President Trump’s immigration crackdown has triggered a ferocious backlash that will be seen Monday in May Day gatherings around the country. For every right-wing stereotype of immigrants as terrorists, rapists or job thieves, opponents have a counter-narrative of hard-working people, families feeling repression, and folks who hail from abroad but are fully a part of typical, everyday U.S. life.
There is another dimension to the impact of immigration on the country, and especially on New York City, that is less heralded. It expresses itself through the dance traditions of Peru’s riollos or mestizos, the different dance rhythms of the Colombian regions of Torbellino, Sanjuanero or Joropo, the sounds of traditional Chinese instrument and the Ukrainian sopilka flute.
Embodied in the people who have arrived in the city from abroad, whether professional artists or amateur performers or just fans, are artistic traditions whose fate is as uncertain as any migrant’s destiny. And this art infusion is now threatened not just by Trump’s vow to deport vast numbers of undocumented people but also by cuts to federal funding for the arts, which underwrites organizations that support immigrant artists.
The Center for Traditional Music and Dance is one of them. Since 1968, CTMD has carried out lengthy projects with a host of different immigrant groups in the city to preserve the dance and music traditions that people carry with them to New York. Not only does the organization work in the neighborhoods targeted by the president’s immigration crackdown; it does so partially thanks to support from the National Endowment for the Arts, which is slated for elimination in the Trump budget.
“I definitely feel that a lot of the communities feel a sort of siege mentality,” says CTMD director Peter Rushefsky of the atmosphere since the 2016 presidential election. “It’s also created a lot of activism among community members. I think there’s been a lot of wonderful offers of support. That energy, it lifts folks.”
From Peru to voudou
Among the center’s current initiatives is “Pachamama Peruvian Arts,” which aims to shore up the music and dance traditions of Peru—those practiced by criollos from Lima, mestizos from the town of Cuzco in the Andes, and Afro-Peruvians from the coastal region now living primarily in Jackson Heights, as well as sections of Long Island, Westchester and Paterson, N.J. So far this initiative based out of a Queens elementary school has offered two dozen free classes and 40 public events.
Also in the mix is Verite Sou Tanbou, a program focused on Haitian traditional singing, drumming, and dance, consisting of free classes and performances. (The name means “truths on Haitian Vodou.”) Meanwhile, CTMD’s Chinese Community Cultural Initiative—done in partnership with the Chinatown-based Mencius Society for the Arts and Music From China—has provided kids with traditional Chinese instruments and launched a “Beijing Opera” program at a Lower Manhattan public school. There’s also the Ukrainian Wave Community Cultural Initiative, which ties together dance programs at Lower East Side restaurants with a “sharing traditions” effort at the East Village’s St. George Academy. The Colombian Community Cultural Initiative showcases Colombian composers, musicians, dancers and actors and offers a free education program for kids aged 8 to 20. Its goal: “reconnect[ing] local Colombian youth with their heritage and performing arts traditions.”
“We like to call ourselves the nation’s largest program working across diverse immigrant communities to help them maintain the vitality of diverse performing arts tradition and share them with the general public,” Rushefsky says. “Although it is intensely local work it has a national and sometimes even international ripples.” Some of the artists the center works with are the best in their field in the United States, if not in the entire art form.
The work isn’t simple or temporary because neither is migration. The partnerships last for years and require the work of ethnomusicologists, folklorists and dance ethnographers. “We don’t just put dancers on a stage,” Rushefsky says. “If you go to one of our performances, that’s almost sort of the tip of the iceberg. What you don’t see are the years and years of work that going into it.” That includes providing technical assistance to build up community organizations to sustain the art form after CTMD moves on.
Past work by the center has included programs in the Mexican, Filipino, Soviet Jewish, West African, Indo-Caribbean, Asian-Indian, Dominican, Arab, Albania, Puerto Rican, Irish, Italian, Greek and Jewish communities. The efforts to preserve and extend Jewish culture led, the center says, to a recent revival in interest in Klezmer music.
