North Bay Spirit Award winner uses art to empower local Latinos
As a youngster, Isabel Lopez never thought she could succeed as an artist.
She enrolled in the esteemed ArtQuest program as a Santa Rosa High School student, but her family lacked the financial means for art supplies or tutors. She believed other students in the program were more skilled than she was. Discouraged, she dropped out of the art program before graduating high school in 1998.
Looking back, Lopez sees she was experiencing impostor syndrome, a pattern of doubting one’s skills or talent. Impostor syndrome may affect women and women of color in particular, researchers have found, especially if they don’t see themselves reflected in the creative, professional or other arenas they aspire to.
“I didn’t see many kids that looked like me in the program,” said Lopez, 40.
As an adult, she set out to change that.
In 2015, Lopez founded Raizes Collective (raizescollective.org), a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit that mobilizes the Latino community through art, cultural expression and environmental education. In the last five years, she’s organized nearly 80 local arts events for families and students. With annual Día de los Muertos celebrations that drew 500 attendees before the COVID pandemic, concerts, creative writing classes, group murals and “Parking Lot Poetry” readings, Lopez has created an artistic outlet for the Latino community in Sonoma County.
“I love connecting people and giving people a platform,” Lopez said. Through Raizes initiatives, she highlights the artistic talents of the Latino community.
Jorge Inocencio, a Raizes board member, said Lopez involves youth in any event she organizes, to help them feel seen, heard and motivated.
“That’s really key for her, seeing young kids look up to people who are representing them, who look like them, who are sometimes speaking Spanish as well, sharing their art with the world,” Inocencio said. “She saw this lack of representation in art and of culturally sensitive events, and I think that drove her. She wanted to see it done here and nobody was taking the time to do it. So she did it.”
Raizes Collective was entirely volunteer-run in its first four years. Lopez became the sole staff member in June 2019, organizing events and coordinating volunteers, fundraising and marketing. The arts programs have reached thousands of families.
“In taking the lead in founding the Raizes Collective, I think she found something that our community really needed,” said Omar Medina, a Santa Rosa City Schools trustee. “It’s beneficial to a lot of people.”
For her tireless work to empower the community through bilingual art and culture, Lopez is this month’s North Bay Spirit Award winner. The honor presented by The Press Democrat and Comcast recognizes people who demonstrate initiative and leadership in their service to others and go all-in to fill an important need in the community.
“There is never enough opportunity to meet the need and the desire for art and artistic expression in any community,” said Kristen Madsen, director of Creative Sonoma. “But what Isabel's doing is shining a spotlight on the way many of our community members think about art and cultural expression.”
Creating a space
Lopez emigrated from Mexico to the U.S. when she was 7 years old, following her father, uncle and grandfather, who worked in vineyards in Healdsburg. She and her sisters traveled from Tijuana to California in a family friend’s car and waited for a week in San Diego before their mother crossed the border on foot and reunited with them.
Not knowing if her mother would make it to them was agony, she remembered.
“At one point I just completely lost hope and thought we may not ever see our family again,” Lopez said. “And so that was really hard and intense, probably the worst moment of my life.”
Her family became American citizens after President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which tightened border security and granted amnesty to about 3 million immigrants who entered the U.S. without documentation. Lopez said the privilege she had to become documented motivates her in her work with Raizes Collective and empowering Latino youth.
As an adult, she studied business administration and took a few art classes at Sacramento State University, where she graduated with her bachelor’s degree in 2005.
It was in college that she became involved in the local chapter of M.E.Ch.A., or Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán, a civil rights and Chicano empowerment organization for students that originated in the 1960s.
Through M.E.Ch.A. Lopez was mentored by an art teacher who was part of the Royal Chicano Air Force, a Sacramento-based art collective founded in 1970 and supported by famed civil rights activist Cesar Chavez. The collective was an integral part of the Chicano art movement in California for decades.