Local arts leaders recently crafted an open letter to Team San Jose expressing their dismay at the San Jose song.
But an even-toned letter exemplifying seething and undeserved restraint is not enough this time. You cannot resolve yet another modern day example of ingrained institutional racism and ignorance with a few words.
The head of Team San Jose has been here too long to claim ignorance. She’s literally across the street from SoFA, which monthly celebrates artistic diversity. She can probably hear it through her walls—the clashing and melding of cultures, and the art and music evolving from it. The deep beauty of the locals engaging the one power they truly control in this city: expression.
What Team San Jose said with its choice of song and selection process is, that their expression is not worthy, and that (white American) tourists will not be able to relate to the locals because they are kinda scary and kinda foreign, and since WE don’t particularly think hip hop and multi-ethnic culture are legitimate symbols and lifestyles of any place deemed culturally valuable and attractive, tourists won’t either.
But that reveals to me the irony that there are people running Team San Jose’s convention and visitors bureau whose decisions betray a lack of global experience.
Daily, thousands of global tourists land in places from which many of our local residents come, so they can explore new sights, tastes and sounds. Do the vendors in San Miguel de Allende, Saigon, Cebu, and New Delhi say, ‘Let’s put a white New Zealander as the face of our town or no one will come’?
Even New Zealanders know to play up images of the Maori people in their marketing to lure tourist dollars. And if the Haka dance isn’t an intimidating cultural heritage, I don’t know what is. But it’s that charged passion and culture that travelers want.
And who can deny that hip hop, Latinx, and Asian culture are all the rage worldwide. Even mild-palated folks in the Midwest are starting to get into this savory and sound groove. Look at the darn cooking shows — food appropriation abounds! And global top 50 music has consistently presented hip hop and Latinx music for years now.
Yet, the people who are responsible for attracting the world to our valley are apparently so narrow-minded and embarrassingly provincial, they have zero clue about how attractive San Jose can be to foodies and cultural travelers who want to experience “different” and “exciting.” There’s only so much thrill a viewing lobby of the Apple Spaceship can give.
In fact, if city leaders weren’t so xenophobically insular as they have shown themselves to be for… well, forever, they would divert real cash money support for a unified beautification and marketing push to make San Jose a real travel destination, and dispense with the racist ingrained, multi-generational belief that only the downtown core matters, which is as dated and racist a belief as red-lining.
San Jose is a global city not because of the airport or a few corporations up the Peninsula, but because of the people who have come from all over the globe — over scorched desert land and angry, battering sea, and even through that airport, as immigrants and refugees, as the displaced and dislocated — to make it their home… and stayed.
Today, arts leaders now have an obligation to serve as the vanguard of real change, and call for Team San Jose resignations.
They must refuse to engage with Team San Jose, while insisting that arts partners, and, yes, grantors, do not give any future corporate business, until they replace (the CEO) with a local leader of color who knows the city at all corners. We now deserve leaders who engage the entire populace and not just remain fearfully ensconced in that circle of wagons of downtown skyscrapers. It’s time we put a price to the value of our art and of all our people. We do matter.
And let this letter also be a shot across the bow toward those so-called allies who we are electing and appointing as leaders because this is the same institutionalized racism we experienced with the planning commission fiasco, where not one so-called ally resigned their seat in protest against the appointment of a privileged insider to manage east side development, a move that, again, reflects the racist and painful tradition of colonization that many on the east side have experienced for hundreds of years.
Letters have been written and discussions have happened again and again. And yet, a mural is destroyed. Land is left to outsiders to decide who will benefit from its use. Artists are denied a global voice of expression when the rare chance comes. And families are forced to break up and move because their basic needs of shelter, food and work do not square with the financial ambitions of the powerful.
It’s now time to act and call for resignations, showing that our presence as people of color — artists and immigrants, and natives of the Americas for thousands of years — is legitimate, and that we have a voice that can be in charge of our own representation, of our own identity as a community, and of our own economic and artistic destiny.
Arts leaders: show some ganas. Do not mute your anger this time because artists and leaders are passionate, they bend and break things to invent and renew. They do not accept oppressive conditions and the old ways of doing things. And they are never silent when the truth is burning on their tongues. Arts leaders, it is in our legacy to drive such change. How many of our ancestors suffered to get us where we are today? It’s now our turn to assume that role.
I am not arguing for an apology. And I’m not asking that those leaders offer a seat at the table for the local artists and leaders and people of color to meekly express yet again our displeasure.
I am stating that that table is OUR table, and it is in OUR home, and that such racist injuries to familia in our home will only end when we assume the leadership positions from those who use them to consistently diminish and negate our presence, experiences and contributions to this valley and our country.
Ultimately, artists create. I urge you all to create real change toward inclusion at the top from the fodder of this latest racist fiasco.
Ben Soriano is a writer and multicultural arts leader who promoted graffiti art and live music downtown for 10 years.