The popular picture of an immigrant is of a hard-working laborer, maybe a small merchant, not an accomplished artist. At the very least, appreciation for the arts is not something most people would anticipate among recently arrived immigrants; the impression instead would be of people working long hours at multiple jobs hoping to gain a foothold here. After all, among native born-NYers or others, it’s a fact of life that some people appreciate art and others don’t have time for it.
CTMD’s experience, however, is that art matters broadly to immigrant groups. “People engage in the arts in all sorts of different ways, Rushefsky says. “What we try and do with these projects is crate portals to reach all sorts of different folks.” The role of art in any immigrant community depends on the role in played in the home country, as well the extent and timing of the group’s assimilation to U.S. culture, he says.
In some cases, there are unique barriers to an art form’s survival. The music of former Soviet republics in central Asia , for instance, often rely on languages—like, say, classical Tajik—that few emigres, raised to speak Russian, can really understand. “So you’re dealing with a range of folks who come at it from different languages,” Rushefsky says. Add a younger generation raised in the U.S. to the mix, and it gets really complicated. “The kids in the community are now two languages removed from the art form.”
At the same time, the decision to share cultural assets with the broader world is not a simple one for some groups. There might be a desire to celebrate some traditions privately to keep them safe from the assimilationist pressures of U.S. culture. And, Rushefky says, “There are certain art forms that might be ritually based or of a private nature.” Some of the elements of the Haitain voudou project, for instance, were celebrated privately to avoid an audience of voyeurs.
“That’s what makes communities dynamic,” Rushesfky says. “We realize they’re not monolithic in how they observe their own cultural traditions. That’s the work we do, is to make sure that there’s space for those kinds of conversations.”
And space for evolution as well. When traditional art forms are brought to life in New York City, the audience doesn’t necessarily see or hear what an audience in Lima or Beijing or Medellin would have seen 15 years ago. The experience of migration and life in the U.S. does induce art forms to adapt, says CTMD Deputy Director Maureen Loughran.
“One of the things we realize about culture is that it’s not a determined thing. It’s not like a piece of paper,” she says. “It’s always transforming always moving, always influenced by what’s around it.” The music of the Caribbean, Rushefsky says, reflects an ongoing dialogue between home countries and their co-mingled diaspora in New York.
A role for government
In 2015, the last year for which tax documents are available, CTMD had a budget of $760,000 paid for by program revenue, the support of foundations and government sources like the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs ($89,000), the state Council on the Arts ($164,500) and the federal National Endowment for the Arts ($40,000).
Trump’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget would eliminate the NEA and its $150 million in funding, a move conservative organizations have cheered.
Blogging at CATO.org, Chris Edwards has suggested that the grants from the endowment are so modest that local government or charities ought to be able to replace the funding Trump cuts. Citing one Midwestern state as his example, Edwards writes, “If NEA spending in Indiana is important, couldn’t Indiana governments and philanthropists support it? State and local governments in Indiana currently spend $43 billion a year from their own revenue sources. Couldn’t they carve out just $3 million—or 0.007 percent—of that to support local quilters, hoop net makers, puppeteers, and other Indiana craftspeople?”
Of course, in New York City, philanthropists do spend millions supporting the arts. But their contributions tend to find their way to major institutions—Lincoln Center, the art museums—that are each vital to New York’s identity and allure. Grassroots efforts to preserve the dance or music traditions of—in some cases small and relatively new—immigrant groups struggle to attract that kind of support. Waiting until immigrant enclaves have established deep enough roots to bankroll their own dance and music revivals means giving assimilation a chance to erase that culture before there is time to preserve it.
An NEA database indicates that among the projects that received support in recent years were a ballet, an opera, books of poetry, training for Black television writers and documentary films.
Compared to what is spent elsewhere in the federal government, the NEA seems a bargain. “The NEA is one of the best investments—small investments—this country makes in this society,” Rushefsky says. “For the pennies it costs taxpayers, the return is immense. It’s touching neighborhoods all across the country.”
Where the Money Goes
NEA Grants in New York State, 2016
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