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In a transition, the spirit remains

Self Help's home may change, but it stays true to its mission.

October 25, 2008|Agustin Gurza

When last we left our embattled arts activists at Self Help Graphics, they were on the verge of eviction from their longtime headquarters in East L.A. Even some true believers were ready to count out the struggling community-based institution that has been a beacon for Chicano art for almost four decades.

But the group is still alive and kicking as it prepares for its biggest event of the year, the Day of the Dead on Nov. 2, with a display of colorful altars, a procession and a concert. The group's legendary print shop remains active too, with an exhibition of political posters that opened Friday in collaboration with Farmlab, the experimental arts complex that is hosting the show at its gallery north of downtown, and La Casa del Tunel, a new Tijuana gallery located in a house once used by drug dealers to cover a border tunnel for smuggling.

Self Help's barrio spirit of perseverance is what earned it a reputation for nurturing great art on a shoestring. Showing it can survive despite adversity serves its cause much better than complaining about the nuns who sold the building the nonprofit had occupied rent-free for decades.

The agency's ultimate location remains in doubt but not its mission. This week, Self Help seemed as vital as ever as volunteers prepared for the folk holiday it helped popularize in Southern California 35 years ago with its first All Souls Day festival. Appropriately, it's still finding meaning in a Mexican ritual that celebrates death as a transition, not an ending.

Signs of life abounded at its landmark location on Cesar Chavez Avenue. Baroquely festooned altars were being installed in the gallery. Those big papier-mache heads were waiting to be painted for the procession. And a new generation of volunteers rallied to carry on the work, led by newly installed board President Stephen Saiz, a Disney executive who sports cool sunglasses and Apache hoops in his ears.

"There's really a sense of community and family with what's going on at Self Help," says Saiz. "People want to see the agency flourish."

It's still uncertain where the group will be housed after the end of the year, when its lease expires. Saiz says the board is still negotiating with the developer who bought the building, but it's eyeing other locations as well. "Everybody knows that wherever we end up, we will continue the [Day of the Dead] festival because our event was the first in L.A. and will continue to be the premier event in Southern California."

In the Day of the Dead tradition, people create altars to departed loved ones, with photos and meaningful objects, even their favorite food. The idea is that the living can still commune with the dead. This year, four families from the community have been invited to join veteran artist Alma Lopez and others creating altars/installations for the monthlong exhibition, curated by Reina Prado and titled "A Call to Witness: All Is Not Forgotten."

Organizers expect the event to rival those from the '70s, fueled by the possibility that this may be the last at this location. The festivities begin at 7 p.m. Nov. 1, with the creation of the community altar led by artist Ofelia Esparza. The following day, the procession will feature kids with painted faces, mariachis performing favorite songs of the dead and people carrying "altars on a stick."

Self Help has been dismissed by some as an irrelevant relic of the '60s. If anything can save the group, it's going to be the participation of new leaders such as Saiz and his wife, Leslie, who is coordinating this year's events. The couple, both 33, have been coming to Day of the Dead events since their high school days.

"It's amazing that all of us are stepping up and taking ownership of it and getting everybody involved," says Leslie, who grew up in the neighborhood. "We're seeing a lot more community participation."

Like almost everybody working these days at Self Help, the Saizes are volunteers.

They work full time in youth-oriented occupations. He's a senior marketing manager for Disney's Interactive Studios, the video game division; she's creative director for Kabillion, an online social network for kids ages 7 to 14.

The group's future depends on "diversifying our portfolio," says Saiz, who's of mixed Apache and Mexican ancestry. Rather than cutting back, he wants to broaden the scope of activities, getting more heavily into filmmaking, computer graphics and music education.

"The fact that we never had a structured music program is bizarre to me," he says, "considering the bands that got their start at Self Help Graphics, like Ozomatli and Quetzal." In an era of scarce resources, the key for nonprofits is collaboration. That strategy was stressed at the Warhol Initiative, a gathering of arts agencies that Saiz attended earlier this year in New Orleans. So when Farmlab recently approached Self Help with the idea of collaborating on the political print show, everybody was on the same page.

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