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An Enriching Experience: Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, Maryland Institute College of Art, New York University and Center for Advance Studies of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean

By Arturo Otlahui Ríos Escribano
August 2011

Spaces exist that are designed to promote ideas, exchanges and the development of social justice and cultural advocacy work. These are vibrant spaces that are alive, breathe and multiply through creative thought and action. These spaces are inherently necessary for human exchange and create Agora-like places of assembly. Within our communities and neighborhoods we need work and study areas that are available for engendering new thought while dismantling “colonial oppressive thought.” It is important to create spaces of higher learning that provide safe spaces for critical analysis, creative thought and opportunity to implement our vision. In these spaces we learn, we share and are educated.

But there are not enough spaces that allow us to evaluate the conditions that sustain inequity in our society. In order for cultural activists to access best practices and work together to improve the condition of our communities, an educational process that is theoretical and practical is essential. It is essential for us to have the opportunity to help develop an educational process that allows for exploration of systems that will improve the educational, economic social and cultural opportunities for our communities through the arts. Working in collaboration with our community leaders, scholars, policymakers, students and artists to create change is a necessary process that our educational system to date has not fully embraced. I have long felt the need to participate in an endeavor that explores ways of bringing all our sectors together for the benefit of our people to achieve equity in all areas of our civil society.

Surprisingly, one day Marta Moreno Vega, president of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI), and Marielba Torres, representing the Center for Advanced Studies on Puerto Rico and the Caribbean (CEAC), extended me an invitation to go to the United States and participate in a series of discussions focused on cultural activism at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and New York University (NYU). The objective was for the students from the University of Puerto Rico to share our experiences in challenging the inequitable rise in tuition fees that would force most of the economically challenged students to drop out of school. In turn the students of NYU and MICA shared their experiences in cultural activist work.

As university students from Puerto Rico we had the first-hand experience of participating in the development of a cultural educational exchange program that focuses on community transformative work. This idea was created by Moreno Vega. In collaboration with Torres and President Miguel Rodríguez López of CEA, and representatives from MICA and NYU we had the opportunity to participate in the formation of an exciting community arts advocacy proposal entitled Community Arts University Without Walls. This collaboration turned into something I wasn’t expecting: A complete success! For the first time, in a long time, a group of prestigious and influential educational centers were willing to create places to promote the exchange and discussion of ideas. For the very first time, I was witnessing a concrete project and not vague drafts.

I received the invitation to participate in this project at an opportune time, when the University of Puerto Rico was the location of a national civil rights movement, in defense of assuring an accessible public education. This general strike profoundly shook and activated our culture of conformism and numbness. For 62 days I was an active member of the student protest on the streets.

As a part of my activist educational process I became part of the united effort to construct learning spaces where we worked directly with artists developing protest art and the study of law and culture. Art served as a peaceful and revolutionary weapon that awakened the silenced emotions of our people. Through art, we communicated much more information than the written claims and formal documents we produced. Protest art and creativity became a direct voice of our issues and was indispensable to our success. The government criminalized our artistic expressions, but art resisted and survived all the obstacles and attacks, expanding our cause toward new possibilities.

These experiences were the ones I shared with MICA, NYU and CEAC students and faculty. I confirmed the importance of developing spaces where culture, the arts and the study of law could converge. Surprisingly, MICA was extremely open to this project, and they even showed admiration for what we were doing back home with the University of Puerto Rico. They also agreed with the necessity of constructing and providing spaces that work as an indispensable educational tool.

I consider that the Cultural Arts University Without Walls project will be a revolutionary educative program that promotes the existence of spaces where people can fight for their right to culture, art and their civil rights. I hope this will create incredible social transformations beyond my imaginings. Today, I feel extremely honored and proud of calling myself part of this innovative and beautiful project.