Marie Acosta photo


Marie Acosta

Marie Acosta is a Latinx and Native American artist and activist who has been employed in Californias non-profit arts world since the early 1970s, working with the SF Mime Troupe, The Mexican Museum, and the Latino Arts Center of Sacramento. 

In the early 1980s she became the Special Assistant to the Director of the CA Arts Council and later ran the Councils first program designed to promote the organizational growth of the states BIPOC organizations. She was the first BIPOC member of the SF War Memorial Board and served on the Advisory Committee of Grants for the Arts. She was a member of the Implementation Committee that designed the  Cultural Equity Grants Program. 

Pamela Peniston


Beth Stephens & Annie Sprinkle (B&A): Welcome to our archive, Marie! 

Jeff Jones (JJ): Let's start with when you moved to San Francisco and why.

Marie Acosta (MA): I moved to San Francisco in 1974 to work with a political theater collective, the San Francisco Mime Troupe. 

JJ: And where had you heard about the Mime Troupe Collective?

MA: Curiously enough I heard about them while working with a remarkable theater company in Mexico City, known as Los Mascarones. The founders were in Tlatelolco Square in 1968 when the army came in and killed thousands of students. Nobody knows how many students were killed. The founders of Los Mascarones were among the survivors and in response, they formed a political theater group, Los Mascarones. 

I joined the Mascarones in 1971 and was one of two Chicanas working with them at the time.  The Mascarones with Los Teatros Chicanos de Aztlán organized the first political theater gathering of Chicano, Latin American and Mexican theaters in Mexico City in 1973. This historic event brought together pioneering groups from across Latin America, including El Teatro Campesino, and the acclaimed Colombian theaters, El Teatro Experimental de Cali directed by Enrique Buenaventura and La Candelaria directed by Santiago Garcia. The gathering was a cauldron of revolutionary ideas and artistic expression, a testament to the power of theater as a vehicle for political change.

As one of the organizers I came up to the States and saw the San Francisco Mime Troupe doing a show in Dolores Park, The Mother by Bertolt Brecht. It was the most amazing production I'd ever seen by a US theater company. It held up a mirror to the times, addressing the Vietnam War with unprecedented clarity and artistic integrity and superb production values.

A few months after the Festival in Mexico City, I decided to come home because I really didn't have much of a future in Mexico as a woman and as a foreigner.  After I came back, I auditioned for the Mime Troupe marking the beginning of a tenure with an ensemble dedicated to using theater for political critique and transformation.

JJ: What was the transition like for you, moving from Mexico City to San Francisco, especially? 

MA: The transition was challenging culturally. Mexico City in the late '60s and early '70s was a hub of political and artistic ferment, deeply influenced by the student protests of 1968. The energy and commitment to social change were palpable. Fortunately, moving to San Francisco, I found a similar spirit of revolution and creativity, especially within the arts community. The city was alive with movements for civil rights, peace, and cultural expression. Joining the San Francisco Mime Troupe felt like stepping into a stream that was moving in the same direction I had been in Mexico – towards using art to critique and challenge the status quo. 

Yet, adapting to a new culture and the specifics of the American political landscape had its learning curves. The urgency of the anti-war movement and the flourishing counterculture provided a compelling backdrop to create meaningful theater, but it also required a deep political understanding of the issues at hand and of the best ways to engage with the community.

JJ: So, what year did you join the Mime Troupe?

MA: 1974. This was way before things like equity and diversity or reflecting the population of California were even spoken about.  What the Mime Troupe was doing was considered radical and revolutionary at that time: an all-white theater company consciously decided it needed minorities (as we were called at the time) so that it could look like the people they wanted to be talking with and about. And so, without grant funding like the ballet, symphony or opera they just did it: I was among one of five people of color who joined the Company. 

JJ: Wasn’t it also that as a theater company, you have to look like the characters you're representing.?

MA: Absolutely! Because we had a multiracial cast, we were able to do a play called False Promises/Nos Engañaron about a miners’ strike in Colorado. One of the lead characters was a black US Army soldier. I played the widow of a Mexican miner and Ed Levy played a white Wobbly. It was a pretty amazing production. I've gone back and watched some of the clips and the writing by Joan Holden was spectacular. The music by Bruce Barthol was terrific. But yes, that couldn't have happened unless we'd had people to represent those individuals.  

Before I joined the Troupe the Mime Troupe created and performed The Dragon Lady's Revenge an anti-VietNam war play with Andrea Snow in the lead, playing a Vietnamese character. The Mime Troupe won an Obie for it. 

