The prison in Central America was run down, the conditions horrible. Yet art was there.
“Guys with tattoos on their faces, their eyelids, under their lips,” says Mandalit del Barco. “Places that hurt. They would try to put art on themselves, their whole bodies.”
Some of these men had roamed the streets of Los Angeles, in gangs, until they’d been deported. And now, imprisoned. Perhaps that guy had been one of them, the one with the tattoo on his forehead.
It likely was supposed to read as “DEVILS,” but a couple of letters seemed to be missing. “A typo,” del Barco says. “I didn’t have the heart to tell him.”
Del Barco was talking via Zoom from her home in Southern California, where she is an arts reporter for NPR. The conversation was part of the WXXI Leadership Circle Virtual Voices online speaker series a few weeks ago: “The State of the Arts: A Conversation with NPR’s Mandalit del Barco and WXXI’s Jeff Spevak.” Pieces of it are being posted now on the internet. You’ll get a nice chunk of it in this column.
One of del Barco’s most recent assignments was this year’s Academy Awards. A lot of the big studios sat out the year because of COVID-19. Maybe, del Barco suggested, that left a little breathing room for movies with an indie spirit, like "Nomadland,” which picked up the Oscar for best picture. A story that rang true, and sometimes rang sad, because some real people were in it, telling their stories to Frances McDormand. People drifting through the American Southwest in campers and vans, living in their vehicles, sometimes because they wanted to — or, like McDormand’s character, because they had to after losing their homes or their jobs or their families.
Watching movies is the fun part of del Barco’s job. Other parts, like visiting Central American prisons? Not so much. Or reporting from earthquake-flattened Haiti. Or hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.
Or looking up into the sky and seeing skywriting airplanes, with the words “Care Not Cages” trailing behind them. That’s for immigrant children, separated from their families at the United States southern border.
Such assignments don't seem to be in the realm of arts reporting. And yet, “There’s always an intersection of music, movies, theater, art, visual art, and whatever is happening in the news,” del Barco says. “There’s always an intersection there.”
Always. “The people who lived in the caves were painting on the walls, just like my friends who write graffiti murals are doing on the walls of our buildings as well,” she says.
That intersection of art, life, and current events is evident on many of Rochester’s buildings, too. There are brick canvases for everything from outsized paintings of whales down by the Rochester Public Market to civil rights activist and politician John Lewis, to the late Daniel Prude, who died after being restrained by police..
Del Barco loves such street art. It says: Art is for everyone. “It’s not defacing stuff, but actually creating beautiful pieces,” she says. Art doesn’t have to follow money, lest we “lose the kind of grassroots kind of arts venues that are so important, and so amazing, for a community.”
Del Barco is a native of Peru, although she moved to the United States with her parents when she was 2½. She’s been a journalist since she was an 18-year-old college student with braces on her teeth in Berkeley, California.
At Columbia University, she did her master's thesis on break dancers. “Hip-hop was created in the streets out of nothing,” she says. “It went worldwide.”
“It just shows you what you can do when you’re not like, necessarily, in a museum or gallery. You don’t necessarily have to go to art school.”
Even when she was talking her way into Central American prisons, “I was always gravitating toward the arts, the people who were expressing themselves,” del Barco says.
“I was a news reporter that used arts to tell the stories.”
Del Barco has a name for the art, and activism, that she reports on: artivism.
“This past year, it was a big push for social justice on the part of artists,” she says. “Artists have been leaders in social justice forever. I mean, it’s not just exclusive to this country, or this past year, or anything like that. I know that when I spoke to some of the artists that I profiled this past year, they would often reference Nina Simone. Nina Simone, the singer, who was someone who said that an artist's duty is to reflect the times they’re living in.”
And, she adds, the classical singer and actor Paul Robeson, who said artists are the “radical voice of civilization.”
