• How Can the Arts Save Us?

    April 1, 2020 was supposed to be the day we celebrated the 31st anniversary of when my family arrived in Australia from El Salvador.

    Thirty-one years ago, my parents made the difficult choice to leave everything they knew behind, to give my sisters and me a chance at a better life in Perth, Western Australia. As a young family growing up amidst the Salvadoran Civil War, times were incredibly tense. Hostilities between the guerrilla rebels and the government saw numerous citizens disappear with no warning, including our own neighbors — presumably taken by the military death squads. Two of my uncles were killed during the war and tending to bullet wounds became a regular job for my father, who worked as a doctor. My parents knew and felt the emotional PTSD that my sisters endured, and my impending birth into a war-torn country was just one more reason to flee. April 1st is a day of deep reflection for us. Over an intimate dinner, we toast, and share in the gratitude of being together in a safe country.

    This is a time when it is especially important for me to be visible — both as a migrant and as a person with a disability. From the isolated city of Perth, the main access I have to my Salvadoran history is through my parents. There is validity in standing strong and saying “I am here, and I went through this” as I embrace the sacrifices my family has had to make and celebrate the pride I share in my Salvadoran roots. But equally, as a person with Asperger’s, I come from a long history of shame, ignorance, and hiding. To subvert that and to take up that space is healing to the discrimination that I have dealt with in my life.

    But this April 1st looked a lot different from the ones before.

    As I consider my place in this time, I am reminded of El Salvador’s history of colonization. With the Spanish Conquistadors slowly stripping the power from the Mesoamerican natives, the colonizers’ way of living was assumed to be the new norm. Western medicine dominated the indigenous medicines and spiritualism, and many communities were forced to relinquish their traditions and religious beliefs. Like today’s pandemic, this era saw mass hysteria and mass shutdowns, as the native culture was regarded with more skepticism. It saw the death of a community’s vibrancy and livelihood to appeal to the dominant mainstream. Though today is not about religion, the undercurrent is the same: it is the loss of a cultural identity. And while this pandemic has certainly encouraged us to look out for our vulnerable citizens, it has conversely fuelled greed, hoarding, and a stronger sense of individualism which has caused friction amongst us. We are in a time which does not make space for its citizens to deviate from the new imposed norm, and this is why now it is as important as ever to remind ourselves of the ways in which we can live in a fulfilled way outside of this system. We are more than just a homogeneous industry — we are a community.

    As people’s fears are amplified one sneeze at a time, we see the masses worldwide compulsively sanitizing, awkwardly navigating around each other, and feeling and being trapped in their own homes. Even a warm hug from my mother has been out of the question in this new normal. Traditional modes of comfort are no longer allowed; our lives have been changed by external factors. But perhaps the worst for me has been the standstill that the arts have come to. How can we save the arts?

    The general perception about the arts within the eyes of the government and the industrial bodies seems to be that they are non-essential— a hobby. The arts as depicted in stereotype are students with disheveled hair and clothing, scribbling messy doodles on the back of their exam papers, throwing grunts and eye-rolls in contempt. They are troublemakers and delinquent; a point of view which sits in stark contrast to the ingrained “industry mindset.” When the idea that we as a community must be productive all the time is fed to us constantly, anything that falls outside of it is perceived as laziness or a waste of time. When I graduated from high school and studied Graphic Design at the local technical college, I was given a harsh reality check. Initially, Graphic Design seemed like the perfect fit for me, giving me a space to explore myself with artistic freedom and honesty. But any hope of that quickly dissipated. The idea that as the designer I was the least important one in the equation, was instilled in me frequently. The job that I envisioned would be about making something new and progressive, eventuated in me surrendering my creative agency for the “real” things that mattered: the paying client, and the capitalist consumers. I recognize that this isn’t necessarily any one person’s fault. We all get caught up in this system. When the entire world’s main concern is making profits, we find ourselves burning out as we work to maintain an endless, cyclic, machine. But I am writing to dismantle that mindset.

    So why are the arts worth saving? And how might they save us?

    As artists it is our role to break perceptions, challenge thinking, and create thought-provoking content which expands our ideas around culture and identity. Recently the pandemic has forced concert cancellations, gallery closures, theater and cinema suspensions, and worse, from my point of view: brought publishing distributors of the comic book industry to a standstill. This I learned the last time I visited my local comic bookstore, which was sometime in the middle of March.

