On Working on Social Justice Issues, Immigrant Artists, the State of the Field, and You Doing You
Alejandra Duque Cifuentes is an immigrant, activist, artist, producer, and educator. With more than 10 years of production and stage management experience in theater and dance, she has toured nationally and internationally with Zaccho Dance Theatre, Bandaloop, Dancing in The Streets, The Foundry Theatre, and Columbia University School of the Arts, among others. As a teaching artist, Duque Cifuentes taught children and adults of all ages how to express themselves through theater and movement practice in more than 100 New York City public schools and through community theater programs. In 2011, she founded Theatre That Transcends, which taught local, under-served communities how to express themselves and address community issues through the art of theater. As an activist, she plays an integral part in advancing a more equitable arts and cultural ecology by working on measures to increase access, justice, equity, and inclusion within dance for disabled artists, immigrant artists, and artists of color in the five boroughs of New York City. Duque Cifuentes is a member of the National Association for Latino Arts and Culture, Women of Color in the Arts, the Children Museum of Manhattan’s Dance Portal Advisory Board, and Eva Yaa Asantewaa’s Curatorial Advisory Team at Gibney, and she is an advisor for the Latinx Artists Retreat, an annual convening for Latinx cultural producers across all artistic disciplines and fields. She was born in Medellín, Colombia and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in drama and theater arts from Columbia University School of General Studies.
Dance/USA: Because people come into the arts from so many different places and in so many different paths, let’s begin with your background.
Alejandra Duque Cifuentes: I grew up partly in Colombia and partly in Miami, Florida. My mother was a painter and sculptor in Colombia and because of her, our household was an artistic one. My older brother was a musician. We were brought up in a space of inquiry and discovery through artistic practice. We did not have a relationship to the arts in the way that I’ve noticed is very present in the United States in terms of maybe going to a studio, or to dance or theater classes.
My relationship with the arts developed at home, in my bedroom. I was not formally involved in the arts until after I arrived in the United States through things like after-school programs. Given the absence of space and her inability to continue to lead our artistic education, my mom started intentionally putting us in arts programs that were available to us.
While I moved to Miami when I was five, I would go back and forth a lot between the U.S. and Colombia. As a child, I spent big chunks of my year in Colombia. We would miss the last month of school so I could go see my father because he was deported when I was a child.
D/USA: What did you study in college?
A.D.C.: I majored in theater directing at the Columbia University School of General Studies.
In Miami, I was doing a lot of theater and visual arts. I ran a neighborhood program. My brothers and I, along with all the kids in the neighborhood, used to get in trouble because we played in the parking lot. We lived in a gated community, which is pretty common in South Florida. When I got to high school, I reached out to the management company of our gated community and asked permission to use the club house in order to get the kids out of the parking lot. With the space and their support for supplies, I created an art program for the neighborhood kids that is still running today.
After high school, I moved to New York to go to business school at NYU Stern. While doing that, I was volunteering in my local church, a Spanish-speaking congregation, that was mostly for newly arrived immigrant families. I was doing a lot of liturgical dance, performing sketch shows, and miming — all kinds of performance really. At that point, I had already left NYU because I couldn’t afford it. I took a break to work for the church while I continued to pursue my business degree at Baruch College, minoring in theater. In the middle of all that, I wrote a Christmas musical. The grandmas got involved sewing; the dads got involved painting sets; and, we discovered this treasure trove of artistry in the immigrant community that we served. The performances were open to anyone in the community whether they came to the church or not. It was a huge affair. At that point, I thought, “Hey, I should study how to do this.” Eventually, I decided to leave before I finished my business degree to focus on theater at Columbia University.
Along the way, I was hired by The Foundry Theatre in 2011 to join the stage management team for a revival of an old-time labor rights musical called Pins and Needles, and that was the first time I worked with Camille A. Brown. Soon after, in 2012, I was brought on by Dancing in the Streets to stage manage their new show Paseo (which won a Bessie that year.) Paseo focused on the history of dance in the Bronx across a specific 14 block area; it was directed and choreographed by Joanna Haigood of Zaccho Dance Theatre. Those were my points of entry into dance.
