This article is a reflection on the importance of understanding identity as a concept, from a personal and professional perspective and how through my work as an art teacher I came to understand that identity is not formed in isolation. Rather than a dogmatic statement, identity is a hypothesis constructed from multiple factors, some negotiable and others we are forced to cope with throughout our entire lives. My aim in sharing my thoughts on identity is not to present myself as an authority on the subject but as someone that has accepted the lifelong responsibility of being an artist and teacher and through merging these practices I am forced to be a lifelong learner.
I should note that this past October I left my classroom after sixteen years of teaching at Bruce Guadalupe Community School (BGCS). This was a decision that I struggled with for several months, since leaving my classroom would force me to revisit my own identity as a professional. I left my classroom to become the Managing Artistic Director at Latino Arts, Inc. hoping to explore other educational opportunities beyond a traditional classroom and potentially greater collaborations with multiple arts disciplines. As Managing Artistic Director, I have assumed the responsibility of shaping of how Milwaukee and Wisconsin can see and interact with the Latino community on Milwaukee’s south side.
In this new role, my goal is to help Latino Arts continue to provide culturally relevant and enriching arts programing and educational activities to people of all ages from multiple backgrounds. Through workshops, exhibits, gallery tours and musical performances, my hope is that individuals of all backgrounds can come together, share in a cultural experience, and feel compelled to contribute to our mission while understanding the rich diversity and contributions of a Hispanic artists.
As a young art student, I struggled with identifying myself as an artist. Looking back, I now recognize that this difficulty came from a reluctance to be pigeon-holed into a singular category. As an immigrant from Nicaragua, there were so many categories that were assigned to me upon entry into this country: immigrant, non-native English speaker, minority, Latino. Many of these identifiers are often designed to keep individuals in a category, prohibiting them from finding commonality with others. I believe that heritage can be a powerful and fortifying factor in how we form our ideas of “self” and circumstances such as whether a child immigrated to the US or was born here play a significant role in how they form their identity hypothesis.
As an art teacher, my teaching developed into prevailing a social justice emphasis in response to the fact that the student population I served at BGCS was almost entirely Hispanic. My students’ heritage mostly originated in Latin America, which includes Central and South America. As immigrants or children of immigrants, these students were faced with powerful and sometimes very difficult identifiers placed on them.
In our teaching approach we did a class activity where we looked at vocabulary words that were complex concepts such as, “identity,” and created what we called, “working definitions.” For example, in project called, “Individuality versus Conformity,” we asked our seventh grade students to define “culture” in small groups. The purpose of this activity was to establish keywords to understand that concepts can be fluid and interactive and realize that through a shared definition commonality can be identified. Within these projects students learned new art techniques, and more importantly practiced making connections from multiple sources to arrive at a solution. Teaching mental agility to students is a process that involves a great deal of layering and repetition and art is an ideal vehicle to do so. As a teacher, I was careful not to tell my students what to think. I found greater reward in attempting to teach students how to ask questions. By teaching art making as a process and a system of strategies, we equipped students with lifelong skills that will aid them in forming a well-rounded identity hypothesis.
Currently I’m planning an art exhibit that will open in December of 2017 titled, “Here We Make our Home.” I plan to invite 8-10 schools to create a project based curriculum that uses bird houses as a metaphoric element to tell immigration stories. Bird houses will evoke the migratory nature of birds and open a discussion on how people arrive at places they call “home.” Participating teachers and schools are encouraged to participate in greater dialogue about topics like immigration, home and journey and explore multiple mediums to produce their bird houses.
While producing aesthetically pleasing bird houses will be important, the goal of this project will be to generate conversation around these complex topics that will challenge students to practice mental agility and form healthy ideas of who they are and how they will relate to others. In my experience, within a well-crafted, safe learning environment, students are able to discuss difficult and complex issues. The more opportunity a young person has to explore and reflect on these challenging topics, the better they will be able to handle them in a positive way.
As adults, we are expected to have moved beyond a hypothesis of who we are. We often place our identity within religion, political preference, education, sexual orientation, and profession. We form strong opinions on issues we identify as important and subscribe to a “right” or “wrong” mentality. It can be tempting to become rigid in our understanding of identity.
Consider for a moment, what if our identity was built from a sense of empathy? Would we be so rigid or quick to dismiss other cultures, immigrations, religions, sexual orientations, and other topics that dominate politics? As an artist, Latino, professional, father, and husband I want to contribute to a conversation where we create greater understanding and empathy in our community so that identity can be celebrated for its plural nature derived from many contributing factors.
Perhaps more important than the identifiers that we choose and those place on us by others, our identity could be defined by how we act and relate toward others.
by Jacobo Lovo
Managing Artistic Director