JJ: I was recently in Los Angeles staying with one of my old friends from Austin and she started talking about how she had attended a performance of The Dragon Lady's Revenge in Austin.

MA: That's the thing about theater — it transcends geographical boundaries and leaves a lasting impression on audiences far and wide. The fact that your friend saw The Dragon Lady's Revenge in Austin underscores the Mime Troupe’s impact. 

Our productions aimed not just for entertainment but to spark conversation, challenge political norms, and in the 70’s address the issues of representation and inclusivity head-on. From then on, the Troupe has always reflected who we are in California.

Mounting productions with political themes, demanding change, is what set our work apart. The accolades, like the Obie award, were affirmations of our efforts to push the envelope and create meaningful, relevant art. In the 60’s and 70’s the Mime Troupe performed in marches, at union meetings and union strikes, and toured predominantly university campuses and for lefty organizations in places like Madison and Austin. We self-produced in New York. 

JJ: So how did you end up being the Business Manager of the Mime Troupe? Wasn’t that what Bill Graham was doing?

MA:  Yes, he was early in its history. Once I had children, touring as an actor became really, really difficult. Before, I’d perform and do advance work, traveling to the cities on the tour, working with our sponsors to make sure that the theater venue was appropriate and that we had housing. I  kind of slipped into the role of the Business Manager. It was a necessary role  and I just sort of filled it since I was a collective member. That's why I started doing administration and fundraising. And that’s when I met you.

The National Endowment for the Arts Theater Program awarded the Mime Troupe a $350,000 grant for having an ongoing ensemble-a group of people who consistently worked together to create theater. We had to have a collective meeting about accepting the Government’s money. It was contentious. The grant enabled us to create False Promises, to plan and we all got paid a wage that was higher than the collective approved in the past. 

JJ: Since I wrote that grant, I think today that would be a million dollars. So that was a major accomplishment that you were totally responsible for.

MA: It was a substantial $350,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, particularly due to your adept grant-writing skills. The grant award marked a monumental achievement in the Troupe's history, one for which you, Jeff, were chiefly responsible. 

I’d been attempting to write grants and sponsorship letters to get money for the Troupe when you and I met at a political meeting. And I said, “Oh my God! We need you!”

That encounter led to a lifetime of friendship and many years of writing and conspiring. Your insights revealed a groundbreaking approach to grant writing that deviated from the norm and struck a chord with funders. It was this unique method, underpinned by a shared vision and unwavering commitment to a cause, that allowed our applications to stand out. We diverged from traditional grant writing tactics, focusing instead on authentic representation of the Troupe’s political values, written in compelling and persuasive language. This strategy not only resonated with the potential funders but also showcased the Troupe's dedication in a genuine light, fundamentally changing how they secured support and forged meaningful partnerships. This transformed the mechanics of grant writing into an art form, enabling not only the Mime Troupe but other organizations you wrote for to communicate their missions with impactful sincerity. 

JJ: Yeah, but also in the early 1980s they didn't fund anyone except white people. And you came along and you could tell them exactly what they wanted to hear and they didn’t ask you, “Did you write this”? 

MA: Right.

JJ: And all the words were spelled correctly, and I was sure the funders had never met anyone like you. 

MA: Yeah. I was “acceptable.”  I had a college education;  I could speak English and being a brown person, that was unexpected. So, I decided to play an articulate and competent brown person. It's like we knew we were playing this role that today would be totally insulting; but at the time it was like “Let's get to these people by being people of color that they can talk to.”

JJ: To tell these funders what they wanted to hear and when they said “Send me a proposal” they got it the next week.  Back then there was no such concept as cultural equity. Nobody arrived at that idea for about 15 more years. 

MA: Now, there's a broader recognition of cultural equity, but back in the day, we had to carve out a space for ourselves in a system that wasn't built with us in mind. It was about more than just securing funding; it was about affirming our place and value in a sector that historically overlooked us.

JJ: And it's a testament to your prowess and strategy—how you navigated those waters with such finesse. Playing the role they expected while simultaneously breaking down barriers and paving the way for future generations to not just participate, but to lead and innovate.

JJ:  This enabled them to give you the money. That made me feel like I was a person behind the scenes just manipulating these grant makers into giving their money to people of color and queers, even though we didn’t have the vocabulary to express what we were doing yet. 

