Off The Beaten Arts Path
What Does It Take To Be A Radical Community Artist?
BY RACHEL LIEBERMAN
Xochi de la Luna stands in a glimmering cape, sunflower crown, and gothic platform boots at the center of a small, intimate crowd. Audience members–some in folding chairs, others seated on the floor–dim their conversations in anticipation; the fantastical, bimonthly cabaret known as “Mother Goose’s Bedtime Stories” is about to commence. Before introducing the evening’s eclectic lineup of local bands, rappers, authors, actors, and dancers, this striking emcee leads the crowd in a moment of intentional silence, then cracks a joke that sparks giggles across the room filled with both new and familiar faces. “Welcome,” Xochi says, “this show came to me in a vision of a faraway planet, much more serene and alive than ours…”
According to Xochi (pronounced ‘zo-chee’), a 28-year-old Minneapolis-based performance artist, producer, community arts organizer and Mexican/Salvadorian immigrant, the atmosphere of this show is vastly different than ones they encountered when they first entered the theater and comedy scene a couple years ago. (Identifying as queer, transgender, and non-binary, Xochi uses they/them gender pronouns.) Back then, Xochi often found themselves performing and auditioning for crowds that were fairly homogenous. Especially with comedy, Xochi shares, “I had to try harder to relate to an audience that here in Minnesota is usually White and male–they don’t understand my jokes as much.”
Xochi next introduces the house band, Freaque, here at the Pangea World Theater in Minneapolis. Lead singer Gabriel Rodreick, seated in the wheelchair he uses after sustaining a spinal cord injury 11 years ago, explains, “These latest songs are about sex”—a topic often left out of discussions about people with disabilities. Before launching into his set with the band, Rodreick also notes how refreshing it is to perform in such an intentional, communal space, as compared to the bar shows his band has been playing recently.
This intentionality is, in large part, due to Xochi’s impassioned devotion to creating new community arts spaces. Xochi’s mission is to give appropriate value to the arts, and to especially support the careers of Black, Brown, Indigenous, Trans, Queer, and female artists. Whether its stand-up comedy, song, poetry, dance, a band or a cabaret act, Xochi is currently curating or emceeing as many as six different shows a month, and over the course of the past couple years, more and more people have started to take notice.
According to acclaimed local dancer and choreographer Leila Awadallah, “Xochi organizes a living breathing organism of work that ranges from literally just giving artists space to try something completely new, to serving as a platform for building broader, deeper connections across our intertwined communities.”
ARTS RESOURCES ARE SCARCE, AND MANY SENSE THEY ARE GROWING SCARCER
For Xochi and others who endeavor in the arts, and for the fans who appreciate their efforts, the value they provide in terms of community and culture is undeniable. But, as has always been the case, work in this field often entails long hours and little-to-no pay. Funding is scarce, and burnout is common. The financial and cultural obstacles for Xochi are especially overwhelming.
For one, Xochi faces a number of financial obstacles working in larger institutions. Primarily, they say, the casting timeline and rehearsal schedule is not conducive with working another full or part-time job, making it especially difficult for those in economically marginalized groups. “When I tried to do theater, I had to be dropping my bike (food delivery) shifts, and that wasn’t working out. They (established theaters in the Twin Cities) expected too much for the compensation they were offering.”
When Xochi first started their shows, they didn’t have enough money to consistently pay rent. “I became homeless around May of 2017,” they shared. “I was homeless for a year and a half couch surfing, and I’ve slept outside in freezing temperatures, for a few days. Even though I could pay my rent some months, that didn’t mean I could all the time, so instead of burdening anybody with that back rent, I chose to be homeless.”
In fact, Xochi explains, in both disbelief and pride, “I started Mother Goose’s Bedtime Stories as a homeless person, that’s the reason I could afford to do these shows. I didn’t have rent to pay. That’s a really big part.”
