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Stories in the Stream: Third Annual Southeast L.A. River Arts Festival Goes Virtual

Hear how art can help transform society in "Southland Sesssions" S1 E1: Change(Makers) - The Future of Arts and Culture

Where else are you going to see a Latinx Bob Ross in huaraches this weekend? And naturally, Beto RosSela (see what he did there?) will be painting pajaritos on a virtual riverbed. You can join Beto and dozens of other residents and artists as they perform this weekend for the third-annual Southeast L.A. River Arts Festival held entirely online.

The first art walk I covered in the Southeast was in 2014. On the corner of Atlantic and Gage in the City of Bell, the main stage stood proud in front of a spray-painted mural. The participating businesses included used car lots, a vintage thrift shop and a paleteria, among others. They featured grassroots organizations like Chicas Rockeras, visual art and DJs who could be seen up Atlantic all the way to Slauson. In the last three years, it’s moved from the street into the actual floor of the L.A. riverbed in South Gate, and last year, attracted nearly 8,000 visitors. Due to the pandemic, festival attendants will have to “walk around” and view art, watch modern dance and hear spoken word poetry via pre-recorded performances on the web instead.

A member of the initial art walk organizers and Maywood Poet and entrepreneur Xitlalic Guijosa-Osuna organized the 40 vendors this year. I asked what she hopes the festival means to her Southeast L.A. neighbors. “We’re doing this with so much love. I hope people see it as a way to connect with their community. It’s not your typical fair where the vendors are not from the place they visit. These are local vendors who make what they sell, that care about the art they’re creating.”

Xitlalic Guijosa-Osuna reads a poem for the tamal lady. | Visual Eyes LA
Xitlalic Guijosa-Osuna reads a poem for the tamal lady. She says, "Street Vendors need our support, not just because they’re getting attacked, but also because they’re economically suffering. I understand them as a vendor and relate to that struggle.” | Visual Eyes LA

This year’s festival will also feature art activities for children, dance performances from the Latinas Art Foundation in Paramount, poetry, a youth mariachi from Huntington Park (the original H.P.) and many others. If you miss the swap meet as much as I do, this year's festival will also have booths to browse, but you’ll have to make your own churros. This year, on the day of and thereafter, you will be able to support locally-owned businesses through the festival website and Instagram (for a full list, see the infobox).

A dancer from Latinas Art Foundation show her skill. | Visual Eyes LA
A dancer from Latinas Art Foundation show her skill. | Visual Eyes LA

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Southeast LA is known for its do it yourself attitude, for a willingness to put in your own labor to get what you need. This festival is no different. Festival director Miguel Angel Luna said this about the effort to stage such a huge and vital event: “We're working to elevate the relevance of art in culture in our daily lives. There’s a real need. [And] we’re not going to wait [for someone else to do it for us]. We got this.”

While the area, which stretches from Commerce to Lynwood, is rich in small business owners, youth activists, educators and working-class people, our communities have been working for years to set up arts spaces. Guijosa-Osuna noted that through the event “we created an art gallery last year, and in SELA we don’t have those. We made them so [residents] don’t have to go downtown to spaces that create gentrification.” The links between art washing and displacement are clear, not just in Los Angeles but across the country. Guijosa-Osuna remains hopeful that because the event is homegrown, the same displacement will not happen here. She said, “Our festival doesn’t bring in fine arts artists from the outside. That’s our long-term plan, help other artists nurture their craft here at home.” The festival has nurtured a “community of entrepreneurs,” Guijosa said and connects new vendors to existing networks of opportunity, like other markets and pop-up events. Frequently, vendors become close, begin to organize events, and help each other out. “We have so much talent in SELA,” she added, “but because everything is so centered in downtown, we wanted to create something here and nurture it.”

A nurturing space is exactly what Alivio Open Mic is about, a big feature in this year’s lineup. Since 2014, Alivio has run out of Eric Contreras' parent's garage in Bell. Alivio is the home of poetry for all, where I've been honored to perform on the same night as Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez, but which regularly features first-time poets. Contreras and the team that make Alivio happen worked to fill the gap in arts programming in our community. Together with other artists and now, elected officials, residents have grown arts programming on a scale the region has never experienced.

But as the pandemic takes its toll on livelihoods and the national uprisings in response to the brutal murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Nina Pop among too many more, a new project called SELA Strong blossomed among the festival participants. An oral history media project that captures our current times, SELA Strong is a group of artists who interviewed residents and festival participants (and elected officials, too) to ask them how their lives have changed and how they hope the world can change, too. On SELA Strong’s Instagram, you can watch a preview of their interviews, including a voice-over where someone says, “Our people lost their jobs, their healthcare, there’s; nothing left to lose. It’s time to get involved.” Another interviewee says, “Black Lives Matter. And if you want all lives to matter, then Black Lives need to matter. That's it.” The words hold all of the daily opportunities and needs we are thinking about, not just in this region but all over the world.

SELA Strong also created a mural in the old Sopp Chevrolet lot on Gage and Atlantic where a steady stream of people drive through and get tested for COVID. Recently, Southeast L.A. has had some of the highest increases of reported cases, likely due to the service sector and frontline jobs many residents still have to go to.

The growth of the event has been largely due to Speaker of the California Assembly Anthony Rendon investing resources. Festival Director Luna said that Rendon’s office is interested in how the event can “elevate and acknowledge [local talent]” and “provide a venue and space for conversation that augment the voices and talent that’s been unrecognized.”

Some of us from the Southeast fear that nobody knows where we are or why we matter. Yet many others know that we’ve overcome so many things like corrupt politicians, our own police cooperating with ICE, a battery plant poisoning the land, water and air, and yet, we kept going. This festival and all of the people involved are a reminder to never give up and do it ourselves.

So, don’t forget about our very own Bob Ross, el Beto RosSela. Beto is a painter who turned a sarape into an apron and wears broken-in huaraches in his painting studio. You can meet him and paint your favorite SELA landscape this Saturday. Maybe you’ll paint the river, the freeway, or your front yard roses. Whatever you choose, remember we made it here, at home.

Beto RosSela makes his way into a SELA landscape. Paint a SELA landscape alongside him at the virtual fest. | Visual Eyes LA
Beto RosSela makes his way into a SELA landscape. Paint a SELA landscape alongside him at the virtual fest. | Visual Eyes LA

Catch the Third Annual Southeast L.A. River Arts Festival this Saturday, August 1, 2020 from 4-8 p.m. To view performances and interact with the festival and vendors, register here. 

Top Image: The SELA Arts Festival in July 2019 was held inside L.A. River bed. | L.A. County Public Works

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