    Most artists have moved into the virtual streams of social media to stay in touch with the rest of the isolated world. Though as lucky as we are to have access to the internet to keep us informed, and give us a virtual audience, I still maintain that as an artist, we need a live audience to interact with. As someone who is used to being alone a lot, but has recently had my work become more visible, being shut back inside during this time feels like a slam to the face for all the hard work I’ve been trying to accomplish. Even more, as I described earlier, returning to my state of discriminatory hiding feels regressive to the important work I am setting about doing.

    In my youth I felt very detached in terms of my sense of belonging within Australia: I was here and surrounded by Australian culture, yet my heritage is Salvadoran. Even though I felt a mild displacement, I was resistant to learning more about my lineage. I struggled to learn Spanish, and I relied on the patience of my parents in teaching me the language. Now I can see that I was trying to navigate how to belong within a culture that does not make a lot of space for cultural identities which deviate from the norm.

    This is also what I believe the arts to signify: it is a cultural identity which affords individuals and groups the opportunity to explore alternative realities and narratives. And this is also why I feel that the arts have not been prioritized in this trying time. It threatens the ability for a society to create streamlined systems with minimal resistance.

    For as long as I can remember, the arts have helped to shape me into who I am today. As a child juggling two languages at home, I used performance and vocal impressions as a tool to navigate those barriers, try on different identities, and expand my vocabulary and speech. Currently I use my writing and performing to bring meaning to my lived experience as an Aspie and make sincere and genuine commentary on the elements within our culture that I do not believe have enough visibility or representation. At the start of the pandemic, I had completed revisions for my first manuscript, featuring a protagonist that represents my culture and neuro-diverse identity. Just as I was about to make a dent into the industry, my agency was thwarted. The arts are essential to humanity and is now at risk of abandonment.

    How can we as a community change the industry to ensure the arts survive? When six months pass and the once fast-paced world begins to slowly rotate again, what is the plan to ensure our community can adapt and thrive in a world that has been changed by an invisible, vicious virus?

    While the ads on TV send us messages that we are “not alone” and that we are “all in this together,” I know that the bigger reality is that we are not. Not yet, at least. As a community having gone through a collective shared experience we should come together, listen to all voices, develop, and brainstorm ideas; collaborating and communicating even between communities that have never seen the need to work together before.

    We also need to acknowledge that we can’t speed up as we did previously. In these next few months as we awaken from the hibernation within our homes, we have the chance to imagine something completely new. Instead of a system which normalizes burnout and working until we collapse, we could be thinking of solutions which prioritize our rest and our healing; valuing the time we have to ourselves as a time to recharge and give better and more energized versions of ourselves to one another.

    Like the arts, certain communities were deeply affected by the limitations implemented unto us; more specifically the vulnerable, like the disabled. Industries should re-evaluate the opportunities given out by equalizing opportunities and neutralizing different class systems which have been exaggerated through the original “industry” mentality.

    Employment is not the only important thing in our lives. In our current enclosed lifestyles, we are spending more time with those we care about. In some cases, we are on our own with only a computer and phone to reach out. We are taking up hobbies and projects to keep our minds busy and to expand our creativity and learning, to look after ourselves physically, spiritually, and mentally.

    But more importantly, we need to respect the arts as a valid and meaningful way to spend time — celebrating that it brings us a sense of dignity and purpose, achieving a sense of fulfillment through caring for our mental health. It is our way of embracing our cultural identity. In a range of ways, the arts are a fundamental tool to those who are disadvantaged. We need to protect what the arts represented to us as a community. But we also still need to acknowledge that changes are necessary to bring out the best in all of us. And I believe that the arts are crucial during this time.

    Reflecting on the great social gifts of the arts, I am reminded of my own personal journey. I wanted to write about how we as a community could save the arts. But now I can see that the question really should be: “how can the arts save us?” The more I contemplate it, the arts are not in danger and do not need saving — not by us. The arts have prevailed even in distressing times. And during these disruptions, they have offered us creative ideas to navigate through. History has shown over the years how to embrace our cultural identity regardless of the mainstream normal. As a Latino, I am reminded of the double-edged image of Che Guevara, whose portrait represented political upheaval and revolution among the Latin American countries during the latter half of the 20th century. The arts have been a critical way to reignite his legacy through the appropriation of his image, but also to remind us that we still have a right to not follow what has been imposed on us.

    The arts are more than a hobby and cultural niche, they are a communal movement that has pushed our society to transition and express what is in our souls. We as artists are more than just an industry of makers creating products; we are a sustained, resilient, and vibrant community that responds to the world deliberately and thoughtfully. We have done this before, we have seen worse, and we can do it again.

    Here’s hoping for April 1, 2021 as a chance to celebrate with my family, together again.