What an incredible experience to have been a fellow with the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture (NALAC) Advocacy Leadership Institute (ALI).
Meeting with NALAC leadership and my superstar cohort of 15 fellows from across the US, virtually for two months in early 2023 was just the beginning. Arriving in person in Washington, D.C. to advocate on Capitol Hill for the support of Latinx arts and culture was a transformative experience, true learning in action. I can say that I emerged from this experience more knowledgeable and confident as an arts advocate. I am also grateful to have connected with such an amazing cohort of fellows – each of them talented and passionate about their work and advocacy.
So what did we do in D.C., exactly? Through words and photos, I will illustrate the highlights of my experience.
Day One: Sunday, April 23rd – We fly into D.C.
It was a very quick flight for me, so I checked in early to relax in the hotel room at the Hilton Embassy Suites. Since the NALAC staff and fellows were coming from different states, their travel times varied. Later that evening we all met up in the hotel conference room… Well, most of us (some had crazy flight delays). It was great to meet everyone in person. Afterwards, some of us travel-weary fellows met up in the hotel restaurant and shared a meal. Little did we know how many meals we would end up eating there!
Day Two: Monday, April 24th – Getting a seat at the table
In the morning we found our way downstairs to eat a hearty breakfast before our 8am lobby call. Then, we made our way onto the street, into the brisk DC morning air as we walked over to the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. We settled into a large conference room where we would remain for the first half of he day. NALAC leadership, Maria López De León, Abel Lopez and Rosalba Rolón, started us off with a grounding conversation framed as, National Arts Advocacy Efforts/The Pulse of a Nation. Next we were joined by Mark Hugo Lopez, Director of Race and Ethnicity Research for Pew Research Center, who provided insight into data and research related to Latinx issues, attitudes, and trends. Then, Nolen Bivens, President and CEO for Americans for the Arts kindly paid us a visit to discuss what he calls Six Principles Towards Culture Shift. And finally, the man of the house, Josh T. Franco, PhD, National Collector for Archives of American Art came in to explain the process of collecting for world’s preeminent and most widely used research center dedicated to documenting the history of the visual arts in America. He then took us on a tour of the facilities and cracked open a few boxes of source materials. He even showed us hand-written letters from Frida Kahlo to friend Emmy Lou Packard (1940) featuring Frida’s red-lipstick kisses at the bottom. Needless to say, we got a big kick out of that!
But wait, there’s more! After we were done at the Archives, we all jumped in Ubers and shot over to the White House. Even though we had all registered in advance for clearance, we still had to go through a security checkpoint which took quite a while. Eventually, we got in to the Eisenhower Building for our meeting with Sol Ortega who is President Biden’s Senior Advisor for Public Engagement. We had the opportunity to sit around a table and discuss our work and advocate for the support of Latinx arts and culture on a national level. Suddenly, we had to pop out of our seats because the conference room was in demand. But that didn’t stop us from carrying the conversation into the hallway. Ms. Ortega was gracious and engaged. In the end she gave us each a box of Presidential Hershey’s Kisses as a parting gift (there was a kiss theme going on that day!), and urged us to stay in touch and keep the conversation going.
After what was already a long day, some of us decided to take a long walk home to soak in the sights. We could have eaten dinner at any of DC’s wonderful restaurants, but we ended up eating at the hotel restaurant again. By now we had figured out their happy hour situation; being hungry and exhausted, it was a no-brainer.
Day Three: Tuesday, April 25th – Building National Allyship
Once again, we woke up early for a hearty breakfast and met up for an early morning lobby call. We emerged like a school of fish onto the street and this time, flowed down into the subway station. The trip was pretty swift and easy (saying this from my NYC-perspective), in about 20 minutes we were at the offices of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). We were situated in a large room with tables around the perimeter where we were all (NALAC folks) seated along Ra Joy, Chief of Staff and the entire NEA Programs Staff (some of whom were there in person, and the remainder via Zoom on a huge screen). For about an hour and a half we learned about each of their respective programs and initiatives, and they learned about our artistic and advocacy work and concerns.
Next we were joined by a powerhouse trio: Pam Breaux, Chief Executive Officer for National Assembly of State Arts Agencies; Heather Noonan, Vice President for Advocacy for the League of American Orchestras; and Nina Ozlu Tunceli, Chief Counsel of Government and Public Affairs & Executive Director, for Americans for the Arts Action Fund. They each provided insight into the ways national organizations address issues that impact Latinx communities through their work and agenda, as well as how to engage and advocate within these frameworks.
