How I lost myself in the art culture of Ann Arbor

Thursday, January 4, 2018 - 6:06pm

As with most college students, going back home for winter break after a long time away was a strange experience. I had been away from home for so long that I found it difficult to recall the fine details of my home without looking at pictures. More frightening was that the memories of the art culture of New York City that shaped who I was as a performer and a person ever since I was young started to blur, as I immersed myself in the new culture that Ann Arbor had to offer. I did not find myself longing for the art from New York City, but rather trying to find my place in the art of Ann Arbor. There seemed to be a hole in the culture that surrounded me — one that I could not pinpoint. Even though I had been told that college was about self-discovery, I felt I was losing myself as an artist and a person. When I finally did find myself, it was very unexpected. More importantly, I discovered the gap that I had been feeling and was unable to articulate until now.

Over winter break, my sister performed in a comedy improv show in order to raise money to help the hurricane victims in Puerto Rico, and she invited me to go see the performance. I walked into a small, grunge underground theater in the East Village, a neighborhood of Manhattan in New York City. The small black box theater was filled with plush, cloth seats that looked as if they had a high probability of being infested with bed bugs. The theater was packed with adults drinking coquito, a traditional Puerto Rican drink usually served around the holidays. The show was comprised of many short comedy skits that celebrated Puerto Rican traditions during the holidays. As salsa blasted from the speakers, it filled the room with a sound that I had been missing back in Ann Arbor. I had rediscovered my own sound and my own culture through this production — something I had no intention of doing when I walked through the doors of the theater.

My mind went back to the first time my mother took me to see “In the Heights” on Broadway. It is a musical that tells the story of the Latino community in a neighborhood called Washington Heights (also in Manhattan). Seeing my culture and my people represented and celebrated in “In the Heights” was too much for my eight-year-old mind to handle. Before then, I had only ever been exposed to people of my culture as gangster characters, such as in “West Side Story,” and even then they were not played by minority actors and actresses.

Being a dancer, I was sure that my Latina curves would hinder my success. Being an actress and a singer, I was sure that the pigment of my skin would cause me to look too ethnic for most lead roles. When the beauty of my culture and its people unfolded before my eyes on a Broadway stage, all of those insecurities instantly vanished. This was the same feeling I had in the — perhaps bed bug infested — theater in the East village. What I had really missed was having my culture represented in art, whether it be in music blasting from a storefront, or a bunch of teenagers rapping on a street corner.

Ann Arbor is a community that is vibrant in all kinds of art. To immerse yourself in the art is not hard to do; however, it is not a complete culture. I could not find myself in the culture of Ann Arbor because I am not there. My culture was no longer represented in the art that surrounded me.

I had to come to terms with the fact that it would be difficult for me to find a concert performed by my favorite salsa or merengue artist, and that YouTube is my best friend for re-discovering my identity as an artist and a performer. As a community, Ann Arbor needs to strive to celebrate the minority artist — not just during Black History month or Hispanic Heritage month. It is more important than ever to foster a community where everyone can find themselves in every form of art.