them are but some have moved and are now based closer to DC, still in Maryland. We do have people in New York who try to support in terms of creating a network—we have supporters elsewhere.

Debby Cavazos, Valeria Fuentes, Joey Alzamora

Could you tell me more about this weekend’s events? What would someone expect this weekend?

It’s our inaugural gala. We are fundraising so we can continue to do programming in the future. The gala will also be a film festival premiere: Somos Migrantes, which will be running through December. This summer we began accepting submissions from all over the nation. The gala has amazing programming, really highlighting and celebrating individuals from the community that are essential to the fabric of who we are. We are going to be presenting two awards to individuals in the community—a certificate of acknowledgement in their honor. There will be performers, and catering from Cocina Luchadoras and Mera Kitchen Collective. Salad, main entree, dessert, and a drink are included with each ticket.

The theme is the Amazon, in honor of the Amazon rainforest. Interestingly, the theme was chosen a year ago. I’m from Bolivia and I wanted to honor my roots—my family is from the jungle region and the jungle has always been a part of my family, the music, culture, food, everything. I wanted to acknowledge the beauty of the Amazon as my roots. How timely, that we should be more aware of our impact on the Earth and our land. We are also raising funding for indigenous groups who are fighting against the deforestation of the Amazon. It’s important for us as immigrants to recognize that this land is borrowed, this land isn’t ours and it belongs to the indigenous people of the land.

The following day, September 14, that’s less formal. It’s an art market from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. with a few performances in between. Then there’s gonna be a lot of food vendors, and artists selling their work, and then, from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., DJ sets. We are collaborating with La Factoría for the after party. The performers are coming from New York, some of them, and some from DC. The lineup includes Dave Nada, DJ Bembona, DJ Haram, and Genie. It’s a beautiful lineup. 

They are two separate events. One thing I learned from last year, having the festival all in one day made it hard for individuals to attend. We have to have a family-friendly part, a part that acknowledges our sponsors and donors, and for young people to have a good time. 

Could you tell me the origin of the name? Raíces also means “roots,” right?

Yeah, it means roots. It’s about recognizing the duality of cultures and the idea of bridging the cultures. I wanted to keep it cute and simple.

Baltimore is a very active place—despite how awfully it is corrupted and segregated and inequitable, the people are what really make it a great place and they work really hard to change things. How has Baltimore influenced your work?

I think that having grown up here as an immigrant and as a woman, a girl, had a lot to do with who I am now. I grew up in what is a less well-funded area of Highlandtown that was predominantly Latinx. I grew up playing soccer in the street, and from a very early age I already knew things I probably shouldn’t know. I saw a lot of violence in the streets that was inflicted on our community, a lot of hatred toward immigrants, Latinos. You grow up in fear, and try to stay out of the limelight and support your own community. It made me a little angry—why is it that we have to hide or not feel safe in our own houses? Even in the country now, this feeling of being indignant, that word has always stuck with me.

From an early age, my mom would take me to marches with CASA De Maryland, in DC, going to the capital advocating for the DREAM Act or immigration reform. I organized for environmental awareness, the People’s Climate March, and even water rights here in Baltimore. There is a lot of activism in Baltimore; I think it’s beautiful. People stand up for themselves, they don’t accept cruelty and inequity. That’s at the core of what I want to do with Roots & Raíces, that element of using art as a tool for social change, a platform for issues affecting immigrants, to educate and support folks who are allies or immigrants or undocumented. There is so much trauma and fear of deportation. So it’s not just about celebration, it’s also about creating spaces to heal. We can’t constantly be making work if we don’t heal, take time to pause and reflect and think through. It’s a lot to take in what’s going on right now, especially just seeing the news—it’s a lot of trauma watching the news and seeing kids in cages on TV. It’s like thinking of the Japanese internment camps—is this happening again?

There’s a need in the community. People are reaching out to us on Instagram, asking for resources, asking questions because they have no idea who to go to. I think that’s pretty interesting because we are a platform that supports immigrants through art, but we are also a community and collective. We are like a family, we support each other and are there for each other and we wanna do that for everyone else and create those networks. And hopefully that’s what people feel when they come to our events, is that they have a space of belonging as opposed to feeling that they don’t belong.

Right, it’s not just about celebration, it’s about reckoning with how hard things are too. That’s really important, that people know they have others going through similar situations and they aren’t alone. What are some of your long-term goals for Roots & Raíces?

I’ve been on the verge of trying to start this as a nonprofit, trying to understand what that would mean. There’s some hesistance to becoming a nonprofit because there are so many in Baltimore. We are functioning pretty well as a collective. We don’t have as much access as nonprofits do, and the credibility that comes with being a nonprofit. I’d love to see us opening it as a business or a nonprofit, that’s something that I am trying to do. But I’m also trying to weigh what the original people who have now formed part of Roots & Raíces are thinking. They may not be here for the next three or five years, who knows? Some of them have just graduated, or have families and kids. We already operate as a nonprofit without the advantages of a nonprofit.

I joke about this but it should be that nonprofits work toward not existing. Essentially we wish that what we do was more common in Baltimore, but there really aren’t many organizations in Baltimore that are building collective power and collaboration. There are refugee/immigrant groups, Nepalese community groups, Latino communities, for example, that do specific immigrant work. But it’s more focused on addressing trauma or alleviating the problems, securing housing and jobs, and we are more of an arts organization and that’s what makes us unique. I would love to see us get enough funds to expand what we are doing and create more intentional programming.

The 2019 Roots & Raíces Festival takes place this weekend, Sept. 13 and 14, at Creative Alliance and Le Mondo. Roots & Raíces organizers are still looking for volunteer’s for the weekend’s events—volunteers get free admission to the after party and a free T-shirt. To volunteer, reach out on Instagram or email [email protected].

For more info on the festival, see the website. To buy tickets, go to Eventbrite.

Photos by Maggie Friedman, courtesy of Roots & Raíces.

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