ARMANDo
MINJAREZ

Artist  / Designer / Organizer

 

Armando Minjarez's passion is empowerment. Utilizing his own life experience and influence he's sculpted community-based work into every facet of his creative life.
 
Curious, persistent, and cultured.
Armando's justice is social.

June 30th, 2016
Interview and Portraits by:
Kevin Wildt

Introduce yourself and what you do.
Hi, my name is Armando Minjarez Monarrez, I'm an artist, designer and community organizer currently operating in Wichita Kansas.

At what age did you find yourself becoming politically involved? What experiences sparked your interest in activism?
This might be a difficult question to answer. Technically, I think I was in 5th grade when I first got involved in anything political. I grew up in the city of Hidalgo del Parral in Chihuahua Mexico, which has been dealing with a severe drought for several decades now. The city government had a youth educational campaign on water conservation and I became involved after they came to my school to do a presentation. I remember being really concerned with the environment and water pollution, so I joined the program and essentially became a snitch on people who would be wasting water. Things like washing your vehicle with a hose and such. We even had a "Secret Agent Card" with our names on it and a phone number to call in any water waste sightings. So funny and weird.

After moving to the USA, I got involved in an immigrant rights campaign during my Junior year in high school—after I found out I couldn't attend college due to my lack of immigration status. I was 17 years old. The rest is history.

What originally brought you to the United States?
Family. My mother decided to stay in the US in 1999, but I didn't want to stay so I went back home and lived with my aunt in Mexico for the next 2 years. I was missing family very much, so I decided to join them back in the US summer of 2001.

 
 

"We even had a 'Secret Agent Card' with our names on it and a phone number to call in any water waste sightings."

IMG_9752.jpg
 
 

What later came from getting involved politically at 17?
As an undocumented immigrant myself, directly affected by this issue, I got heavily involved in campaigns for immigrant rights at the local, state and national levels as a community organizer, community leader and spokesperson. Some of the accomplishments we had at that time were mobilizing thousands of undocumented immigrants and allies all across the state; gaining access to colleges and universities in Kansas for undocumented students; lobbying and successfully stopping several anti-immigrant bills; creating a state-wide network of community organizations, faith groups and attorneys to stop immigration raids in Kansas—this was at the state level.

Nationally, we had a huge victory in 2008 when we took about 500 community leaders from all over the country to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) headquarters in DC, which resulted in the negotiation and subsequent agreement by USCIS to process a backlog of nearly one million citizenship applications before the 2008 presidential elections. Almost one million people in the US became citizens as a direct result of our collective efforts. And that year, the first USA Black president was elected, an election defined by the Latino vote. 

Did you attend college?
Yes, I did attend college, though it was a more complicated process than I had imagined. I attended Garden City Community College for a couple years. After a break and a key change in my immigration status, I enrolled at Kansas State University and eventually graduated with a BFA in Ceramic Arts.

 
 

"Almost one million people in the US became citizens as a direct result of our collective efforts."

 

"AlieNation"
Kansas State Univesity
(Credit: Armando Minjarez)

Progress Performance Arts Fest in Toronto
(Credit: Henry Chan)

 

 

While living in Wichita you've focused a lot of your energy on three community specific projects, The Seed House, ICT-ARMY of Artists, and the NorthEnd Urban Arts Festival. Describe your roles within these projects and why each has been so important to you.
I moved to Wichita specifically to join forces with colleagues Emira Palacios and Laura Dungan and start the nonprofit The Seed House~La Casa de las Semilla, which I'm co-founder. We are a workshop space for social change and leadership development in Kansas, and our work manifests in workshops, retreats and cultural work. I had been fulfilling several roles within the organization in the first three years, from programming to fundraising to managing the brand. This year, I shifted my position to creative director, focusing my work on communications and expanding our cultural impact in Wichita. The organization was born out of a need for a space in which regular people could come together, discuss issues affecting their communities and take creative actions to address those issues. Kansas is in a lot of trouble right now and its people are waking up to this reality. We want to offer a space for people to dream and act on ways to make this great state a better place for everyone. 

I started the ICT-ARMY of Artists as a program at the Seed House, specifically to engage local artists and creatives in social justice work in Kansas. Throughout history, the arts have always been at the vanguard of any progressive social change. More importantly, the arts have the amazing ability to create spaces for individual and collective healing. Our philosophy at The Seed House is that healing from trans-generational trauma carried for centuries by communities of color is just as important as any progressive policy change. Cultural representation and celebration must be an ingredient in any strategy geared to bring equality and justice for people. This is particularly important in Kansas, given the lack of financial support for the arts by the state. 

Since AofA inception in 2014 the group has grown to over 100 active artists and creatives—a core group of about 10. The group is currently in the process of becoming it's own separate entity, an essential step for it to become self-sustained.

I served the role of cultural producer for The NorthEnd Urban Arts Festival. This project was incubated at the Cultural Resistance Retreat, which was organized by The Seed House and facilitated by me. The festival is Veronica Miranda's brain child and she had a chance to pitch the idea during the retreat, which was then joined by Thomas Dalton. The festival is clearly grounded in the NorthEnd neighborhood, and it has become a platform for emerging artists and artists color to showcase their talents. The festival highlights the vibrancy already in that neighborhood; our hope is that it attracts other creative efforts in the NorthEnd in the near future.

 
 

"Cultural representation and celebration must be an ingredient in any strategy geared to bring equality and justice for people."

 

Armando painting with ICT-ARMY of Artists during the Douglas Design District's "Avenue Art Days" 2016.

