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Meet five Latinx artists changing the face of Madison

Meet five Latinx artists changing the face of Madison

Araceli Esparza really hoped it wouldn’t rain.

Esparza and the other artists who organized the first annual CultivARTE festival, a late summer celebration of Latinx artists in Madison, had secured space outside a Methodist church on the north side. They had agreements from artists working in acrylic, watercolor and face paint. There were dancers and musicians waiting to perform, and workshops prepared for dozens of kids.

There was no backup plan if the weather turned.

Ultimately, the festival fell on “the hottest, sweatiest day of August,” Esparza said. “And we had amazing attendance. People made close to $1,000 that day, on sales alone.”

CultivARTE is one of several initiatives working to increase recognition, representation and funds for artists who live in Dane County and identify, broadly, as Latinx.

Esparza, an artist and founder of the Midwest Mujeres podcast, called the collective “part of a larger movement,” one that not only supports local makers, but could change the city.

“Making multicultural arts in the city acknowledged and recognized should almost have its own tourism box,” Esparza said. “We need to take into consideration people of color and white people who want diverse cultural experiences other than beer drinking and cheese curds tasting.”

CultivARTE joins established ventures like Oscar Mireles’ LOUD (Latinos Organizing for Understanding and Development). Mireles worked with the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art on an exhibition, up now through mid-January, of contemporary art from Mexico in the Midwest (“Caja de visiones”). 

LOUD held its first conference this year on Latinx art and culture and is set to help with the next Latino Art Fair, put up by the Latino Chamber of Commerce in May.

“All these events, it’s a testament that we have a lot of people interested,” Mireles said. “It’s a more supportive environment. There’s a willingness — and you could hear it at the conference, when the speakers talked about their excitement about what other people are doing.

“It’s an individual thing, but for artists of color ... part of your art is about social justice,” Mireles said. “Part of your art is identity. When you’re a BIPOC individual, you’re trying to understand yourself, and find your role.”

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According to the 2020 U.S. census, the Latino population is now the largest minority group in the state of Wisconsin (7.1%). Madison is home to dozens of working artists with Latin American roots, and their profiles are growing. Last year, the two winners of the 2020 Forward Art Prize were printmaker Adriana Barrios and painter/CultivARTE co-organizer Angelica Contreras, both Latina artists.

“We have definitely found ourselves working with more Latinx artists over the last couple of years,” said Trent Miller, program director for The Bubbler at Madison Public Library. “People (are) moving here, getting more exposure. Maybe it’s people who weren’t being recognized, or new people coming to town with a lot of energy and high skill level.”

CultivARTE is run by a collective of six, with at least a dozen more affiliated artists who work in a variety of genres. The group chose “Latinx” to be gender-inclusive. “Latino” is already a big umbrella, encompassing immigrant artists as well as first- and second-generation citizens with roots in Latin American countries.

“Many Latinos ... do not like or want anyone to use ‘Latinx’ for their own reasons,” Esparza wrote in an email. “We are a mega-diverse people, united by language and some cultural customs that are similar due to colonization. For CultivARTE we wanted to create a space for us to also include our Indigenous heritage and stories.

“To be inclusive is a lot of work,” Esparza added. “We understand that choosing Latinx might not appeal to everyone. If you are an artist you know that sometimes it’s not the words, but the culture expressed.”

Culture and connection are central for artists like Verónica Figueroa Vélez, who leads Dane Arts Mural Arts and organizes community-based art projects in addition to her own commercial work.

“We want to bring forward our culture, bring forward our art, and bring the value back that art has for all of us,” said Figueroa, who grew up in Puerto Rico and moved to Madison in the ’90s. “We all come from different parts of Latin America and we all share a common value, and that is art. We share some similarities, in terms of history.”

Madison’s Latinx artists are diverse in every sense. Here are five artists to know, and a brief introduction to their work.

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