MA: We just played the game of being trusted people of color. We sort of fit in and we knew what we were doing. We knew that's what we were intentionally trying to do.

JJ: Yes, we absolutely knew what we were doing. It's interesting how cultural equity wasn't even a concept back then. And yet, you were already subverting the norms and using your identity as a person of color to your advantage in the nonprofit world.

MA: Yes, it was a strategic move but also a necessary one. A strategy that you, Jeff, taught me. We had to navigate these spaces and find ways to make our voices heard. 

JJ: It's fascinating, isn't it? The tactics we employed were both a survival mechanism and a form of early activism. By presenting ourselves as the 'acceptable' people of color and queers, we were challenging the status quo, albeit in a way that might now seem conformist or even complicit.

MA: Absolutely. It was a delicate balancing act. We leveraged the stereotypes and expectations to our advantage, but at the same time, we were carving out space for our communities within these institutions. It's a testament to the complexity of navigating systemic barriers; you use the tools available to you at the time.

JJ: Right, and it's crucial to recognize the evolution of our strategies. What was revolutionary at one point might now be viewed as problematic. But that doesn't diminish the significance of our actions then. We were laying the groundwork for the conversations around cultural equity that are now at the forefront of the nonprofit sector.

MA: Precisely. Each step we took opened up more space for dialogue and change. It's a reminder of how far we've come, but also how the strategies for equity and inclusion continue to evolve. We were part of a necessary phase in this ongoing process.

We’ve come a long way, but the need for vigilance remains. Our success back then, and the conversations we're having now, they're steps toward a future where cultural equity isn't just an idea, but a foundational principle of every organization. 

JJ: How did it happen that you started working for the California Arts Council?

MA: I was with the Mime Troupe for 13 years. That was a big part of my creative history and really influenced how I approached art and culture because we were a Marxist collective, so I was always looking at art and culture from the perspective of  “How does it serve working people?" I wanted to talk about the economic system that was behind and reflective of the plays the Mime Troupe did. There was always a class argument, how things are so corrupt and why working people  and people of color always got the short end of the stick in this country. That was my training ground.

BETH STEPHENS & ANNIE SPRINKLE: Class often doesn't get accounted for in many dialogs about equity these days.

MA: That was where Jeff and I had this whole system going on. We understood each other. Jeff taught me how to strategize and what language to use. 

All the groups Jeff wrote for were LGBTQ, Latino, Black, Asian and Native American. There was trust between all of us.

JJ: I remember in 1983 they passed a federal jobs bill and it meant that the city of San Francisco would be giving money away for employment issues. And because I had worked for CETA (the Comprehensive Employment  and Training Act), I knew exactly what to say to these people. I never “appeared” in these collaborations, but  everyone else did. We had Elizabeth Min who was Asian and she was talking to Doris Ward who was very concerned about all the Asians moving into the Bayview. And then we had Quentin and Stanley talking to Harry Britt and Alan Estes talking to Ella Hill Hutch.

MA: Wasn't Bruce Davis our front person?

JJ: Yes. Bruce Davis, was running the Ethnic Dance Festival.

MA: And this is where we got money for unemployed and underemployed artists. 

JJ: This idea was such a big hit! Carol Ruth Silver who was on the committee handing out this money knew I wanted something.  While I was outside City Hall smoking a cigarette her aide  came out and said, “Hey, what was the name of that group you wanted us to fund?” And I said, “City Celebration” and by the time I got back inside, it had already been funded for $130,000. And from then on, we had this collection of people who could conspire against the funding system and at any moment we could produce any racial combination of advocates that  the funders needed to see.

MA: That could check off all the boxes.

JJ: So that was 1983 when Greg Day was the chair of the Citizens Advisory Committee that had to recommend to the Mayor who to fund with the Federal Community Development Block grants. As the chair, Greg made sure we got funded for 3 or 4 more years.

By this time Marie, you were working, if I'm not mistaken, for the California Arts Council (CAC) when I wrote my first report on the board and staff composition of the Opera, Ballet, Symphony etc. Because Marie was working at the CAC, she had access to all of these people's grant proposals. All public information. So, she just pulled this information for my report from their grant proposals. I put the data on a piece of paper and passed it out as a California Confederation for the Arts Conference where I was speaking on a panel. That was my first political action in the arts community, which had a really bizarre reputation because everyone thought, “artists, they're so liberal.”  As soon as that report went out, the attacks followed:  These hypersensitive people were like, "What do you mean?

