El Legado: Revisiting the 1998 Festival with Laura Esparza

In 1998, the Northwest Folklife Festival centered the culture of Chicanos and Mexicanos in Washington. The focus was called Norte y Sur, Un Solo Pueblo: The Chicano/Mexicano Legacy In to the New Millennium. With the leadership of the 1998 Advisory Council, composed of scholars, community leaders and educators from around the state, Northwest Folklife curated historic exhibits, live performances, workshops, panel discussions and hands-on family activities for the entire Pacific Northwest to experience at the Festival.

Now in 2018, exactly 20 years later, we revisit this cultural focus with a fresh new lens, understanding that sharing and celebrating one’s culture is a continuous process. Our 2018 Cultural Focus, entitled Echoes of Aztlán and Beyond: Mexican American and Chicana/o Roots in the Northwest, takes the legacy from our 1998 Festival and aims to continue this storytelling, cultural exposure and celebration.

In our El Legado (The Legacy) Series, we speak to the original 1998 Advisory Council members to reflect on their experience of the Festival, how they have continued to celebrate their culture, but most importantly, we seek to pass down their wisdom to the current generation of Mexican American and Chicana/os and for those yet to come.

Laura Esparza was one of the original members of the 1998 Advisory Council. Now, she is the Division Manager for the Division of Museums and Cultural Programs for the City of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department where she oversees eleven arts facilities including museums and cultural centers across Austin.

Ms. Esparza’s training is in theater; she was the recipient of the esteemed San Diego Fellowship at UCSD where she received her M.F.A. in Latino Theater. In 1994, she received the NEA-TCG Director’s Fellowship, an honor given to only four theater directors in the nation, every other year. This fellowship took her to seven different cities across the U.S. where as an artist in residence at regional theaters, she could direct and observe professional practices. She has directed over 75 plays, written three, and has been published in anthologies of Latino Theater and poetry.

Her undergraduate degree from Fairhaven College, Western Washington University, was entitled “Community Arts Development,” which brought her to her work with the City of Austin. She has worked as an arts administrator in five different cities in the U.S. Ms. Esparza regularly performs her one-woman show, “Legacy of Courage.”

20 years later, we had an opportunity to re-connect with Laura, to hear about her experience of the Norte y Sur, how she has continued to celebrate and share her culture, and her hopes for the next generation of Mexican American and Chicana/o communities.

What was your experience of Norte y Sur in 1998? 

I  remember being impressed by the art and performance that was presented by Mexican American and Chicano artists from the Yakima Valley.  For me, this event was a significant “east meets west” experience of artists from east of the mountains meeting artists and audiences west of the mountains.

How do you think Mexican American and Chicana/o culture has changed over time, specifically within the last 20 years?

Young people have changed in general in response to the Information Age.  Younger artists are doing work that pushes the boundaries of our culture, creating a more boundary-less body of work.  While many of the issues that have historically faced our culture remain the same (or have heightened), the art that reflects those issues stands on the shoulders of those activist artists that made their mark in the ’60s and ’70s.

Building from the Norte y Sur in 1998, what legacy did you hope to leave behind for the next generation? 

Planting the seeds for consciousness of one Latino culture–east and west, north and south–was what I hoped would come of Norte y Sur.  In 1998 we were still struggling to have a cultural presence in Seattle.

Many would say, we will are struggling for that presence, but Norte y Sur has sustained the effort to make that presence a bright one.

In what ways have you seen this legacy continue? 

This legacy continues in the sustained artistic output of the writers, visual artists and theatrical artists that once worked with the group Los Norteños.

What makes you proud of the Mexican American and Chicana/o culture and heritage? 

It makes me proud to be a part of a culture that honors its traditions while working in coalition with other groups to fight for our rights and sustain our rightful place in American society.

What is your favorite form of Mexican American and Chicana/o traditional arts?

I just re-read Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, a book I taught at North Seattle Community College.  The book reinforced my love for cuentos–stories–as a reinforcement of our cultural values and visions.

What advice would you give to the younger Mexican American and Chicana(o) generation about preserving culture?

Bring the past forward.  Know where you came from to see where we must go.

What are your hopes for the Mexican American and Chicana/o culture in the next 20 years?

My hope is that the Mexican American and Chicana/o culture will see a rise in elected officials that will continue to work for justice and our Latino presence.

Now in 2018, Laura continues to celebrate and promote her culture throughout her work and everyday life. She currently oversees the City of Austin’s municipally-owned museums and cultural centers including the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center. She is also proud member of Las Comadres, a national association of Latina women.  In addition, Laura continues to perform, a piece about her great-great-great grandparents who endured the battle of the Alamo.

To learn more about Northwest Folklife’s 2018 Cultural Focus, Echoes of Aztlán and Beyond: Mexican American and Chicana/o Roots in the Northwest, please visit our website.