In Conversation with viento izquierdo ugaz 

Rosalba Solis is the founder of the Boston-based, La Pinata - a nearly thirty-year old, Latin American cultural & performing arts, community organization. In this conversation, she catches up viento izquierdo ugaz, an autistic transdisciplinary artist, cultural organizer, poet, and language justice worker. Here, viento shares their personal experience of Rosalba:

“As a young person living in Boston, I was desperate to find some grounding, community, and family. I met Rosalba more than ten years ago, in my very early twenties. I saw a fierce-ass woman that was not afraid to speak her mind. It rattled me. I was at a early stage of understanding how I was impacted by racism, xenophobia, and humiliation from white and English-speaking supremacy. Rosalba took up space in all the ways that I was afraid to. In 2012, we began organizing with Whose Foods/Whose Community?, a coalition against gentrification in response to the entry of Whole Foods into Jamaica Plain.

As an artist, seeing the ways Rosalba incorporated creativity and artistry in direct action was important for me. Rosalba was also an art teacher in Boston Public Schools, and for the brief time I spent trying to get a Master’s in Art Education in a PWI (Predominantly White Institution), I shadowed her. I’ve been witness to the passion that Rosalba brings to her work in education, activism, and community building. If you are a Latinx person who grew up in Jamaica Plain or Roxbury, or if you’ve ever attended a Wake Up the Earth Festival or a Día de Los Muertos in Jamaica Plain, you’ve probably stumbled upon Rosalba in some way or another. She was just present. She still is.”

viento zquierdo ugaz: Who is Rosalba, how would you describe her?

Rosalba Solis: She is a Mexica woman from the central part of Xalisco in Mexico. 

All the colonization, the Christianity that came in five hundred years ago, altered our communities to the maximum. Our names and our traditions were changed. But our grandfathers and grandmothers were able to keep something, which was something very important to me, and that was music and dance. Still, it was not pure, it had to be transformed. To be safeguarded, it had to undergo Christianization. It was sheltered, and the people continued to play the original rhythms, the original dances. 

So that they would not be destroyed, the people continued to use rhythms and dance as confraternities. Native people would go to pray to the Catholic saints because the churches were energetic places. Every church you find in Latin America is because there is an energy center there. So for us, we can continue dancing no matter if there is a church there now. We have always known that the earth is our mother, not just a place where we have to build houses; it is a living being. Just as we have ears, holes in our bodies, so does Mother Earth. 

This is how I came into dance when I was little; this is how Rosalba begins. 

In the world of the schools, the books arrived, and the books told us the complete opposite story about our community. History was told in a way that I would ask myself, "Who are they talking about?" That begins to change your world; you go through the doctrine, and from there, you follow it. That's where the conflicts come out, and at the age of puberty is when you start to say, "What's up? What's going on here?" A world of confusion inside of us. 

I wanted to continue learning music, so I went to the music school in Guadalajara and studied saxophone. They only taught classical music. They told me that the saxophone was for jazz. They gave me a poster for Berklee College, and they told me, “You have to go there.” As a result of searching so much, I arrived in Boston when I was eighteen years old. I went straight to Mass Ave, where Berklee is, and they didn't accept me because I didn't know any English. I told them, "That doesn't matter, I came to play music, I don't care about your English." 

In Guadalajara, I was the only woman playing saxophone. At Berklee, I went in and there were women of all colors playing saxophone. They sent me to an English school at the Cardinal Center in Boston. At Cardinal, they taught English as a Second Language (ESL), and I didn't understand anything when I got there. What helped me was connecting with other musicians. I couldn't get into the school in September, but in January, I was accepted, and I spent four years at Berklee. In order to make a living, I would clean in the post office from 5 pm to 9 pm.

Rosalba, along with her husband Juan, a Mayan priest, and an Afro-Nipmuc friend, commemorated the dark origins of Thanksgiving through the Day of Mourning march in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

viu: Since 1989, La Piñata has operated as a non-profit Latin American cultural and performing arts community organization. La Piñata brings together Latinx communities to preserve, educate, and honor Latin American and Indigenous culture. What led to the organization's founding in Boston?

RS: Once I was in the US, I realized that music, and having left Mexico, made me aware of my heritage. I realized where I came from upon experiencing all the racism and inequalities here. I married my Mexican husband, and we had three children, and that broadened my understanding. All the media in the US portrayed that the worst of what was happening in Boston was because of Latinos. We were the thieves, and we were always in "la nota roja" (red news). I thought, "Wow, my daughters are going to grow up thinking we're bad people. To spare them that you can't expect the government to do anything, I realized that if I have to make something better, I have to be a part of it. 

I undertook the task of starting an organization. I sought out other Latina teachers like me. I told them, "Our children are being shown a reality that is false." We came together, each with our art, and we called it "La Piñata." When you break the piñata, all the candy is our children. 

The focus was enriching our children with all the positive things that Latin America has. We have been with this group for twenty-six years. The first year we started with one hundred kids. We made $1 every Saturday from participation fees. I learned about the rest of Latin America as much as I could. The grandparents would come and share their songs and dances from each place, and I would write everything down. I would research what the garments were like, and we would start to reconstruct those dances. We would do twenty shows a year all over Massachusetts. We considered taking the children to Latin America to learn more about its history, but most of the kids had papers while the parents didn't. 