I then shifted almost exclusively into only stage managing and focused on dance and on community organizing. I toured with dance and aerial dance companies, like Zachho Dance Theatre and Bandaloop and continued to build new works with Dancing in the Streets. When I was touring, a dear friend of mine, a former dance teacher and mentor, Milena Luna, was hired to work at Dance/NYC as the operations manager. At the time, she would tell me stories about Dance/NYC, but I didn’t really quite know what the organization did. Eventually, after a year on tour and intense work as a teaching artist, I decided that I needed to ground myself in one city and be in New York.
I had grown exhausted of being a teaching artist. I taught students both in English and in Spanish. Because of my experience in bilingual education, I was often sent to schools that were closing, which was a proxy for under-resourced schools where predominantly students of color and immigrant students were supposed to be educated. I witnessed young people like myself experience a lot of discrimination and I grew weary. I needed a break from teaching. I also needed a break from touring to stay in one place where I could build one thing. That is how I came to Dance/NYC and to focusing my educational work, my producing work, my organizing work, and my work as an artist, all of which has evolved over time to where I am now.
D/USA: You have skills across so many facets of the field with expertise backstage, in stage management, tech, touring and more. How did you acquire those managerial skills and were some of them from your business major?
A.D.C.: I’m from Medellín, Colombia. In Medellín, the dominant trade is entrepreneurship. We are incredible salespeople. In Spanish, a paisa is what they call people where I am from. There’s a saying that goes, “A paisa can sell you a dirty sock and you think you got a good deal.”
My father’s family are business people. So, being an artist or working in arts and culture was not seen as a career. My parents had day jobs and they were artists; art was just what they did but it wasn’t a career. I had the same relationship to art. I had always wanted to be in business; traveling was also always attractive.
I learned to be an administrator by working with Milena Luna. She taught me how to write a memo. Before we worked at Dance/NYC, we shared an 8-foot desk in a 10-foot-square office in the church we both worked for. She ran the finances and I ran some of the programs. The church had a pantry and community outreach programs. And, we both did the art. Milena would dance and I would do theater. I was 18 years old.
That mentorship supported my administrative skills and I began to think of art as a career. What ended up happening is something that often happens to artists, I think. I wanted to be a theater director. I had fellowships lined up but I couldn’t afford to take them. I couldn’t afford to focus solely on art making. So, I taught and I stage-managed. Stage management and production gave me the opportunity to make money and still be involved in art in some capacity.
In many ways, that’s how those things collided. But I will say that I have always been a lover of spreadsheets!
D/USA: Well, that can’t hurt in almost any field. As you moved up in Dance/NYC, recently assuming the directorship, you’re working in what is one of the most important dance communities in the country, if not the world. What can you say about the issues that dancers face? Are they the same across the country or are they different in New York than in other cities?
A.D.C.: There will always be a level variance from community to community. That said, New York City is, to me, a microcosm of the rest of the country. We are concentrated because the numbers are so high, the space is so small, and the activity is so intense that it really gives one a sense of the depth of these needs. The biggest issue dancers face in New York City is an issue that arts and culture faces in general across the country: people value arts but they don’t value artists.
That is more true for dance because although it’s been getting better and funding has been slowly increasing, it is the discipline that is the least funded of all of the art forms here in New York. Dance, as an industry, is not yet fully unionized. While some larger-budget companies may have access to collective bargaining through AGMA or choreographers through the Stage Directors and Choreographer’s Society, the lion’s share of the individual dance workforce is working outside of the union structure, nor is there one to cover dancemakers more generally. It doesn’t have these mammoth industries like the theater and Broadway here in New York City. This underfunding and under commercialization has hurt, but I feel like it has also been a strength. It gives dance a certain nimbleness to be in relationship with social movements that some of these other industries that have a more established infrastructure cannot engage in. I have found that dance has been a home for performance artists to address critical issues of social justice and is-sues that go beyond the context of the art in a way that perhaps other disciplines might not be prepared to do.
