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The importance of the arts in community awakening and transformation.

Laredo, Texas, is a city on the banks of the Rio Grande River, part of the South Texas-North Mexico border. In its marginal location and tabloid headlines, the border has become a place of neglect and soundbites for political discussion. A misunderstood frontier filled with violence and “nothing-to-do” (the latter being a widely accepted notion primarily by natives and locals).

Amid its violence and alleged sleepiness, Laredo, Texas, is responsible for over 173 billion dollars in processed trade. Not a coincidence, given the geographic convenience of its port. Unsurprisingly, the city’s infrastructure has been tailored to capitalize on this critical economic advantage. One of every three lives under the poverty line – currently $22,000 for a family of four. The city’s population is at a quarter of a million, with any other major city being at least 150 miles away. These numbers manifest themselves in a largely uneducated, underserved, understimulated population, working from paycheck to paycheck, eager and hungry to see cultural activities beyond a trip to the mall.

Education for the elite is the demise of our communities, not only from a cultural standpoint but a practical one as well. Due to failed education policies and an unwavering commitment to oil and trade investment, children in Texas are the product of a lack of critical thinking and imagination. When a large sector of your population lacks the tools to think critically about the world around them, the result translates into concentrated power for an elite few, with poor conditions and few opportunities to thrive for the many.

Where policy and social systems fail, community action can thrive. Guerrilla-type movements and DIY culture rebels against unjust systems that disenfranchise the masses. You have seen this everywhere, from the “70’s punk-rock movement” to grassroots political campaigns that have shaken norms. Deviating from the norm is where innovation lies.

The arts are a powerful tool because they allow us to understand our own cultural experiences in humane and real terms. One can see the critically acclaimed film Roma and take a peek into the everyday musings and struggles of working-class indigenous domestic workers among Mexican middle-class families. One can read Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands and understand how years of border relations have shaped the realities of fronterizos. Investment in the arts is not a luxury but a necessity for nuanced and profound reflection of political, social, and economic realities. Access to arts is necessary in a place like the border, where so many are left wondering how to make sense of their struggling realities and more importantly, how to overcome them or even appreciate them.

Given that this is an accepted notion, one can’t blind themselves to the reality of perceptions.

First premise: cinema and arts are traditionally perceived as bougie concepts that belong to “rich, white people.” How can this notion be challenged and empower those who need access to such? No one wins when the arts are exclusive. You invite your neighbor to a screening. Your classmate to a workshop. You host a community discussion. This is the philosophy Laredo Film Society(1) is rooted in. The arts are a powerful tool that belongs to us all. The moment we accept this, we begin transforming a place, not in the classroom, not through standardized testing, but through relatable, tangible, and real experiences that shape who we are.

(1) Laredo Film Society is a 501(c)3 organization cultivating a love for cinema in her hometown.

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