Inspired by the racial uprisings of the last year, Suárez Dance Theater is launching a film series shining a light on the often overlooked stories of Santa Monica’s Black, Indigenous, and Latinx community members.
The “Mapping our Stories” project is created in collaboration with filmmaker Leonardo Rivas and three groups of BIPOC performers, whose videos each highlight a different culture and area of the City. Chumash and Tongva poet and songwriter Jessa Calderon captures Santa Monica beach and Tongva Park; Black choreographer and performer Bernard Brown explores the Belmar Triangle; and Latinx dance collective Primera Generación highlights the Pico neighborhood.
The film series seeks to educate locals on the contributions made, injustices faced and resilience demonstrated by communities of color in Santa Monica. It encourages white residents to grapple with the complex, and at times distressing, histories of people who came before them and to strive to make amends for the injustices of their ancestors by honoring, acknowledging and amplifying these stories.
“With the murder of George Floyd and the racial reckoning of the past year I thought ‘it’s time for me to step back; I don’t need to make work right now’,” said Christine Suárez, founder of Suárez Dance Theatre, who is of Latinx heritage, but realizes she receives privileges from being white passing. “I need to teach, but I want to use my resources towards supporting BIPOC artists and towards really examining our history in Santa Monica.”
The initiative was funded by a Community Access and Participation Grant from Santa Monica Cultural Affairs. Beginning on April 16, one film will be released each week on the Suárez Dance Theatre Instagram account and YouTube channel. At 6 p.m. on May 7, the series will culminate in a virtual celebration where all three videos will be screened and the artists will discuss their work.
Audiences will receive a map of each film location and a list of resources, so they can take their own walking tour and continue advancing their education of the City’s BIPOC history.
Primera Generación Dance Collective entitled their piece “Low riting”. Their film is inspired by the Westside Classics Car Club in Santa Monica and the Chicano culture of lowriding.
Lowriding cars and the community formed around them have long served as an important social gathering point and place of expression for Latinx residents, creating a tradition that continues to this day. At the same time lowriding has been negatively connected with gangs and generated damaging fear and prejudice from white neighbors.
“The film was really a moment to shine light on the stereotypes that exist in lowrider culture, but also show how lowriding clubs create familia, cultura, and community building and use this idea of lowriding as artwork that continues to be passed on to generations,” said PGDC member Alfonso Cervera.
The group researched their project by speaking with Westside Classics Car Club co-founder Ralph Rocha, and heard both his joyous tales of community celebrations and darker stories of having cars be tailed and even destroyed by the police.
“In my perspective lowriding culture is an act of resistance to continue putting forth one culture, and also sustaining generational ancestral stories,” said Cervera.
Playing on the idea of bouncing hydraulic cars and the grooving that takes place at familial gatherings, the choreography showcases the power behind the cars and people that keep lowrider culture alive in LA.
The other two films also create space to reflect on the pains and joys experienced by indigenous people and people of color in Santa Monica.
Choreographer and arts activist Bernard Brown draws attention to the history and displacement of Black residents in the Belmar Triangle community in his piece “…at leisure…”. The film asserts the right for the Black queer body to be at rest in public space — something historically denied to LGBTQ and black people — and invokes the ancestral spirits of the once vibrant African American neighborhood.
Jessa Calderon’s “Before the Noise” implores residents to reflect on what this area was like before it was known as Santa Monica. As a member of the Chumash and Tongva nations, Calerderon shares the stories of the Native peoples who were here before colonization, while also raising awareness that many of these people are still here.
Suárez believes there is something for all residents to take away from the “Mapping our Stories” series and its accompanying education resources, which include learning tools for children. She said those interested in learning more should register for the May 7 screening celebration at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/mapping-our-stories-tickets-144544511525