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Artist Alicia Rojas Honors Las Poderosas of Latino Health Access

Santa Ana artist Alicia Rojas highlights and celebrates the important work of Latino Health Access and their promotoras with her public art project, ‘Las Poderosas de Latino Health Access.’

Portrait collage of the Latino Health Access promotoras for artist Alicia Rojas “Las Poderosas de Latino Health Access” public art project. Photo courtesy of Alicia Rojas
 

Every evening after work during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Maricela Reyes went through the same ritual.


Portrait of promotora Maricela Reyes for artist Alicia Rojas “Las Poderosas de Latino Health Access” public art project. Photo courtesy of Alicia Rojas

She was a promotora (community health worker) for Latino Health Access in Santa Ana, tasked with providing neighborhoods with information on the vaccine, testing sites and how to access community resources. After hours of walking, she would sit on a brown metal folding chair on the small patch of grass in front of her apartment complex and get ready.


Her son and daughter sprayed her from head-to-toe with disinfectant while Reyes shielded her eyes with her hands. She then carefully removed her layers of protective gear and clothing and tied it up in a bag to be washed. Stripped down to just a pair of shorts and a blouse, Reyes sat on the chair alone with her thoughts and prayed that the virus wouldn’t enter her house. 


“That chair protected me and gave me confidence,” the 50-year-old mother of four said in Spanish, wiping away the tears streaming down her cheeks. “That chair remains there – as a reminder of my survival and that I was able to take care of my family – it has flowers now.” 


Artist Alicia Rojas in her studio at GCAC, sits in front of her paper flower installation for her “Las Poderosas de Latino Health Access” public art project. Photo courtesy of Cecilia Ortíz Fernández

Hers is one of 63 stories told in artist Alicia Rojas’ “Las Poderosas de Latino Health Access” (The Powerful Women of Latino Health Access), an oral history project, sculpture, photo essay and companion publication. It centers on the promotoras of Latino Health Access (LHA), a nonprofit addressing health inequities in Latino communities around Orange County, and explores themes of strength, courage, collective consciousness and community resilience. The group of 56 women and seven men essentially served as front-line responders in the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, at risk to themselves and their loved ones, when county health officials were still trying to figure out what to do. 


“These stories need to be told and these women need to be recognized as not only first responders but American heroes – even when they don’t feel comfortable with being called American or heroes – because that’s what they are and they did it to save their families and their communities,” Rojas said. She worked on the project during her tenure as artist-in-residence at Cal State Fullerton’s Grand Central Arts Center, and with a fellowship grant by 18th Street Arts Center – Creative Corps, a pilot initiative of the California Arts Council, an awarded grant by the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture, in community partnership with Grand Central Arts Center, the office of Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento and the city of Santa Ana.


Artist Alicia Rojas, left, interviewing Dr. America Bracho, the executive director of Latino Health Access for “Las Poderosas de Latino Health Access.” Photo courtesy of Cecilia Ortíz Fernández
 

During the height of the pandemic, LHA invited Rojas along with other artists and community volunteers to help create a mobile float entitled, “The Vaccine is Our Hope,” which aimed to encourage the Santa Ana community to get vaccinated amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

“I'm helping with this float and I'm hearing all these stories and they speak to me,” said Rojas, 46. “These women remind me of my mother – my first poderosa – ​​who sacrificed it all so I could have a better life and opportunities. It all felt so deeply personal, even though it's not about me.” 


Rojas’ art amalgamates storytelling, community, activism and the importance of centering and empowering female voices in public art. Rife with symbolism and culture, her projects are often collaborative – she invites the subject or community to participate in their vision, creation and execution. 


“Alicia comes with a set of skill sets that are rare in contemporary artists,” says John Spiak, director and chief curator at Grand Central Art Center. “She's empowering herself, telling her stories and growing by leaps and bounds, project by project.”  


The heart of Rojas’ “Poderosas” project is the stories – personal histories from a range of generations with varying roles that revealed important details about how the promotoras mobilized into action, coordinated food drives, created a bilingual call center, organized door-to-door outreach, assisted families in repatriation, and dealt with loss of their own during the pandemic.