MA: Yes. We got very “uppity”. And I think that's lasted to this day, the truth about these attitudes by the opera, symphony, ballet and large budget museums, all of which are heavily, subsidized by taxpayer dollars and it exposed the reality of the imbalance of power that exists still, but it was really starting to get pounded on that at that time that there was a real problem. Their response was:  “We're bigger and we are the flagship organizations.” 

JJ: I remember the day that we had to listen to the Opera’s Executive Director explaining to us: “Opera is very expensive” You have 5 costume changes for 100 singers in one opera so it is very expensive.

MA: I was still with the Mime Troupe and we were being told how our board of directors should run. I was on a panel with the Oakland Symphony and a couple of other large organizations, and I said, “We don't buy into that. We're a collective.” Someone responded  “You must  have the 3 legs of the funding stool! Otherwise, you're going to collapse!” Well, guess who died 3 years later: the Oakland Symphony.  We challenged this hierarchical system whether it really works or not and this whole business about boards of directors and what they're supposed to do and how they're supposed to operate. And I remember coming back to the Mime Troupe where Joan Holden said “No that is not what we do here. We're a collective” And good for her!

JJ: Very good.

MA: Later as a consultant I advised small to mid-size organizations that their Boards of Directors typically don't contribute significantly to fundraising, so it's crucial not to allocate too much power to them. Additionally, as an Executive Director or Artistic Director, it's imperative to be an active board member.

B&A: That's precisely what he told me. Being on the board is essential since they don't contribute much to fundraising, and it's important to limit their power.

MA: Exactly, that's the strategy. Follow it, or you're at risk of being dismissed.

After 13 years with the Troupe, I became the Special Assistant to the Director of the California Arts Council thanks to then CAC Director, Bob Reid. I was appointed by Governor Deukmejian, a Republican. This role gave me a new perspective on the power dynamics within the arts sector, though my tenure was brief, ending after a year and a half when I was seriously injured in a car accident. It was a turning point in my career, offering me insights into the political influence over the arts and connecting me with valuable networks. 

JJ: That connection led you to the CAC's Multicultural Advancement Project, right? The CAC realized the need to address the state's changing demographics and the lack of strong organizations representing communities of color.

MA: Correct. The CAC faced significant criticism, prompting Senator Maxine Waters of the State Assembly's Appropriations Committee to threaten funding cuts unless more support was given to organizations of color. This led to the initial funding of the Multicultural Advancement and Entry programs by the CAC. The agency supported various groups across the state, like Plaza de La Raza, Centro Cultural de la Raza, Dimensions Dance Theater, and others. By then I was working again and as a consultant to the CAC, I organized a conference in Southern California that united these community-focused arts organizations. Our goal was to showcase the diverse talents within our communities—highlighting that Asian Americans can act, African Americans can manage stage productions, and Latinos can organize high-quality art exhibitions. At that time, Frida Kahlo was relatively unknown in the United States; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art had a few of her pieces stored away, unseen by the public until Rene Yañez uncovered them, revealing masterpieces by a world-renowned artist that were languishing in storage.

On the political front, it was Jeff’s idea to establish a San Francisco Arts Democratic Club. A groundbreaking move, indeed, especially among artists. Imagine our first political gathering kicking off with a marching band composed of eclectic lefties and social justice advocates. Our approach to politics diverged significantly from the typical rhetoric of San Francisco's Democratic Clubs.

JJ: Within just six months, our membership swelled to between 400 and 500. We became impossible to ignore.

MA: Absolutely! We proudly named ourselves “The Gang of 8". If memory serves me right, our inaugural organizational meeting took place in my kitchen. I remember sitting with my leg propped up on a chair due to my accident. That kitchen meeting marked the genesis of the Arts Democratic Club, following Jeff's ingenious concept for accruing political influence, drawing from his vast political experience and his genius for challenging conventional views to carve out our success.

JJ: Post the formation of the Arts Democratic Club, I released my second analysis criticizing Grants for the Arts—I forget the exact term I used to describe the agency, but it certainly wasn't "white supremacy."

MA: We opted for descriptions like "Western European art forms" and "Eurocentric." Back then, our language was meticulously polite!

JJ: However, after that report was published and faced backlash from major arts institutions, I felt less inclined to maintain that politeness.

MA: Right. By that time, we had formed a solid group. I believe I had joined the Mexican Museum by then.

JJ: Certainly.