Then, after a lunch break, we fellows broke off into our working groups to sit with Maria, Abel, and Rosalba, respectively – to practice our advocacy pitches. After all, we all had to be ready to go up to Capitol Hill in the morning and meet with our House Representatives and Senators. The pressure was on! Most of us were still very nervous. But as Rosalba (my group leader) told us a number of times, all of the pieces would come together in time. Yikes! I still didn’t feel ready.
Once our practice sessions were over, of course, our day was not done yet! We hopped on the subway again, this time to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History so that we could visit the Molina Family Latino Gallery. We were met by David L. Coronado, Senior Communications Officer for the National Museum of the American Latino who explained the history of the gallery and forthcoming museum. We were then able to tour the gallery which was really inspiring and thoughtfully curated.
At the end of the day most of us split up, some went sightseeing, while others went back to the hotel. And guess where we ate dinner.
Day four: Wednesday, April 26th – “And I got as far as Capitol Hill”
This day was the day. We were going to Capitol Hill! In the morning we made our way out into the street, down into the subway, and into one of the House of Representatives’ buildings, where we set up shop in a conference room. Some of us sat and prepared our notes, while others ventured out to find their representatives’ offices right away. Capitol Hill is is not just the Capitol Building; it is actually a large campus of 20 buildings, so there was a lot of walking in store for us. (By EOD I hit about 13,000 steps on my pedometer!) We fellows had each made advance appointments with our own Congressmembers and Senators. Some of us met with Representatives themselves while others met with members of their staff, based on availability. But all 15 of us Fellows were able to secure meetings, which was impressive.
Being that Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez has a relationship with NALAC, and I live in her district, we were able to secure a group meeting which included Rosalba, along with Fellows Viannca, Antonieta, and myself. Since we are all NYC constituents, we spoke about the need for continued support and development of Latinx and BIPOC-led arts organizations, and overall budgetary support for the NEA and expansion of their programs. Rep. Velazquez and her staffer were very receptive to our stories and shared our community interests. Later, Antonieta and met with our NYS Senator, Charles Schumer’s staffers and had a similar conversation that was well received. Each of the fellows had their own unique experiences, meeting with Representatives from their home states, and focusing on issues central to their communities.
In between our buzzing all around Capitol Hill making our meetings, those that were able headed back to the conference room for a discussion with Charlene Aguilera, Legislative Aide for Representative Nanette Barragan and Liaison for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. She explained how the CHC serves as a forum for Latinx members of Congress to come together to address issues that affect communities across the nation as well as some of the initiatives they have implemented. After this meeting, it was getting late in the day, so we started wrapping up and getting ready for our party. Yes a party!
NALAC arranged for a lovely reception for us to be held in the Gold Room of the Rayburn House Office Building, complete with a live mariachi band (Groupo Fenix) and catering. We fellows were presented with certificates of achievement for completing the ALI fellowship. As well, Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas was presented with the NALAC Lifetime Achievement Award for his longtime commitment to supporting the arts. And special guest Huascar Medina, Seventh Poet Laureate of Kansas, performed his poem, New American.
At the end of this very long, exhilarating day full of fun, fellowship, challenges, and accomplishments, it was finally time to leave. We could see the Capitol Building all lit up against the dark night sky as we jumped in our Ubers and sped back to the hotel where we would eat dinner together once again.
As I mentioned, our cohort had been meeting virtually for two months in preparation for this D.C. visit. Although we were only in our nation’s Capitol for a few days, it felt like much longer with this action-packed yet carefully-considered agenda. The main thing is that we added to our understanding and practice as arts and cultural advocates on a national level; learning from NALAC leaders and drawing on 34 years of the organization’s history. Forging new relationships and being in fellowship with this amazing group of people was the cherry on top.
Thanks to NALAC leadership, Maria López De León, Abel Lopez and Rosalba Rolón, and the staff that accompanied us, for their tireless work: Alyssa Pineda, Armani Martinez, Penny Rodriguez, and Luis Garza. And thanks to my cohort of fellows: Alicia Mullikin, Amalia L. Ortiz, Antonieta Landa, Arturo Méndez, Asami Robledo-Allen Yamamoto, Ivette Román-Roberto, Joshua J. Ramirez, Liyen Chong, Mauro Murillo, Michelle Murillo, Philip Alejo, Rebecca Beltran, Sam Gomez, and Viannca Velez.