Dancers earning living wages and having access to resources are some of the critical needs of the field. These resources include affordable rehearsal and presentation space; living wages; affordable housing; and mentorship and development opportunities. There is a general affordability crisis in New York City right now that is augmented for artists and further augmented for dancers. Of course, underscoring all of these things are larger established systems of oppression, which manifest more severely for people of color, immigrant artists, and disabled artists, just to name a few impacted groups.
This is also is true to some degree across the country, where we are seeing an underfunding of dance. The needs are the same in other geographies for development space, mentorship and training opportunities, etc. This is happening amid a complex national and local landscape and reckoning with our history dance as an art form, a country, and how we relate to and benefit from systems of oppression. The New York City dance community is examining these ideas and having open conversations to make significant, systemic changes for the future.
D/USA: Let’s talk further about social justice issues. What would you advise dance artists interested in pursuing works around social justice and starting programs with a social justice component? What do they need to do to work through systems?
A.D.C.: This is an interesting question. Usually, I hear it coming from the perspective of how can somebody who is not in need help those in need, which is often a proxy for how could someone who has access to resources and time — usually white folks — help poor, disenfranchised black and brown folks.
Social justice work takes two forms at its macro level. It’s internal- and external-facing work. Typically, when we are in moments like we are right now nationally and locally, where there is a palpable need to address social justice issues, people are galvanized to act. They want to jump into solutions that provide tangible, immediate results, often to issues that have existed long before they became aware. (As a side note, this is a sign of the privilege inherent in the positioning of folks who are just realizing how bad things are.)
In response, the first things that folks are typically drawn to are outward-facing actions: Where can I donate? What petition can I sign? Where can I protest? What program can I create? Often missing in that impulse, and the reasons why we continue to return to this space of “why does it feel like the work is never done?” are, first, centuries of established systems of oppression cannot be undone with one or a set of actions in a short period of time. Second, we want to do the external-facing work without first doing the internal-facing work. That is to say, we are often more interested in achieving immediate outcomes that lessen our sense of guilt or frustration with the injustice we are noticing than to do the internal work of understanding the role we might play in creating, upholding, or benefitting from the said injustice. The first thing I tell artists or anyone who wants to do social justice work is: “Have you done the work of you?”
Have you done the work of looking at your relationship to these systems of oppression? How have you internalized these issues? Why do you think you’re the person who needs to build this program? How have you either internalized your superiority or your inferiority depending on what your social positioning is?
I look at social positioning not just in the context of social class (economics), but in the context of the intersection of the identities that a person may experience — whether you’re a Black person or a disabled person or an immigrant person or identify as non-binary. This approach named “intersectionality” was first coined by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw and is critical to ensuring that we aren’t looking at an issue from one single vantage point. Whatever the different ways in which you navigate the world, how are you as a person doing the work of addressing those systems in you first? That is the first thing I always tell folks. It feels easier to go out there and start the thing or fix the thing, but usually systems of oppression, just like institutions, are first enacted, upheld, and then executed by human beings.
That is always the first place to start. I also endorse lifelong learning. For some people learning needs to happen internally first before any outward facing work can occur. Then, the question is: “Why do you have to be the one to do that [work]?” If you are the one to do it, who is already doing some of this and how can you both honor that work and support it instead of starting from scratch? Entrepreneurship is important, but sometimes it feels like we want to make new institutions all the time, instead of simply strengthening the ones that exist.
One is not better than the other but think about where you can be most efficient in supporting this work. One needs to ask: “Why me?” “Why now?” The other thing that’s very important is one of the values that we have at Dance/NYC, which emerged from our Disability. Dance. Artistry. initiative and comes from a legacy that proceeds us in our work in disability by many years. We have a value called “Nothing without us.” The concept is that no policy or program should be formed without the full direct involvement and vesting of the members of the affected group. We borrowed this from the disability rights movement, which used the phrase “Nothing about us without us.” The phrase was popularized in the 1990s by disability activist James Charlton, who credits South African activists Michael Masutha and William Rowland with this particular definition. During the start of our Disability. Dance. Artistry. Initiative, disability activist Lawrence Carter-Long repositioned the phrase with the shorter “Nothing without us,” which we have since adopted.