MA: Interestingly, what caught my attention was the Mexican Museum's original adherence to traditional art production norms and values, mirroring those of established "museum" standards. It was my position that, as a Mexican Museum, we should not set our goals based on Western European Museum benchmarks. We could never match their resources or achieve the same level of recognition. Instead, we needed to forge our own distinct path. For example, during the first Gulf War, the initial U.S. invasion of the Middle East prompted us to engage artists like Enrique Chagoya to create anti-war pieces. We showcased their artwork in the parking lot of Fort Mason. Guillermo Gómez-Peña curated an exhibition challenging the notion of kitsch and art with adorned plaster of Paris, Aunt Jemima sculptures from Tijuana and velvet paintings.

MA: It was bold and unconventional, causing some staff members to question our direction; however, I was aware that traditional acceptance was out of our reach. It simply wasn't going to happen. Therefore, we had to be ingenious in how we presented our work, making it unique and unseen before. We introduced spray can art within the museum. Meanwhile, having "Director of a Museum" attached to my name opened doors, making it significantly easier to become part of panels. This acceptance by conventional Museums and Museum Directors was astounding, proving advantageous, especially during the onset of the culture wars in San Francisco. During that time, I met Kinshasha Holman Conwill who was then the Director of the Studio Museum of Harlem. We’ve remained tight friends since those early years.

JJ: That brings us to Festival 2000. Yes, Festival 2000 was operational for only 3 or 4 days before it shut down due to bankruptcy. A critical city hall meeting was called to determine who was responsible. Kary Schulman argued it fell to the Arts Commission, while the Art Commission suggested Grants for the Arts. The Board of Supervisors didn’t focus on blaming but acknowledged the city's broad responsibility. After a 4-hour hearing, which I had arranged for Terence Hallinan to close, we proposed creating a task force. I was sure the Supervisors would back the proposal.

MA: Do you remember the red coats? We went to the Board of Supervisors meeting, and those red coats were quite the statement.

JJ: Indeed, after being away for a month, you updated me on the morning of my return to the city that the Opera, Ballet, and Symphony demanded a presence at a Supervisors' meeting.

MA: They all wore red to the hearing because it was a “red alert” situation.

JJ: Right, it was dubbed “the red alert”, so we both wore red to throw everyone off. You were in a red dress, and I had on a bright red Country and Western Shirt. No one recognized us, although I kept hearing my name being whispered around. They couldn't grasp our approach.

The Task Force eventually included 59 members since the larger organizations believed in strength in numbers. However, they didn’t realize we were also rallying individuals like Pam Peniston, Miriam Abrams, Brian Freeman, Rudy Lemke, and Alma Robinson to join the task force.

MA: I had forgotten that Festival 2000 sparked the creation of the cultural affairs task force.

JJ: It did. Jim Gonzales was the catalyst. The Board needed a scapegoat, and both Terence Hallinan and Jim Gonzales—and myself—knew action was necessary to conclude the hearing.

JJ: Initiating this task force led to those significant disputes over “The Memo”, culminating in a performative protest. You posed as a Latina wronged by the opera, symphony, and ballet for betraying your trust, leading to a mass walkout.

MA: Exactly! I was in tears, and people were deeply moved. I remember someone commending my performance, thanking me for it. From coordinating with newspapers to being a key member of the steering committee that drafted the final program guidelines, you and I were deeply involved.

JJ: Right. Pam Peniston was also instrumental. That collaboration led to the establishment of the Cultural Equity Grants Program.

MA: True. It slips my mind whether you reported that Grants for the Arts allocated half of its funds to major institutions like the opera, symphony, and ballet. What I do recall is your analysis of the War Memorial Board, highlighting how it subsidized production costs for these groups, offering them space for administration, rehearsals, and performances at the city's expense, a benefit not extended to other arts organizations.

JJ: My initial report shed light on the substantial funding the large-budget organizations received.  Several of my clients told me they had received a call from  Kary Schulman, the Director of Grants for the Arts, urging them to replace me. This led me to publish a second report, titled “Institutionalized Discrimination at Grants for the Arts.” The Agency responded by launching Festival 2000 to demonstrate its commitment to diversity, with  Lenny Sloan at the helm, despite his lack of experience in managing a venture of such scale. 

MA: Additionally, Festival 2000 made oversized chocolate Hershey bars branded with “Festival 2000,” intended as giveaways.

JJ: As the Festival's opening approached, they realized they had depleted their promotion funds, having allocated it all to computers and staff. I recall a meeting where Lenny Sloan expressed his shock at the racism he faced while seeking funding from foundations in the Bay Area. The room filled with executive directors, my clients, wore expressions of disbelief, yet they could have easily shared similar stories of discrimination.