And the contemporary artist Nikkolas Smith, whose portraits have appeared throughout the Black Lives Matter era. They depict George Floyd, without a cop’s knee on his neck; Brionna Taylor in her EMT uniform; Ahmaud Arbery in a tuxedo. “The idea,” del Barco says, “was to give dignity to the people who had been killed by police.”
Art has been a very visible component of the past year’s social activism.
“Music, art were one way people protested in terms of Black Lives Matter,” del Barco says.
“Artists are often the ones to be that voice, they’re activists and they’re artists, right?”
Activists and artists step up when sometimes — too often, it seems — the first official words on an incident prove to be incorrect. And when the public demands more information.
“All these people that were dying not only at the police’s hands, but because of COVID,” del Barco says. “I saw a lot of expressions of mourning, of grief, over the people that died because of coronavirus as well."
“What I thought was interesting was not just the protests but, in terms of the global experience that we all had when COVID shut down everything, everybody just craved to be back to normal,” she says, her hands throwing air quotes around that open-to-interpretation word, “normal.”
By normal, she means the normal activities of the arts. Going to movies, restaurants, concerts. Any kind of gathering.
“We saw that in Italy, do you remember?” she recalls. “Italians, they couldn’t go out. But they got out onto their porches, their windows, and would sing to each other. It’s like a human response to whatever is going on. It’s something I find relating to the arts all the time.”
We need more porches, more open windows.
“There’s sort of an anti-elitist sentiment that’s swept through the country over the last few years,” del Barco says. “And that’s disturbing. An anti-science sentiment.”
She’s also noticed that people are being encouraged to distrust what they see happening in front of them. This is frustrating for a journalist who deals in fact, not shadowy conspiracy.
“I would hope,” del Barco says, “that people use their own brains, and not repeat what somebody else does, like a parrot.”
To that point, issues such as immigration need to be seen through a wider lens than reports from the southern border of the United States, says del Barco. Immigration isn’t limited to one border, or one race.
“Immigration isn’t just coming into the U.S.,” she says. “Immigration goes way back and goes around the world.”
That means every immigrant has a slightly different story. Context matters. And even here, art can be a connective tissue. Del Barco saw it in the prisons of El Salvador, while reporting on the gang culture that had migrated from Central America to the United States, and back again. “I noticed there was a mural on the walls,” del Barco says. “I looked at the mural and I was like, ‘Hmm, that looks really familiar … ’
“It was actually a mural of MacArthur Park, in Los Angeles. Somebody had painted from memory their vision of MacArthur Park, where immigrants from Central America gather. They remembered that, they painted it from memory.”
Art is a social ritual, and often a healing expression, shared by all communities. Del Barco was in Haiti in 2010, reporting on an earthquake that killed an estimated 250,000 people. Many were simply buried in mass gravesites. But not without a ceremony, which was, she says, “profound.”
“Another was a concert that the National Philharmonic did,” she says. “These folks were onstage rehearsing when the earthquake happened. The auditorium fell on them. Some people died. Some people, they tried to rescue their fellow musicians, and those that they couldn’t save, they would dig into the rubble and get their instruments.
“And then a couple of weeks later, they got together and grieved by performing with those same bent instruments for the people who were living in tent cities that had lost everything. Had lost their homes, had lost their family members, and were just living in dire poverty and just desperation.”
In the music’s survival was a shared grief. Del Barco has felt that herself, when she returned to Peru in search of answers to what had happened to her grandmother, a cousin and an aunt, lost in that country’s political violence of the 1980s. “A lot of people were killed,” she says. “A lot of villagers, and people who were just out in the rural areas.”
What del Barco heard from the survivors is what she calls “a communal lament.”
“People gathered together and told their stories and shared their grief.
“I don’t know if you want to call it the arts, but it was an artistic expression again of communal feeling. And just, like, we’re all in this together. We’re all sharing an experience, and we’re doing it in a way through music, through stories, just sharing experiences.
“I think storytelling is an ultimate expression of the arts as well.”
Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.