The first trip I took with the children and my husband was to the Dominican Republic (Quisqueya is the name of the island) because it was the first place where our Latin American story changed. Because of my customs and tradition, ceremony has always been with me. It surfaces more when I learn about all these places. My husband focused on the Mayan tradition, the calendar and the culture. We made the focus of our travels to go and thank the ancestors of that place for their struggle. In Quisqueya, we went to do our ceremony at the Cueva de las Golondrinas (Cave of the Swallows). We entered through a mangrove swamp, the town of La Isabel because that is where Christopher Columbus entered. Not a single bird could be seen. When we began to make our offering, the swallows started to come up. On the cliff began to appear profiles of Indigenous people crying, and the community that remained there also approached us.

Rosalba and her students at a Posada, a Christmas Celebration at the Boston Children’s Museum.

viu: All the knowledge-sharing and building you’ve been able to do over the years is incredible. I always hold in deep honor the ways in which you have been able to root your teaching with youth in indigenous knowledge. I, too was a young person when I met you, and the impact was tremendous. We met through organizing together to keep Whole Foods from coming to JP over ten years ago. It was one of my first times getting involved with grassroots organizing, and in that time, I learned so much from you about direct action, not only through confrontation but also through art. How do you see the connection between art and activism? Why do you think art continues to be a key part of protest and resistance?

RS: Art is a means to express how you feel. You can see it in the murals, in the colors. Maybe the artist is not thinking, “I'm going to use red.” It's a medium that transforms and conveys all your concerns. You have to have a means, a way; art is a cry. It's a scream, it's a call, and through this, activism is embodied. 

At the time of Whose Foods?, La Piñata consisted of about six hundred families from Latin America, and it happened that we all shopped at Hi-Lo.  This supermarket, which was there before Whole Foods, represented our foods and traditions. Without Hi-Lo, I would have to go all over Boston to get ingredients. People didn't understand that. There was a lot of pushback from white people to close the market because they would say the same old thing: that it was dirty and disorganized. And yet, white people would come to the Hi-Lo looking for "strange” or “exotic" things. At that time, Hyde Square Task Force (HSTF) had a Latino director, and behind all our backs, he had established a relationship with Whole Foods. That's when we stepped in with the activism, but they had already made a negotiation. 

The owners of Hi-Lo were the children of the original owner, and they were no longer interested in keeping the place. When Whole Foods came in, it came out in the media that HSTF had been behind everything. We had a large gathering of all the Latino organizations in Jamaica Plain. At the time, the director of HSTF was moving up in politics, and we came down on the man, we said, "You disrespected all of us here, you don't represent me and none of my families."

viu: Situations like what happened back then remind us that representation does not equal liberation. In what ways do you see Indigenous experience and cosmovision (or worldview) play into your activism and politics? Have you found solidarity in Indigenous struggles within and outside of Boston?

RS: For me, Indigenous cosmovision is what has driven me to this day and is the center of my being. When I met you, I was doing the Day of the Dead ceremonies at Forest Hills Cemetery. For five years, we brought Mayan grandparents from Guatemala. The children learned all the indigenous dances and songs. It is because of this cosmovision that we are standing, we are centered, we are thankful. Here in the United States, we give thanks one day a year. For the indigenous people from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in Chile, what we all have is that we give thanks to the elements. The Great Spirit is what unites us. Without the air, you don't breathe; without water, you die. The earth feeds us and gives us sustenance. 

It is the center of what I do; everything I do is to try to give an answer to what is happening now in my life. I've retired from Boston schools. Now, I'm a freelancer, and I work as a guest artist. La Piñata has changed, and now we go to the universities, and the kids go with me. Jennifer, who used to be a dancer with La Piñata, took over my work in the Boston schools. I am in sixteen libraries in Boston, at Bunker Hill Community College, and at Roxbury Community College speaking about Hispanic Heritage Month.

The walkout in support of bilingual schools following the removal of bilingualism in 2000 in CA, Chicago, Mass, NY, Texas, etc., featuring Rosalba's school children. All photographs provided courtesy of Rosalba Solis.

viu: There was a lot of mutual aid work happening in JP/Roxbury throughout this pandemic. How has Indigenous organizing informed your experience of mutual aid and the potential of comunalidad here in Boston?

RS: During the pandemic, when everything shut down, I was in Mexico. We have four acres in the rainforest, and we were in ceremony the entire time and prayed for everyone. When I was able to return, the first event we did was the Day of the Dead in honor of all the people who died from COVID-19. We opened a space for people to come and set up their altar. The first year there were twenty-five altars. We opened the space for people to come and represent their pain. There was a lot of crying. In the fire, we gave people a respite. 

viu: Can you share some strategies or secrets for how you’ve been caring for and sustaining both yourself and La Piñata all these years?

RS: To have an organization, it's good to have a lot of members on board for what you're going to do. I would always observe how other people did it. You can ask the support of others to give you advice. Don't forget the focus of what you want to do. The need there is to make people wake up about the inequities, that's not going to stop. And if you end up being an example, if you are opening your mouth, you better do it right. You have to be very careful what you say, how you say it. I speak as a Mexica woman, and I speak of South and Central America. Everything I learned with La Piñata has helped me to have the strength to speak. When I speak and open my mouth, I connect with people from all over Latin America because I talk about their traditions.