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Immigrant participatory arts: An insight into community-building in Silicon Valley

Key Message

Participatory community arts are one of the strongest channels that immigrants have for self-assertion as authoritative adults, teachers of their children, and allies to their new friends and neighbors. Community engagement in the creation of art is a powerful means to foster the community connectedness that is called “social capital,” defined as social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.  Social capital has tangible, consequential value, just as physical capital (such as schools and hospitals) and human capital (such as active citizens and public servants) have value.

Source

Moriarty, P. (2004). Immigrant participatory arts: An insight into community-building in Silicon Valley. San José, California: Cultural Initiatives Silicon Valley.

Purpose

Cultural Initiatives Silicon Valley was established to carry out key mandates set forth in a major regional cultural plan formulated in 1997. One of the plan’s mandates was to activate neighborhood and community-level cultural activities in the challenging suburban landscape of Silicon Valley: a setting in which the great majority of the population consists of newcomers from all quadrants of the U.S. and the world. In approaching this task, there are few program models to follow and a dearth of data to support any course of action. Working from the belief that no initiative should be undertaken until there was a reasonable understanding of the workings of the regional cultural ecosystem, our first step in 2002 was to assemble a study of the supply and demand dynamics of the arts in Silicon Valley. The core feature of this study, entitled The Creative Community Index, was an intercept survey of more than 300 Silicon Valley adult residents conducted in Spanish, English and Vietnamese. This study found that a remarkably high percentage of the survey respondents, 51%, responded “yes” to the question, “Do you consider yourself to be an artist in any way?” The next step in our quest for understanding of the complex domain of participatory arts, which resulted in this present report, was to commission veteran cultural anthropologist Dr. Pia Moriarty to observe, document and assess the rich domain of participatory performing arts groups operating within the immigrant populations that constitute the majority of Silicon Valley’s population. Dr. Moriarty conducted her work over the course of a half-year, and uncovered a dynamic that had not been expected.

The dominant reason for the existence of amateur arts groups in immigrant communities derives from a strong desire of parents to maintain the structure, values and traditions of their families. In the forthcoming year, Cultural Initiatives will be conducting a follow-on study to examine the dynamics of participatory arts groups that are not tied to the special family circumstances of immigrant communities.

This report is the result of a six-month reconnaissance of the ways in which Silicon Valley immigrants are building community through participatory arts practices. It finds that immigrant participatory arts offer a new community arts paradigm for our mobile world, a vibrant source of social energy, and a ready means of proceeding in the larger task of community-building amidst diversity. This study identifies key dynamics of immigrants building community through participatory arts in California’s Silicon Valley, specifically Santa Clara County and parts of Alameda County.

The research method for this study is designed to allow a broad-based overview of participatory arts practices in the diverse immigrant and refugee communities of Santa Clara County. This study employed a qualitative, anthropological approach that sought to generate hypotheses and categories of analysis directly from the arts practitioners themselves, and to relate them to the current national dialogue. Its sample snowballed from initial contacts amongst artists, grassroots performing groups, cultural arts schools, community and religious leaders, and social service providers. Research was conducted over a six-month period (September 2002 through February 2003) by one researcher with fluency in English and Spanish. She was voluntarily aided through translations from bilingual participants from various immigrant communities. Given these limitations, this study’s findings must be seen as indicative rather than exhaustive. These findings are meant to identify cultural patterns, as well as lay groundwork for additional studies of trends in art-making.

Evidence

Three months into the data gathering, repeated observations of the intergenerational character of immigrant participatory arts resulted in a working hypothesis: that concern for the education of children was driving volunteer efforts. The theoretical framework for this study, which introduces immigrant arts practices into the national dialogue about community-building through bonding and bridging social capital, did not emerge until the final analysis and writing phases had begun.

Toward a New Paradigm
The adult immigrants and refugees responsible for community participatory arts programs in Silicon Valley are experts at bridging across multiple worlds. They stretch their lives between performing duties that honor their traditional cultures and facing the conflicting challenges of raising families in today’s California. Their parents and ancestors link them enduringly to the old country, and their children link them inescapably to the new.

Reports one long-time immigration attorney: Immigrants become conflicted as soon as they have children here. This is a turning point, because parents know that their children are not going to return with them to the home country. They’re born here, and their lives are going to be here… It’s very complex. This complexity shapes the lives of 34% of the population in Santa Clara County who are foreign-born, and redefines Norman Rockwellera visions of American civic society. Of necessity, immigrants are multicultural and often multilingual people, and their civic life reflects this.

Participatory community arts are one of the strongest channels that immigrants have for self-assertion as authoritative adults, teachers of their children, and allies to their new friends and neighbors. This study documents a pattern of artistic adaptation that affirms the living heritages of immigrant and refugee communities, and at the same time solidifies their new connections to mainstream civic life in Silicon Valley.

The pattern is both/and, not either/or. When examining the community arts here, “ethnic” does not mean ethnocentric. It means an assertion of culture that can, and usually has to, reach beyond itself to address larger issues shared by mainstreamers and by other immigrant ethnic groups. Artistic production in this context is bonded, or affirming of the original in-group culture. At the same time, participatory ethnic arts serve as a powerful vehicle for bridging—connecting with other cultural groups and civic allies. The participatory arts scene in Silicon Valley’s immigrant communities adds an important new dimension of ethnic bonded-bridging to the ongoing national dialogue about civic community-building. The immigrant participatory arts practices described in this study suggest that community arts organizers and funders incorporate this new bonded-bridging paradigm into their policy making. The cultural creativity documented here argues in favor of more broadly-based funding priorities than professionalization, organizational development, or audience development. Results indicate the rich and civic possibilities of community cultural development through participatory arts.

Community-building through participatory arts is particularly enjoyable, authentic, welcoming, and durable. By definition, participatory arts are “popular,” or “of the people.” Sharing in art-making can cut across powerful social cleavages—race, class, gender, language, religion, and national origin.7 Traditions are elaborated and passed along to future generations. Performance of their art is both a gift, and a duty to be enacted for the betterment of the communities’ future.

Community engagement in the creation of art is a powerful means to foster the community connectedness that is called “social capital,” defined as social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.  Social capital has tangible, consequential value, just as physical capital (such as schools and hospitals) and human capital (such as active citizens and public servants) have value.

Additional Information

| © 2004 by Cultural Initiatives Silicon Valley.

Benefit Statements / Outcomes

Leadership Provided By:

  • Leisure Information Network (LIN)
  • Alberta Recreation and Parks Association

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  • Canadian Parks and Recreation Association (CPRAA)

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