Xochi de la Luna (left) hosting Mother Goose’s Bedtime Stories with a former co-host, the performer known as Big Gay Mexican. Photo by Matt Ayers
Xochi also faced cultural barriers trying to work for larger institutions. “People say they want diversity,” Xochi says. “But they see me, a person with colored hair, heels, seemingly a man to them, and I get passed over (during a casting call). There are also a lot of microaggressions. Even the most well-intentioned White producer or organization can alienate their Black or Brown cast or crew member. It’s a culture clash.”
Xochi’s challenges are symptomatic of a larger troubling trend in the performing arts.
Despite living in a state where, according to Minnesota Citizens for the Arts’ 2019 data-driven study, “attendance at arts and culture events continues to grow in every corner of the state,” and “90 percent of people believe cultural facilities improve quality of life,” Minneapolis residents are seeing the opposite trend: spaces and organizations closing because they can’t break even.
As Xochi sees it, “the problem with funding right now, grassroots or otherwise, is that the number of people looking for the funding is increasing while it seems resources are diminishing. Not just funding, but spaces, and mentorships, and things like that. There are just all these people who are doing or want to be doing incredible work but can’t.”
Xochi de la Luna, recording an interview for They/Them project’s podcast series. Photo by Brent Dundore
Data indicates that for people of color (POC), it’s especially challenging. The 2018 Creative Index Report, an annual report from the City of Minneapolis’ Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy, found “an underrepresentation of POC in creative jobs compared with their representation among all metropolitan area workers.” According to this study, POC make up only 13 percent of people working in the creative economy, compared to 30 percent nationally. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, more than 36 percent of the population in Minneapolis is made up of POC, and that number has since grown.
Xochi says, “It’s especially difficult to find funding if you’re a show or organization trying to center on Brown and Black folks. I’ve heard from community artists running mid-size organizations who say, consciously or subconsciously, the White donors, the people with wealth, are not giving money to works they don’t see themselves represented in. They don’t see their stories being told, so they aren’t as personally invested.”
Back at Mother Goose’s Bedtime Stories, the audience roars as Freaque finishes their final song. Xochi prepares the next act: a live reading of commissioned stories from Cow Tipping Press, a local organization publishing the work of adult authors with developmental disabilities. “Give it up for the Cow Tipping authors seated in our show tonight!” Xochi announces, inviting the audience to sit back, close their eyes, and listen to a sci-fi-esque soundscape that begins to play. At this show, the three selected Cow Tipping authors and some of their family members are in the house for the first time, beaming with pride and anticipation.
In 2018, Mother Goose’s Bedtime Stories was the first show Xochi brought to life on their own, outside of the mainstream. The show is a fantastical cabaret featuring local poets, dancers, visual artists, filmmakers, musicians, writers, and actors. Under the Mother Goose umbrella sits Transitional Transmissions, a live, candid conversation on rotating topics between themself and other people who are Trans and Black, Indigenous, or POC.
Xochi explains, “With my shows I try to create a safer space through diversity and representation, yet avoid the tokenization of my people and my performers. You need Black and Brown-centered spaces with Black and Brown gatekeepers because they operate differently. The more spaces with differences in what they offer, the better. I think Black and Brown spaces have to live alongside diversity and everyone getting together. I’m not trying to exclude White folks, I’m just trying to make it a little more comfortable for Black and Brown performers.”
This year, Xochi also founded the Uproar Open Comedy Mic, a popular stand-up comedy show that’s held specifically for emerging BIPOC, Queer, Trans, and female comedians. Under uproar, Xochi began the Vector 9 Variety Show, a cabaret-style showcase. Xochi is also working with comedian, musician, and co-host Devohn Bland to launch yet another new spinoff called the “Vector 9 Comedy Special,” imagined as a resource for semi-established Queer, BIPOC and female comedians where performances will be taped for performers to then use to advance their careers.
Xochi’s shows have swiftly gained momentum. Performed in local cafes, theaters, distilleries, and concert venues, the performances have drawn sell-out crowds and kickstarted dozens of performers’ careers. Bailey Cogan, lead singer and principal songwriter of the band 26 BATS!, offers deep praise for Xochi’s work. “Xochi curates safe spaces wherever they are. They prioritize the safety of Black and Brown Queer people, and it shows not only in the artists they book, but in Xochi’s words at the events.”