It means if you want to do something, you’ve answered “Why me?” and “Why now?” and it’s clear that you are the one who should be contributing in one way or another. You have to do this in relationship to the community. We can’t determine what people need or how and when they need it. People and communities know what they need. Whatever you’re planning to do shouldn’t be done in absence of those people. They need to steer the ship.
Supporting and doing social justice work requires that internal work and it requires external work. It requires a level of resiliency that actually fades away if the internal work isn’t happening. It’s deeply emotional in terms of the labor involved. And, depending on your social positioning, you are impacted by it personally. When you have particular levels of privilege or access, whether you’re white or white passing (because you could be a Latinx person or an Asian American person who is white-passing and still benefit), you have to be very clear about what are the moments in which you are using your privilege, access, and resources to support, or when you need to just get out of the way. Sometimes the best social justice work anyone could do is just get out of the way.
D/USA: What does it look like to follow the leadership of the activists and the people who are already on the ground? Let them lead the way and learn how they need you to be helpful?
A.D.C.: I actually started that neighborhood program when I was just out of middle school. So, I was 15 when I created that arts program. It was a need for me and my 25 peers at the time. My younger brother was getting into trouble; so, it was very much born out of a specific need. I didn’t go to another gated community to say, “You all need this program because we did it in our neighborhood and it worked for us.” It was effective because it was born out of our collective need and decision to come together to do this for each other. The program is still running to this day. At Dance/NYC, that has looked like following the leadership of our Immigrants. Dance. Arts. and Disability. Dance. Artistry. task forces. It entails having conversations with the community and scheduling meetings with leaders to hold us to account and lead the way. It has also looked like hiring the people that are members of the communities we serve to directly shape all that we do internally.
D/USA: This holistic approach is sometimes uncommon. We often come across artists and others who decide to make a piece about or for a specific population. They commit for a year or two, which results in a piece or a project. Then they move on. We don’t see a long-term commitment to the community. What about the needs and challenges of immigrant artists? How can the dance community play a part or work with and support immigrant artists?
A.D.C.: I would say the needs of immigrant artists — at least some of them — are very much the same as those of any dance artist: being paid for their labor; having access to resources — specifically I mean affordable rehearsal and presentation space; living wages; affordable living space; health care; training, etc. These same things are true for any artist.
What’s unique and important to highlight about immigrant artists is that they are at intersections of issues. The reasons why they come to the U.S. often trigger a series of additional needs, depending on the individual. Some artists chose to come here. They were on a visa or they were coming here to do artistic work already. They were not experiencing multiple layers of obstacles because they might have arrived from Europe or from countries that were considered friendly to the U.S., often a proxy for whiteness or for someone in a higher income bracket. Coming here was a choice and it opens a series of opportunities. For a large number of immigrant artists, coming here wasn’t necessarily a choice made in pursuit of comparable or better opportunities. Some came as children and eventually grew up here. Others came because of the impact of U.S. imperialist policies in their home countries, like war, poverty, violence, et cetera.
When immigrant artists come to the U.S., there are particular barriers they need to cross in terms of documentation and the additional cost that comes with that (not to mention some of the very physical barriers at the border, if that is how they enter). The economics are more burden-some for immigrant artists, in addition to the regular affordability needs. There are language-access need and cultural-access needs. Do they assimilate or not? Why do they assimilate? Often, assimilation is in relation to mitigating the impact of racism here in the U.S. Immigrants of color tend to have more difficult experiences than white-passing immigrants just because of how they are perceived. That’s not, of course, to say that white-passing immigrants do not experience hardship; but our research has found that immigrants of color face an additional level of bias.
And, of course, there is a need to access education because of possible language gaps. Ultimately, a larger ecosystem of support is needed for immigrant artists. The question remains: which institutions provide that support? In terms of recommendations for the field and things that the field can be doing now to support immigrant artists, Dance/NYC recently published a study that focuses on this: Advancing. Immigrants. Dance. Arts.