MA: Exactly. Festival 2000 aimed to demonstrate that San Francisco's Grants for the Arts did not engage in racial discrimination. We emphasized multiculturalism to reflect our city's diversity, criticizing the misuse of public funds that should have supported organizations vital to our diverse communities. Terence actively pursued this issue.

JJ: And “The Memo” exposé sparked outrage. Hallinan then accused them of violating their IRS status by employing a lobbyist without reporting it and using a city-owned venue, Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, for political fundraising—a breach of their 501c3 status. This could have cost the symphony around 30 million dollars.

MA: Right.

JJ: As a result, The Cultural Equity Grants Program was established as a groundbreaking initiative.

MA: Overseen by the Arts Commission, it marked a pivotal moment.

JJ: It channeled funds directly to queer artists, women and people of color, fostering a community that embraced diversity as a strength rather than a problem. This represented a significant departure from the prevailing attitude that marginalized racial identities as problematic social issues.

MA: Often, our work was seen as inferior, subject to regular condescension.

JJ: However, I believe the 1990s were a turning point. Not because we were imitated nationwide, but the 2000 census revealed that California's population of color had increased by 10% over the decade, a trend expected to continue. By 2040, it was predicted that people of color would be the majority in the U.S. We've seen this prediction come to fruition over time.

MA: It's worth mentioning that your research challenged the traditional domains of opera, symphony, and ballet, including ACT. Jeff's research showed how public dollars were subsidizing institutions whose audiences came largely from outside of The City and were made up of wealthy donors.

The Mime Troupe was among the first to highlight this disparity in the early 1970s. In the 60’s the proposed construction of the Civic Center Performing Arts Complex, sparked a debate among community-based arts organizations. The Neighborhood Cultural Centers were born from a clash between community artists and City Hall, leading to the acquisition of four cultural centers in substandard buildings.

JJ: SOMArts was one of these entities, lacking a heating system until the early 1990s. Attending required dressing warmly.

MA: Absolutely, it was freezing, but that was the compromise community-based organizations had to make. This activism, particularly led by individuals in the Mission District and the Fillmore District, questioned the allocation of public tax dollars in San Francisco. Back then, there was no research into this.

JJ: As the Assistant Director of the 1980 US Census in San Francisco, I knew that people of color were now the majority. This prompted my investigation into City funding. I discovered that, aside from Theater Rhino and the Pride Parade, the only city-funded service for LGBTQ residents was mental health counseling, under the misguided notion that we were mentally ill.

B&A: May I interrupt to pose a few fundamental questions? I'm eager to learn about your origins, your early life, the influences you've had, where you honed your acting skills, and who your inspirations were.

MA: I hail from a Navy family. It wasn't until the Chicano movement that I truly embraced my identity. My father is of Native American descent, but due to his family's history in the LA Basin, we were always told to conceal our Indigenous heritage. My mother is of Mexican descent. Being part of a Navy family meant our lives were nomadic.

B&A: Marie, did you mention you were Pomo?

M&A: No, Tongva. Our tribe once thrived in the LA Basin, extending to the Santa Catalina Islands.

B&A: So, you were born in LA?

MA: I was actually born in Washington State. My dad joined the Navy right after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He met my mother during WWII at a bar on Olivera Street and they were married within three months. As a military child, we moved often, oblivious to the implications of our skin color. We believed we were no different from anyone else.

B&A: Your household spoke Spanish because of your mother and father?

MA: Interestingly, my dad never spoke Spanish. He's Native American and spoke only English. My mother attempted to teach us Spanish, but we were petrified since no one in our circle spoke Spanish. It took us years to grasp why our Indian heritage was a topic often avoided.

B&A: How did you come to learn Spanish, then?

MA: That's quite a tale. I went to a community college in Southern California. It was there, amidst discussions on the Vietnam War, that my perspective began to shift. I remember supporting the presence of Americans in Vietnam, only to be met with laughter at my naivete. That was my awakening to political activism. In 1968, I supported Eugene McCarthy for President and traveled to the Democratic Convention in Chicago as a McCarthy supporter. I witnessed firsthand the violent clashes between police and protestors. Later, a conversation with my political science professor on a Santa Monica beach made me realize the inevitable choice between embracing my white or brown heritage—a concept I initially couldn't grasp but eventually understood.

B&A: Which junior college did you attend?