Bailey Cogan (center) performs with the band 26 BATS! at Xochi de la Luna’s Vector 9 Variety Show. Photo by Jenny Zander
In addition to these shows, Xochi is engaged in four musical projects: INHVUMANITY, a hybrid metal band, La Curandera and the Ritual, playing what they describe as “apocalyptic goth rock, and sometimes space jazz,” a solo vocal-looping project, and Ruby Bruce, another improvised music project. Xochi calls this one “a place where I can throw all of my wacky wild ideas.” Performing in a range of venues, from house shows, to clubs, to art galleries, Xochi often dresses and sets the stage in a mix of traditional Latin American textiles, candles, and goth or glam makeup and clothing. At times their music is soft and sweet, at times loud and dysphoric, yet fans say they never fail to deliver a show that is haunting, energetic, and remarkably unique.
According to Awadallah, a current Springboard for the Arts 20/20 Fellow and frequent attendee and performer at Xochi’s shows, “Each time is an opportunity to share something very different with the community, and each time I witness work by a wide breadth of artists who are intentionally curated into a fabric of complex entangled weavings.”
BEHIND THE SCENES
Xochi was born in El Salvador and moved to the U.S. as a baby with their mom and stepdad under asylum. Xochi grew up in Texas, Illinois, and Minnesota, going to school and working with siblings in their stepdad’s construction business. The amount of work fluctuated and Xochi says they grew up poor, with income instability a part of their life for as long as they can remember.
Xochi shares, “I was told by my family that art isn’t important, and that it wouldn’t lead to success.” They add, “my parents were fed this American dream that they are millionaires waiting to happen if they just put in enough hard work. I believe that hard work can pay off, but it’s like they’ve been brainwashed to thinking their jobs at McDonalds will eventually lead to something greater. You’ve also got to put work into getting out of that cycle.’
“There’s always that part of you that wants to find that thing that makes you feel alright in the world,” Xochi explains. “For me, that’s putting people on stage and sharing art because it’s such a beautiful thing—all the different moods, the negative, the positive, it’s all important.”
Xochi says their work in the arts never ceases to be intense, demanding and fulfilling—but financial stability still remains an aspiration. Although Xochi often performs every single night of the week, sometimes at multiple shows each day, most weeks they barely break even.
Asked to do the math on what’s often a 60-hour work week, Xochi begins counting. “How much did I make, wow, okay… So, I paid the artists and the door people about $500 total, and I made, well, the comedy show was a charity so that didn’t pay, that went to immigrant lawyer services. My La Curandera gig paid $30, and the door take last night (at Mother Goose’s Bedtime Stories) ended up being $120 for me, which will go toward the next show that I gotta pay people for…”
After wading through the details for a little while longer, Xochi lets out a tired, goofy, reluctant laugh as they realize, “I made nothing basically. In the end I didn’t make any money.”
Whether they share Xochi’s particular identity and challenges or not, many other professional performers also feel overworked and underpaid. Schedules are demanding, it’s difficult to negotiate rehearsal hours with other employers, the positions are unstable, and the pay (often contract-based) is generally below minimum wage if calculated per hour. Even projects funded by larger grants often seek supplementation with limited crowdsourced funding.
Despite their own successes, Cogan and Awadallah also express frustration with the compensation they generally receive. Cogan says, “Payment for my artistry is in a constant flux because of the inconsistency. I’m in four different bands, sometimes five, so I stay very busy. I practice for two hours, four times a week, and gig up to eight times a month. Some gigs are well paying, like if it’s a college gig or a state-funded thing, or a festival, but because the payment of artists is so inconsistent and sparse this isn’t enough to pay the bills. I work 20 hours a week as a housecleaner on top of my busy musical life.”