 

Gathering over 100 artists is no small feat. What have you learned from organizing and directing groups of artists?
There are many lessons that I have learned from this process. Understanding someone's need to create, their self-interest and how they want to impact the world. As a facilitator of creative spaces, I have to always identify those three elements in every artist that engages deeply in our community work. Navigating and negotiating personalities for the sake of effective collaboration is another valuable lesson that has come from this work.

The biggest learning lesson or realization, during my time engaging in this work, is that without a doubt artists have always been and will continue to be the force that pushes social and political boundaries, effectively challenging the status quo. Artists are truth tellers, exploring and translating the human condition. We have the ability to define or redefine our legacy as a people. That is a huge responsibility. 

What advice do you have for individuals who want to get more involved with their community or organizations but don't know where to begin?
If anyone is interested in getting involved in their community or an organization, the first step is to show up! Make a call, send an email, set up conversation over coffee or drinks. Make yourself available. If there is someone who you know is already involved in a group or a project, reach out to that person, be persistent, be curious, take a risk, be open to differences, show up to events, talk to locals, learn the history of the town, learn about the people that live there now. Be curious, take a risk, show up.

 
 

"...the first step is to show up!"

 

"Immigration is Beautiful"
21st Street and Park Place
Designed and painted by Wichita South High School students.
ICT-ARMY of Artists
2013

 

 

The murals you've worked on with ICT Army of Artists have been vandalized multiple times. How do you and the community deal with these frustrations?
The times the murals have been vandalized it was because of the messages presented by the mural—one can look at it as a conversation. We started the conversation, someone replied, we replied, and so on. As frustrating as that might be, we have to make sure we are ready for someone who might not be on board with the message we are putting out for the community to see. This also is not exclusive to people who vandalize an art piece, but also community leaders, elected officials, and the business community. We know what because of the political nature of the social justice messages we focus on, there will be many people who will feel threatened by our boldness, and that is exactly what we want. We want it to be known that we are not afraid, we will not be silenced, we will not be moved, we are out of the shadows. 

We have to be very intentional in preparing ourselves to deal with the inevitable emotional impact that will come speaking truth to power.

Earlier you mentioned shifting your position within The Seed House. Does being so active in the community effect the amount of time and energy you have to spend on your personal artistic work?
Yes, most definitely. My art has evolved into the realm of performance and social practice—this in addition to the work I do at The Seed House and the ICT Army of Artists. Essentially every facet of my creative life is connected to community-based work. It is very time consuming and demanding work that can have a deep impact in your energy and ability to remain focused. I've had to create self-care practices to ensure that I don't burn out, stay healthy and excited about the work every day. It is very challenging work.

 
 

"We want it to be known that we are not afraid, we will not be silenced, we will not be moved, we are out of the shadows."

"Un Milenio en un Momento" and "La Capillita" - 2014
(Photo Credit: 
Julian Ortiz)

 
 

You often travel for artist retreats, where have you gone and how do these retreats influence and inspire your actions once back in Wichita?
I traveled quite a bit in 2015 and 2016 has been just as busy. Most recently I traveled to Toronto to participate in Progress, an international performance art festival. Before that I spent a month traveling Eastern Europe with my project AlieNation and I spent my summer at Watershed Center for Ceramic Arts before that. I will be engaging in some creative work in Mexico this summer and will be in Portland in the fall at the Oregon College for Arts and Crafts for a visiting artist gig.

To be quite honest, traveling to other cities and meeting new artists is what has made it possible for me to stay in Kansas for such a long time. The isolation of the state at all levels, geographic, ideological, and cultural can be challenge for any young creative who resides in this state. Traveling gives an opportunity to disconnect, realign and look at my art practice with renewed energy. 

When it comes to the community work I do in Wichita, it's always good to see what similar things are happening in other cities, learn different approaches or strategies, and how those communities tackle similar challenges. Also I try to connect, whenever possible, with other artists of color with the hope to exchange stories and general observations about dealing with challenges within the art world. 

Unfortunately, Wichita doesn't have the most diverse creative community—which can make you feel very much isolated and with limited opportunities for growth for someone who is not White. 

One of my goals in this next chapter for the Army of Artists is to create more intentional spaces for professional and personal development for local creatives of color—to have a more supportive and vibrant community for us. 

 
 

"To be quite honest, traveling to other cities and meeting new artists is what has made it possible for me to stay in Kansas for such a long time."

 
 

When you think of Wichita specifically, what comes to mind?
When I think of Wichita, it's this idea of resilience and stubbornness. Maybe that's just the Kansas pioneer "I'm gonna grow some trees in this flatland" type attitude that's been passed from generation to generation. People just don't give up. Wichita is an up-and-coming city in the Heartland, with tons of potential to become a cultural hub. I remember when I first decided to move to Wichita some people would say "but there is nothing there" and I would think, "exactly, that means anything can happen!"

If there is a lesson that I've learned through my social justice work, it is that if we wait for someone to create the change we want and need, it is never going to happen. I must do everything in my power to create it, I must become a catalyst for change. Conversely, it is very easy to forget about one's health in the process, that's why burnout is so prevalent with people who do this type of work. Perhaps that's the biggest lesson I've learned—that my well-being is just as important as the change I want to create,and if I want to do this long-term I have to take care of myself. It's a balancing act that takes some time to master and it is a culture change we want to spread through our work and philosophy at The Seed House.

 
 

"...if we wait for someone to create the change we want and need, it is never going to happen."

 

"Embracing Cultural Diversity"
22nd Street and Arkansas
Designed and painted by Marshall Middle School students.
ICT-ARMY of Artists
2014

 

To see learn more about Armando please visit his website at ArmandoMinjarez.com