My memories of elementary school in Matanzas, Cuba, where I grew up as young boy, are still vivid. The education was robust with subject matters like literatura, matemáticas, historia, ciencia, y geografía.
The geography class was particularly influential. It gave me the space to journey beyond my politically isolated island and connect me to other cultures. Our class dove deep into topographies through intricate maps that each student had to copy by re-drawing each country we learned about.
The maps were beautiful, and I got really good at drawing and coloring them, so much so that my visual vocabulary quickly evolved to illustrating Cuban revolution topics. Some were selected and printed in the popular state newspaper.
I am not sure if art found me or if I found art, but one thing is certain: Art saved me. It became rooted in me by the time I was 7 or 8 years old.
My family emigrated to the United States in 1971, and like most Cubans, we landed in New York not speaking ni una papa de Inglés. It was a difficult period, especially when attending school. Back then, it felt like my sister Maria and I were consumed with trying to survive the school day. Gang occurrences were a daily activity at school, and we were the new kids on the block.
Maria was raised under the watchful eye of abuela Estrella in the railroad apartment in Yonkers, N.Y., where we first lived. She found solace watching hours of Sesame Street, which taught her English quickly. I, on the other hand, gravitated to matters of the street, friends, dancing, and cruising in Danny Degostino’s badass 1969 Chevrolet Nova.
My mother’s efforts to keep me out of trouble were heroic to say the least. Her intervention strategies were logically disciplined. She kept me focused by nurturing my artistic inquisitions with creative activities at home. At that time, organizations that could have supported the development of my creative endeavors were not within our reach.
I attended Saunders Trade and Technical High School, where I devoted three years to studying architecture – a sure path to a professional career according to papi. Still lacking social confidence, I spent my junior and senior years grappling with the question of whether attending a higher education institution was an option. This fear was exacerbated by a feeling of not belonging and by barring myself from seeking guidance on college admission processes and financial assistance options.
I eventually went on to attend three higher-education arts institutions, but not because I overcame my angst. Vincent Colabella, my art teacher and mentor those three years in high school, recognized my creative talents as well as my shortcomings. And as his continued support would have it, Mr. Colabella had drafted my college application with my parents’ consent, and I was accepted into the Fashion Institute of Technology.
More than 38 years later, my journey as an artist and arts administrator has evolved many times over, and I remain engaged in the field that I am passionate about. Mr. Colabella would be proud.
I am very lucky in many ways, but I often reflect on how many other young people are not, for one reason or another. How many will not have the guidance or access to places or mentors that will encourage them to create freely?
These are creative universes, where we are fortunate as Americans to take refuge and exercise our freedom with the protected seal bestowed by our government through agencies such as the National Endowment of the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and, closer to home, the Texas Commission on the Arts.
It pains me to think that we still live in an era that contemplates eliminating or significantly reducing the funding of these vital agencies. The same governmental guardians that were entrusted with supporting art organizations are vested in the cultural lives of the people and communities they serve.
Now, the case of economic impact is being made on all fronts and gaining political support. Data is a powerful tool, especially when illustrating that the arts mean business.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the national creative sector employed 4.8 million people in 2014 and contributed more than $700 billion, or 4.2% of the gross domestic product, to the nation’s economy. This is larger than tourism, transportation, and construction. In Texas, the Texas Cultural Trust revealed this year that the arts generate $5.5 billion each year for the state economy and contribute $343 million in state sales tax revenues annually.
Economic data works, but imagine for a moment attaining political empathy by also sharing the experience of a person’s well-being that is inspired when transecting with art. This intersection was eloquently articulated by the president of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker, when he spoke in March at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
“Numbers will never explain what happens the moment the curtain rises or the lights go up,” he said. “They don’t measure the quickening of our hearts in time with the music, the widening of our eyes, or the suspension of our disbelief.”
The emotional qualities of the arts may not be measurable yet, but you feel the value when you see it. I have witnessed this creative transaction firsthand through the cultural work created by artists and institutions of different sizes and disciplines across the world. The arts are emphatically connecting people of all ages, class, and race in surprising ways, but with the resolve to celebrate our humanity.
Engaging with the arts often has free access, but it comes with price tag subsidized by private investment as well as public agencies such as the NEA, NEH, and TCA. Without their support, some arts and cultural groups would potentially have to close their doors or be forced to trim services. I am convinced that this would likely impact urban and rural community-based arts organizations the most.
The real issue at stake is the possibility of losing access to cultural spaces where borders don’t apply. This reality could easily yield the angst felt by many that are culturally proud, but socially poor. We are in times of great despair, and increasing funding for the arts makes absolute sense. Yes, the arts are an economic engine, but more prominently the arts have the power to connect and transform the lives of people, as they did for me.
We should be more inspired than ever to share with our bipartisan elected officials that the arts are essential to the well-being of all people and the strength of our communities.