Dancer Leila Awadallah says Xochi de La Luna’s shows “are rooted in community and mutual respect across the grassroots of art spaces located in the Twin Cities.” Photo by Bill Cameron
“There is a complicated, ever-changing line of what seems fair in terms of exchange for time and labor,” Awadallah says, explaining that artists can sometimes feel exploited if the lines of communication between artists and those who bring them aboard to perform aren’t clear. “For example,” she continues, “as a dancer if I am to rehearse for a project or perform in a setting that requires strict commitment and lacks flexibility, if my body is getting injured, if my time is being misused, and if the conversation on monetary compensation is avoided, unclear, or non-existent I would say that I am being exploited. Especially if that space articulates itself as a professional space. This does not mean all exchange needs to happen within the capitalist framework. We can imagine the sharing of resources, knowledge, and training as a valuable, non-monetary exchange. However, as artists we need to advocate for ourselves and each other more and stop avoiding these conversations just because they are uncomfortable.”
Xochi believes strongly, “You don’t want artists to think their work doesn’t have value, and if Brown and Black folks get paid what they should be, or close to it, they will tell their friends and more people will be likely to put themselves out there. These people could be the next undiscovered gems or find out their talents are the things that can get them out of holes that life has created. I honestly think anybody is capable of creating works. I don’t think everyone’s gonna be famous, but I do think that peoples’ art should be seen, that it’s important, that it has merit.”
FIGHTING FOR A MORE RADICAL FUTURE
As this performance of the Mother Goose show wraps up, the audience fills in the stage—embracing, laughing, and dancing to local rapper Jayso Creative’s closing performance. Amongst the audience and performers there’s a satisfied sense of both fullness and exhaustion, and a shared appreciation for the radical cohesion and love in the room—not to be taken for granted. This is what Xochi strives for.
“Radical means throwing all the rules out the window and trying whatever works, trying your darndest to pay people what their worth, and holding people accountable, yourself included,” Xochi explains. “Radical means allowing people who don’t typically have the power to have power. And that can mean no White founder, or a White person in power. It means a lot of different things.”
Xochi de la Luna (left) with comedian and musician Devohn Bland. Together they co-host Uproar Open Comedy Mic and Vector 9 Variety Show. Photo by Dena Denny
But adhering to that mantra can come at a cost. “Knowing how difficult it is for me to fund these shows, and how often I am not able to pay myself, it’s no wonder that a lot of small organizations don’t last,” Xochi says with a sigh. “The truth of the matter is when you are a person like me, when you’re Brown, Trans, and an immigrant, the people you know are in a similar position. They are also often very poor, and they don’t have the money to contribute.”
Awadallah reiterates her gratitude and admiration for Xochi’s commitment to performers, on all levels. “I have been cared for and financially compensated for my time and labor,” she says. “I choose to share work in, and attend the spaces Xochi builds more than mainstream venues because they are rooted in community and mutual respect across the grassroots of art spaces located in the Twin Cities.”
While they wait for news to come back from several grant applications, Xochi now crowdsources funding for their performances, striving to reach a point where performers and collaborators are always paid, though often coming up short.
The shows have survived because of Xochi’s deep commitment and personal investment–truly giving everything they’ve got to the work. When they don’t raise enough money from fundraising or ticket sales to compensate performers, Xochi pays artists from their own pocket, with money earned from other gigs. It’s an extreme and uncommon level of commitment, even in the world of grass roots organizing—especially when Xochi has so little personal income to spare.
Eyes filling with passion, Xochi says, “The reason I do what I do, and what I envision this all evolving to is, a mid-sized organization that has accomplished the goals of paying artists what they’re worth, paying staff what they’re worth, getting past identity–a space where Black and Brown folks feel like they have power, and a place where I can teach folks things that institutions might not, and ultimately to enable people to be teaching artists for others. The more we share with each other these resources, the more we can uplift each other, and all move forward together.”
Xochi addresses the Mother Goose audience members one last time before joining them on the dance floor. “Thank you so much for coming,” they say sincerely. “I love you all.”
Rachel Lieberman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s Note: If you’d like to support Xochi de la Luna’s projects, you can donate to their GoFundMe fundraiser here.
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