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North Bay Spirit Award winner uses art to empower local Latinos

The North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit Award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate, go to www.pressdemocrat.com/northbayspirit.

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.

The North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit Award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate, go to www.pressdemocrat.com/northbayspirit.

“From hearing their stories and sharing their work, I was just really inspired,” she said of the social justice activists she worked with in college. “That was a transformative time for me.”

Lopez gave birth to her daughter in 2007 and moved back to Santa Rosa to raise her. She worked at State Farm Insurance for a decade from 2008 to 2018.

By 2015, she had learned State Farm offices would be closing in a few years, so she reexamined her passions. She started volunteering with the North Bay Organizing Project and remembered how much she enjoyed being part of the arts and social justice scene in college.

It dawned on Lopez that there was no bicultural cultural arts center or collective in Santa Rosa like there was in Sacramento. She talked with friends about it.

“Everybody agreed that one of the reasons why Latinos or Chicanos were not engaging is because there wasn't a space to organize programming and we didn't see ourselves reflected in the predominant culture here,” Lopez said.

That led her to form Raizes Collective. The grand opening event in 2015, a cultural night at the Arlene Francis Center with poets and arts friends from Sacramento, was a hit. “And from there we just started organizing whatever the community wanted to see and do,” she said.

Lopez modeled Raizes after the Sol Collective, a community-based nonprofit in Sacramento with a similar mission of providing artistic and cultural programming and empowering youth.

Raizes Collective has a five-member board with an annual budget of about $50,000. Creative Sonoma, a division of the Economic Development Board of Sonoma County, has given Raizes Collective $28,500 through four grants since 2019, according to Madsen.

Madsen said Raizes Collective is also a partner to Creative Sonoma as it looks to connect with minority communities who may not have access to art-making programs.

“(Lopez has) been paving the way for how arts organizations can work for our whole community and work for people who have traditionally been underserved, to help them be seen and be heard through their creative expression,” Madsen said.

Art as empowerment

Raizes events include “Parking Lot Poetry,” short documentaries on local dance groups, artist showcases in Santa Rosa’s Roseland neighborhood and partnerships with libraries and schools. The collective is working on a mural at Abraham Lincoln Elementary and mandala-making projects with the restorative justice program at Elsie Allen High School. Lopez plans to virtually connect a Mexican anthropologist with students in the migrant education program at Santa Rosa Junior College to talk about indigenous cultures.

Lucero Vargas, a 28-year-old tattoo artist who also creates murals with acrylic paint and markers on canvases and walls, works with Raizes Collective in four or five events and workshops a year. Much of her artwork features nopal cacti and Aztec symbolism.

“We work with brown people of all ages, from elementary school up to college. I like to inspire others and show artwork that belonged to my ancestors. It’s very colorful, very bright and happy,” said Vargas, an immigrant from Mexico City who lives in Santa Rosa.

When working with students through Raizes Collective, Vargas sometimes partners with other local artists to lead art workshops. They ask students to research their heritage and help them find imagery to connect them to their roots, leading students to draw and paint ancient Mayan pyramids and the Aztec feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl.

“I believe that what we bring to families is a form of therapy, in a way,” Vargas said. “It helps a lot of people just express themselves. Art can deliver a more powerful message than words.”

Lopez is a firm believer in “la cultura cura,” or “culture cures,” the idea that exploring and understanding our roots and identity is healing. The name Raizes is a play on the Spanish word raíces, which means roots.

Inocencio, the son of Mexican immigrants, said for him the name Raizes means to not only return to your roots but to put down new ones.

“Being part of these events and seeing your community being represented in the artwork and in performances like that I think helps,” he said. “So I like it because it is going back to your roots, but it’s also about laying down new roots here in California and in Santa Rosa.”

Robert Holcomb, a board member of Raizes Collective, said the nonprofit’s art programs gives the community strength and resiliency.

“I think Isabel sees art as an empowering form of expression, a creative outlet that captures vast complexities of the human experience and a process for growth and healing. She’s also committed to passing down cultural traditions — art, song, dance, folklore — to younger generations to preserve the richness of our Latinx heritage,” said Holcomb, dean of language arts and academic foundations at Santa Rosa Junior College.

“Ultimately, this work is deeply rooted in social consciousness, activism and resistance,” he added.

The work is fun for not just the community, but for Lopez’s 13-year-old daughter, Isabella Merriweather, who enjoys writing poetry and participating in the arts programs with friends.

“That’s amazing for her to be able to have that platform and feel safe and comfortable to go up and share her work,” said Lopez, a single parent. “I’ve created a community for her, as well, within this group.”

Lopez hopes to continue building Raizes Collective, which has no building or physical space of its own for programs. That’s a goal for post-pandemic gatherings. “Having a space will make it more accessible to many more people,” Vargas said.

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