MA: It was known as San Fernando Valley Junior College back then. I'm uncertain if it retains its name. I transferred to the San Fernando Valley State College, now California State University, Northridge, and became active in the Chicano Student Movement. My time at the University was transformative marked by a deepening awareness of my identity. I grew up in Tujunga, a name I only recently learned is of Tongva origin, reflecting the sanctuary it provided my ancestors from Spanish and Mexican oppression. I only learned maybe 3 or 4 years ago that it’s a Tongva word, and it's probably where many of my ancestors fled to when the Spanish and the Mexicans were enslaving and killing off the Tongva tribe.

B&A: Wow.

MA: The thing is, my tribe, the Tongva, began to intermarry with Mexicans as a means of elevating their social status, allowing for easier assimilation. There was significantly more prejudice against Indians than Mexicans at that time.

B&A: So, your parents fully assimilated into white culture?

MA: Primarily my father. He was raised in Burbank and Glendale, was active in track and field, and even dabbled in tennis. His post-college plans were unclear because he was attending a junior college when the war interrupted his studies. My grandfather was Mexican, and my grandmother was Tongva. She lost her native language but spoke some Spanish, as did my grandfather. However, my father didn't speak Spanish at all. This realization about my heritage and identity being obscured explained so many of the feelings I experienced growing up. It left me furious. I unfairly lashed out at my parents and even accused some of their white friends of being racists during a dinner, which embarrassed them deeply. Unearthing this history, realizing I had been someone else entirely, was a profound revelation.

B&A: Did you first become an actor, or were you involved in another form of art?

MA: Initially, I was deeply involved in political activism within the Chicano movement, attending university in Northridge, and then moving to Mexico. Acting had always been a part of my life; I frequently performed in plays and entertained my parents from a young age, but never considered it as a professional pursuit until it aligned with a greater purpose. Theatre became a means to discuss politics, the Vietnam war, and to celebrate our culture, especially after moving back from two and a half years in Mexico City. Despite not speaking Spanish initially, it was there that I learned the language.

B&A: What year did that happen?

MA: It was1971 when I moved to Mexico, I think. 

B&A: Do you remember the film “West Side Story”? Did it evoke any particular feelings in you?

MA: I remember it, but it never struck me as odd that Natalie Wood was playing Maria. The movie presented a New York Latino culture, which was entirely foreign to me. I spent most of my childhood in the suburbs of Hawaii, Memphis, and San Diego, places that were not diverse. We were often the only family of color. It never crossed my mind until fifth grade when I started identifying as Hawaiian because the racism against Mexicans in San Diego was palpable. It made me conceal my Mexican heritage, although I couldn't quite understand why at the time.

B&A: Who were your artistic mentors? What drew you to theater and art? The Mime Troupe?

MA: Yes, the Mime Troupe played a big role. 

B&A: Was it during that time that the group embraced miming?

JJ: It started with mime, but eventually, they shifted to spoken performance. The speaking side won the legal battle for the name, leaving them with a moniker that doesn't reflect their identity. Decades later, they're still the Mime Troupe, which confuses people like me who don't find mime appealing. It's a classic scenario of a dispute over a name, leaving those who won with a label they didn't want. Similarly, Krissy Keefer had to battle over the name Wallflower Order, resulting in both parties needing new names, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

It often comes down to a name, doesn't it? This phenomenon is particularly prevalent in the arts. However, what captures my interest—and I believe holds significant importance—is your journey from being a political activist to securing positions on the War Memorial Board and the Grants for the Arts Advisory Board, not to mention your role as the assistant to the Director of the California Arts Council. Your career path has resulted in quite the unique resume.

MA: I spoke without an accent. This was part of Jeff Jones's strategies for infiltration. There were numerous instances of this. I must revisit the Democratic Convention scenario.

JJ: Right, we nearly overlooked that episode.

MA: Indeed, Jeff, our unmatched political strategist! Jeff’s brilliance lay in his ability to remain behind the scenes, while proposing strategies for us to execute. He was the one who suggested I attend the Democratic Convention in San Francisco in 1984. Initially, I was perplexed by the idea. However, he advised me on which meetings to attend, highlighting that the Democratic Party's search for minorities and women would increase my chances of participation. Following his advice, I attended a day-long meeting, fully committed to not leaving. When it came to speaking, Jeff's advice was simple: stand up, spell your name, and sit down. I did just that and was elected. This led to my participation in the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco and a one-on-one meeting with Phil Burton, revealing the significant political influence of the Burtons. Looking back, Jeff's strategy was a masterpiece, leveraging our unique strengths for infiltration.

