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Night of Cultura

A woman shrieks in the dead of night. A man strumming on his guitar offsets a serenade of melodic voices. Cussing intervenes the music as drugs are dealt.

This is Night of Cultura at UCLA.

In 2004, a group of Latina/o students came together to establish a creative space for the expression and celebration of Latin American culture through performing arts. The nonprofit, completely run by UCLA students, has since worked toward staging theater productions every spring quarter.

Night of Cultura’s Executive Director Ricardo Ayala, a third year psychology student, describes the essence of the organization as the interweaving of the arts and social justice, “bringing up issues relevant to those in Night of Cultura as well as the communities we represent.”

As stated on their official Facebook page, Night of Cultura aims to “[establish] a creative space that allows students the opportunity to participate in political advocacy, social advocacy, and cathartic expression. Through performing arts, [they] aim to educate the audience for the betterment of the Latin-American community at UCLA.”

Their mission statement was evident during Monday night rehearsals, held on the Tom Bradley International Hall patio from eight to ten. They are a chaotic combination of live music, impassioned arguments, remnants of a past romance, and excruciating loss.

Among this year’s featured productions is art history graduate student Carlos Rivas’ monologue “1932,” inspired by the often overlooked genocide of Salvadoran indigenous peoples.

“Last summer I spent a week in a little town called Nahuizalco in El Salvador. I stayed with an indigenous community with the grandchildren of the grandchildren of the people who were murdered. I was very inspired by [this experience]. I came back and wanted to share the knowledge,” says Rivas. “I was already a part of NoC and [this] fit in with the theme of Latin American culture [while] also still raising awareness for social activism.”

Fourth year Spanish literature student Roberto Reyna’s El Swapmeet takes place closer to home near the border.

Reyna credits his upbringing and experience of selling at his local swap meet alongside his mom as inspiration for his play.

One of the critical themes present throughout his play is the role of money.

“Money is an actor in every Latino’s life. It transforms us,” says Reyna.

The influence of money is evident through his memories of being at swap meets as a kid.

“I think I saw some kids in the swap meet selling by themselves and I said, ‘What got him to selling?’ This kid goes to the swap meet all by himself and he thinks he’s all badass. I wanted his backstory,” says Reyna. “It’s the backstory of a lot of people, to try and work and to earn something out of anything. The journey of the hustle.”

Reyna expresses the journey of the dual culture of border towns and the people who live there through his use of bilingual dialogue. His use of English and Spanish reflect the dichotomy of money and happiness present within El Swapmeet.

Bringing it even closer to home is Giovanni Núñez’s Unbreakable.

Set in a neighborhood similar to South Los Angeles, Unbreakable stars second year sociology major and theater minor Liz Perez as Janet. Núñez’s play chronicles Janet’s transformation as she navigates through her neighborhood and the tribulations of everyday life.

“Throughout the play there’s a change of character within Janet. She herself believes that she is unbreakable.Throughout the play she thinks that she’s invincible and that nothing can hurt her,” explains Perez. “She becomes more critical of her environment.”

This year, Night of Cultura will take place on May 30th-31st in the Northwest Campus Auditorium at 7:00 PM. Admission is free.

Serving as Creative Director, Reyna is confident in the work of his writers, actors, and the entire work force behind Night of Cultura.

“Honestly, I’m confident. There’s a reason why I chose Giovanni, there’s a reason why I chose Carlos. No one’s getting paid. Everyone’s on their own time, everyone’s on their own schedule. It’s just like any other club, it’s a passion, it’s a dedication. The most rewarding part is for us to perform for someone. The rewarding part is the night of the show, the wrap. That’s what makes all the headaches worth it.”

Note: This blog is the first of a three part series following the NoC productions. Look out for the next blog which will be covering the actual production of NoC on May 30th and May 31st. See you there!

My takeaway from The Great Wall of L.A. tour: Ethnic Studies now!

The Great Wall of Los Angeles is a half-mile mural in the Tujunga Flood Control Channel of the San Fernando Valley that reveals the underrepresented histories of ethnic California. Though the mural shows moments between the Pre-Historic Era and the 1950s—years beyond my birth date—its message remains relevant to me: Ethnic peoples’ voices matter.

The content I learned during the Discover L.A. Bike Tour of The Great Wall of L.A. made me reflect on my K-12 California public school education, and what I was not taught about California’s history.

The reality is I was exposed to more ethnic history during this tour than I ever was in my time in public schooling.

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Often this mural is acknowledged as a monument to inter-racial harmony, both in how it was developed and in its aesthetic. However, I think it’s also a monument for what it can spark. For me it reinforced my passion for Ethnic Studies–the interdisciplinary study of ethnic groups. I grew eager to learn more and at the same time I thought how incredibly empowering it would’ve been for me to have Ethnic Studies in my public high school.

Middle school and high school were composed of me hating reading. Instead I wrote stories that were relatable to me. I didn’t read any ethnic literature. I didn’t even know that such writers of color existed. If I did read about ethnic groups, it was written from the perspective of a white male.

In essence, The Great Wall of L.A. is a claim for ethnic existence. The perspectives afforded to me throughout this mural made me think about how painful it is to reimagine these histories, but at the same time how necessary it is to learn them.

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In California, where about three-quarters of students in K-12 public schools are non-White, Ethnic Studies are rare. I can attest to that. I never came across history from the perspective of ethnic groups and neither has my younger sister nor my cousins.

The National Education Association, in its research review “ The Academic and Social Value of Ethnic Studies,” reports that an overwhelming dominance of Euro-American perspectives lead many students to disengage from academic learning.

The NEA adds that since the 1960s, educators, scholars, and activists have pressed schools, districts, and textbook companies to produce curricula that is representative of the U.S.’s diversity. In the 1970s and 1980s, when The Great Wall of L.A. was completed, textbook publishers addressed Euro-American biases and ethnic group stereotypes that were being perpetuated in their textbooks.

However, the NEA reports that although some progress has been made in adding ethnic history into school curricula, “Whites continue to receive the most attention and appear in the widest variety of roles, dominating story lines and lists of accomplishments.”

The U.S. has a history of censorship. Moreover, Ethnic Studies bans have not been uncommon and legislative pushes for Ethnic Studies in public schools have not been too successful. But in California, Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville) is currently gaining support from lawmakers for his new Ethnic Studies bill. Alejo has not received the same clash that has been seen in other states.

AB 1750 will require California to form a task force that will study how to best implement a standardized Ethnic Studies program for high school students. I believe that the bill can begin to address the important gaps in students’ knowledge and serve as a model for the rest of the country.

“Rather than being divisive, ethnic studies helps students to bridge differences that already exist in experiences and perspectives,” the NEA reports. “In these ways, ethnic studies plays an important role in building a truly inclusive multicultural democracy and system of education.”

Research shows that both students of color and White students have benefited academically and socially from Ethnic Studies. In fact, students of color are more engaged academically, with graduation rates for students of color increasing significantly. But opponents argue that Ethnic Studies is divisive and that it fosters anti-American perspectives.

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The Great Wall of L.A. illustrates the purpose of ethnic studies perfectly. It’s about understanding our past so that we can know how to exist harmoniously in the present. It’s about equal visibility and finding commonalities in struggle and triumph, without thinking of a particular race or ethnicity as superior. Now, the process of learning must be a process of unlearning.

From the perspective of ethnic groups, Ethnic Studies makes sense. But why do White students need Ethnic Studies?

To be honest, I can’t expect White students to understand the underrepresentation of ethnic groups. But, education allows such insensitivity to be transformed into something other than ignorant actions. It begins to harmonize our differences, much like The Great Wall of L.A. does.