Rojas emphasizes that saving Latinos in Orange County from COVID-19 fell on the shoulders of brown women. Latinos, who make up 39% of California’s population, accounted for 61% of the state’s COVID-19 cases and 49% of COVID-19-related deaths. In Orange County (35% Latino), cities like Santa Ana (77% Latino) and Anaheim (57%) were hit the hardest – in 2020, Latinos accounted for 47% of coronavirus cases and 45% of COVID-19 deaths, according to the L.A. Times.


“The promotoras on the ground already knew what was happening before the county knew what was happening,” she says, hailing LHA’s promotora model. “These promotoras live and work in the cities where their work is done, so they understand the resources and the barriers people face, making them experts of their community.” 


According to Rojas, some of the promotoras were initially hesitant, but warmed to the process of sharing their oral histories and getting their portraits taken. “There was a lot of engagement because it was important to me that they trusted me with their stories,” she says. The promotoras had a say in every part of the process. “I wanted them to feel comfortable in their own skin and how they looked and how I'm presenting them to the world.”


PHOTO 1:  Artist Alicia Rojas making the paper flower installation for her “Las Poderosas de Latino Health Access” public art project. PHOTO 2:  Artist Alicia Rojas taking the portrait of promotora Hiromi Minakata as part of her “Las Poderosas de Latino Health Access” public art project. Photos courtesy of Cecilia Ortíz Fernández

 

For the individual portraits of the promotoras, Rojas constructed an oversized paper flower installation so the promotoras could imagine themselves pollinating a magical garden.


“I chose to create mostly pink roses, carnations and peach-tone dahlias to convey gratitude, joy, admiration, healing, sisterhood, death and rebirth,” Rojas said.


The arrangement of blooms frames the women’s proud faces. The detail of the images have an intensity that reflects their “inner and outer beauty and fierceness,” according to the publication that accompanies the “Poderosas” project. 

  

Local photographer Cecilia Ortíz Fernández assisted Rojas in taking portraits of the women; florista artist, Mirna Michel, helped to create a wreath necklace intertwined with sage, rosemary and foraged Santa Ana wildflowers worn by some of the women that added a profound emotional dimension. The promotoras portraits will be preserved in a 200-page publication with QR Codes that will transport the listener to their stories through their voices and will be presented to the Library of Congress collection under American Heroes of the Pandemic. In addition, the oral histories of the promotoras of Latino Health Access and their testimonies and memories of the pandemic will be part of the digital archive at Cal State Fullerton’s Lawrence de Graaf Center for Oral and Public History (COPH).


The promotora COVID-19 outreach team in front of the Latino Health Access headquarters ready to serve Orange County. Photo courtesy of Karen Sarabia

More about the digital collection

To commemorate the completed “Las Poderosas de Latino Health Access” project, there will be a celebration and unveiling at the LHA headquarters at 3:30 p.m. June 29. The ceremony will open with a live jazz quartet performed by Rojas’ son Gabriel Lopez-Rojas, followed by a reception with a musical performance by electro-cumbia band LoverSonicos, speeches by the promotoras and community speakers. There will also be an unveiling of a sculpture designed by Rojas with the help of Swinerton and Pretty in Plastic, an L.A.-based design and fabrication studio – rendered in brass – inspired by the matriarchal society of bees that will serve as a monument to the promotoras.


“In the first weeks that I started doing the interviews, there was a lot of unloading, there were a lot of tears, and I realized some of these women had never had the time or space to talk about their experience and process trauma,” Rojas says, gathering her breath. “You realize, a lot of these women were participants themselves. They came to LHA because somebody brought them, they needed help with something. Then they found themselves leading and becoming promotoras — they’re poderosas.”


Alicia Rojas' ‘Las Poderosas de Latino Health Access’ public art project unveiling

When: 3:30-6 p.m., Saturday, June 29 (outside event)

Where: Latino Health Access 450 W. 4th St. Santa Ana (between 4th Street and Ross)

Cost: Free

Host of Ceremony: Sara Guerrero


Alicia Rojas and the promotoras of Latino Health Access gather at Alta Baja Market in downtown Santa Ana. Photo courtesy of Cecilia Ortíz Fernández

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