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Alicia Rojas
Alicia Rojas

Alicia Rojas

Surrounded By Superheroes

If you’re looking for a superhero or super-heroine, they might be your neighbor.

During the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, Alicia Rojas volunteered with Latino Health Access (LHA) helping promotoras (health advocates) create a culturally savvy art project that empowered them to save thousands of lives in Anaheim and Santa Ana, California. Although not trained as medical professionals, LHA promotoras had the trust of their underground-immigrant community, one challenged by historical health and wealth inequities. Pre-pandemic LHA services included access to food, rent assistance, mental health services, and more. During the pandemic, their services expanded, and las promotoras traveled the city, neighbor-to-neighbor, calming fear and misinformation
and sharing the importance of getting vaccinated.

Now Alicia’s 18th Street Arts Center California Creative Corps project, Las PODEROSAS
de Latino Health Access, will document and celebrate these powerful women first responders as PODEROSAS (powerful women), acknowledging them as heroes in
American history.

Our conversation begins here, edited for clarity.

"We will memorialize them through stories and art, but the real art is the process, the tears, and the sharing—the art of caring."

Tell us about your background as an artist.

I pursued art for healing in my personal life, and I never thought it would be more than that. My story is a bit different. It’s not linear like some artists. I don’t have a conventional arts background. I was undocumented for most of my youth, and I am a generation before the Dreamers. I didn’t have the financial support to go through school, and then I became a mom and later a single mother. I’m a social practice and interdisciplinary artist. Community engagement has been a staple of my art-making.

I have collaborated with artists, residents, community members,  local businesses, merchants, and politicians because that's also the public art world—networking and planning. I am also an activist, advocate, and protester when the situation calls for it.

Sounds like experimental learning has served you well?

My artistic training has been through grassroots community work. Through the process, I started receiving grants from the city of Santa Ana and local nonprofit organizations. I then received an artist residency at Grand Central Art Center through a grant funded by The Andy Warhol Foundation—a big deal!! 

Congratulations on that. Tell me about your activism?

 I’ve done a lot of community work with murals as a response to gentrification in Santa Ana, CA. Developers and building owners were influencing the look and feel of Downtown without the input or acknowledgment of the community—a classic gentrification story. Cultural landmarks, historic plaques on buildings, and even street names were being removed or changed. When they attempted to beautify the area with art, they hired artists from Los Angeles rather than artists who resided in and near Santa Ana.

Photo of Alicia Rojas

That must have made the community feel detached from its own neighborhood. What did you do about it?

I approached the new building owners, which no one had done before, and got them to hire local artists and incorporate community input about the themes and stories that would beautify the city. Through art, we wanted to maintain the presence of people and places that remind us of our roots, especially our cultural heroes. Then, we had the community paint the murals with us. That was exciting. Residents could tap into their creativity and imagination by engaging in an artistic process that was respectful of their history here.

Tell us about Latino Health Access and how you got involved.

Latino Health Access (LHA) is a nonprofit organization founded by Dr. America Bracho in 1993. You should see her TedTalk; she is a visionary. LHA believes the community has the answers to their own health problems. Their staff includes doctors, administrators, and health advocates called promoters.

Promotores or promotoras, as we say in Spanish, are everyday people, mostly Spanish
speakers living in the neighborhood. LHA trains them to be knowledgeable about diabetes
and other health issues, and they share what they know face-to-face with community members. They meet people in their homes, at the supermarket, parks, parties, and anywhere they can.

During the Covid pandemic, one of the promotoras supervisors called me and said, “We need help in some of our neighborhoods. People are not getting vaccinated.” She told me the specific area, and I knew it well because we created a mural there—lots of folks below the poverty line, mostly undocumented, fearful and distrusting of the process of getting vaccinated.

Lead promotora Karen Sarabia and local artist Gio Tezca Xochitl came up with the idea
of doing a float parade.

What do you mean?

 It’s a very Latin American cultural thing, like street vendors going through the neighborhood. I was invited to volunteer and participate as an artist. Together, we created a giant syringe and coronavirus, spikes and all, out of paper mache and put it on top of a truck. We presented them with a decorative theme of springtime, flowers, and a spirit of renewal. It was like a parade coming through town with costumes, signs, and Cumbia music. People came out to see what we were doing while we rolled down the street, dancing and handing out masks to residents.

As we laughed, we asked residents if they were vaccinated. Their reply was, “Oh, I haven’t had time.” I said, “There’s a truck behind us where you can get a shot; it takes five minutes.”

With that interaction and a bit of a show, LHA vaccinated a large percentage of a previously unreachable neighborhood.

Amazing! Art and creativity bringing people together and actually saving lives.
All hinging on neighbors trusting their promotora neighbors.

Thank you. The promotoras especially moved me. Many of them had lost family members to Covid. I witnessed tears of sadness while creating the art float that would travel to the most at-risk communities in the city, but these determined women fought through that focused on saving lives.

Additionally, Dr. Bracho coordinated with the Mayor of Santa Ana to request funds for vaccination efforts directly from Governor Gavin Newsom. The governor agreed, and that funding saved even more lives.

This is an incredible story during a very difficult time. Tell me about your 18th Street California Creative Corps project.

 We all know of the heroic work and commitment of the doctors, nurses, and numerous
first responders during the pandemic. We don’t know the stories of caring residents like Latino Health Access and las promotoras. I want to tell the world that story and honor
these women for what they are—American heroes.

Now I understand why you want to memorialize these women. How will you do it?

The public art project has three different approaches. The first phase will focus on interviews with all promotoras who took a roll during the pandemic in our community. Recording and digitizing these oral histories and testimonies. These stories will inspire the creation of a permanent installation at Latino Health Access headquarters building in Downtown, Santa Ana. 

And last, I will also publish a book featuring their individual stories, family histories, experiences during the pandemic, and a photograph. Each person will have a moment to shine. They deserve that.

This historical record will also be available as an online cultural map—actually, all of the 18SAC California Creative Corps projects will be available, too. It's an interactive map of people, places, and projects throughout California. 

Photo of Alicia Rojas

Do the promotoras know this is the plan?

They do, and they are so humble about it. They say, “Do I deserve to be celebrated? To be photographed? To be in a mural? Did I do enough?” You did so much! I tell them. (While I hold back my tears). 

This is my dream: to bring attention to these women—immigrants who participate and contribute to society—as human beings. We will memorialize them through stories and art, but the real art is the process, the tears, and the sharing—the art of caring.

I will do all I can to get their book in libraries here, across the state, and maybe even the Library of Congress. That would be amazing!

Learn more about Alicia Rojas here.

18th Street Arts Center lives to amplify the impact of artists on society. Conceived as a radical think tank in the shape of an artist community, 18th Street Arts Center provides the ideal environment for artists and the public to directly engage in creating experiences and partnerships that foster positive social change.

Please join us. Your financial support empowers 18SAC artists to shape a more vibrant, just, and healthy society. In artists we trust.

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