First and foremost, we need to ensure that immigrant artists are present at every stage of the development, implementation, and evaluation of initiatives and programs that support their work — again, “Nothing without us.” We must hire immigrants at decision-making position within organizations and in grant making and in programmatic aspects of organizations. And, immigrants should be paid living wages.
In addition, we must intentionally support immigrant artists through our funding programs, our service organizations, presentation opportunities, etc., and work. That doesn’t mean we see one immigrant artist on the season schedule, for example, and say that we have checked the box. There is a huge diversity of dance forms and art forms and experiences among immigrant artists.
This goes hand in hand with ensuring that dance organizations, presenters, funders, and educational institutions learn to be culturally responsive to the needs of immigrants. We’ve done some of that learning now as a field when it comes to race and are still struggling. We haven’t arrived; there's still more to learn. We have to be sure that we are creating safe spaces where immigrants can work and not just welcoming them because of the “exotic value” people tend to think we add. I’ll give you an example. I recently walked into a grant panel and the first question I was posed was, “Where are you from?” I responded, “Oh, I’m from Colombia.” The person retorted, “I knew you were from somewhere exotic because of your name.” I am the executive director of a major dance service organization. I am a white-passing Latina. I don’t have an accent when I speak English. And yet, when someone sees my name, that’s the first question I am asked. Even as I straddle both experiences of privilege and oppression, microaggressions like these are not uncommon. This is why culturally responsive training, learning what it means to be in relationship with immigrant people and how to create safe spaces, is crucial at every level of an institution.
One example of how we have put this to practice is through our work with a partner organization, Art Space Sanctuary. With them, we have learned what it means to make our spaces sanctuaries for immigrant people. This forward-thinking approach asks organizations to take a position and support immigrant people, specifically in moments of persecution. If ICE knocks on our door or shows up at our event or venue, there are trainings that help us as administrators of spaces and institutions learn how to lawfully protect the safety of immigrant people, whether they’re documented or not, which is a personal matter. We should not be passive on this issue by saying, “We support immigrants, but if ICE shows up, you are on your own.” There are many, many options that are within our legal rights as citizens and as organizations that allow us to protect immigrant artists. We are sometimes afraid to learn about them. We can never guarantee outcomes to individuals but it helps our staff and it helps our spaces be safer for immigrant people.
Lastly, I will say, it is paramount that we develop and nurture co-powering relationships with the community of immigrant artists. These communities have been resilient way before many of us showed up to help them. Being in relationship with them will help to articulate how institutions, arts organizations, dance organizations, etc., can be the most helpful. These recommendations can be found on the Dance/NYC website in English, Spanish, and Chinese. Together, they provide multiple points of entry for dance makers, companies, service providers, public agencies, funders, presenters, and educational institutions for how to better support immigrant artists. Every-one can participate in supporting immigrant artists!
D/USA: What would you advise a young person who wishes to work in the arts, in arts management or in the arts and social justice?
A.D.C.: A lot of young people have asked me: “What did you do? What did you study to get here?” My answer is: It is far from linear.
This is actually what I tell my staff: The greatest work that you can do is you. You are the work. If you are intentional with directing your history, your life, your wholeness, your relationship to community and nurturing yourself from that place, then anything that you do will flourish. Whether that is jumping into an arts administration program, or deciding to practice first as an artist and later go into arts administration or jumping into education and then into arts administration. Or, perhaps it’s starting in business or in law and then developing some keen skills in that area to support the arts and culture field. Whatever your point of entry, at the end of the day, the common denominator is your personhood. If your personhood is intentionally nurtured and grounded in history, in community, and if you doing the work of yourself, then you’re going to flourish.
You can’t give what you don’t have.
Lisa Traiger edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online journal, and writes frequently on dance and the performing arts for publications, including Dance, Dance Teacher and Washington Jewish Week. An award-winning arts journalist, she is a former co-president of the Dance Critics Association and holds an MFA in choreography from University of Maryland.
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