These strengths, unconventional as they may seem, were redefined as political leverage by Jeff's insight, positioning me at the right place and time for entry. His approach was effective. Another example was the War Memorial Board. While I was still using a wheelchair because I was still healing from having been hit by a car, Jeff encouraged me to approach Mayor Art Agnos with a request to join the War Memorial Board. I questioned the rationale behind it, to which he explained the board's significance due to its association with the opera and the symphony—key elements of the city's cultural power structure. I was convinced, albeit somewhat reluctantly. 

I vividly recall waiting to meet Art for about an hour, in a wheelchair still recovering from my accident and feeling unwell. The specifics of our conversation escape me, but I distinctly remember him asking, "Are you interested in the Board for the free tickets?" I was puzzled, "What free tickets?"

JJ:  The situation was so racked with privilege that once you were on the War Memorial Board, for the rest of your life you got free tickets to the opera and the symphony and the ballet anytime you wanted them. It did not matter if you had already seen the production. You could go back and see it again. What are these privileged people? And I was thrilled you were because I got to go to many of these productions with you. Until last year, we enjoyed the opera for free. 

B&A: That's quite impressive. You used to be on the War Memorial Board! What was the greatest opera performance you've experienced? 

MA: One of Wagner's Ring Operas, though I can't recall the exact one. 

JJ: It was Die Walküre! The goddesses, dressed as fierce warriors in leather, soaring through the air. It was utterly spectacular." 

MA: It moved me to tears. It was my first true exposure to opera. The music was incredibly powerful. Jeff, were you aware of the free tickets? 

JJ: I knew that members of the Board of Supervisors received such perks, but I naively hoped that joining the Board might bring some change. 

MA: We didn't really change how it behaved. I do remember my first meeting: some guy who was president of Bank of America was not reinstated and instead Art Agnos sent me over. And I think I was the only person of color on that board. And I remember walking in and feeling like Whoa; they looked at me like I was supposed to be doing the cleaning, not sitting at the table with them.  I felt like they were looking at me asking, is she here to clean the room? It was very bizarre.

JJ: In your life, you've seen major institutions from both the outside and inside, understanding how the elite control the arts. Your unique position as a Latina activist gave you a comprehensive perspective. 

MA: Yes, I was an anomaly at the time. Educated, fluent in English, and able to write – all beyond their expectations though I always felt completely out of place among the affluent white crowd that seemed to own the world, never questioning their privilege, or understanding poverty. 

JJ: But being part of that world at the time meant lifetime access to the opera, symphony, and ballet. It's incredible the kind of privilege that comes with these positions. And I was glad because it meant I got to experience all of that too. No more free tickets today. 

MA: Willie Brown removed me from the War Memorial Board amidst controversy at the Mexican Museum, appointing me to the Grants for The Arts’ Advisory Committee. I felt the weight of being the sole dissenter, constantly arguing for change. It was a challenging position to be in.

JJ: Indeed. However, I believe you've managed to retain, to a significant extent, the original attitude you had despite everything. That's how you've preserved your sense of self-worth throughout.

MA: For better or for worse, yes. There were years when my self-worth was utterly depleted, and I had to rebuild it from scratch, but my sense of justice remained intact. Despite being battered by life's trials, including my experiences in Mexico and when I returned from Chicago, those experiences were so deeply ingrained that I felt compelled to continue on my path. The thought of settling for a 9-to-5 office job was unimaginable to me. Landing in Sacramento was a revelation. The area was dominated by government jobs, where security is the main draw. Once you secure a position as a civil servant, you're protected, and spending 15, 20, or 30 years in service means retiring with benefits. This was new to me, even when I started at the CAC. The prospects of lifetime health care and a continuing salary, among other benefits, were surprising. People are drawn to the Civil Service for the job security and the promise of a secure retirement. Who would have thought?

B&A: Looking back on your career in the arts, which achievements are you most proud of?

MA: Honestly, staying sane! But if I had to choose, it would be my recent work in Sacramento. When I arrived, La Raza Galeria Posada, a cultural organization, was on the brink of collapse. It was a critical moment, and the organization needed a new direction. Over 13 years, we reshaped the artistic programming and refocused on our core community, which was initially Chicano artists. However, I observed that many had lost their original vision, now desiring commercial success and museum recognition over community impact. The name changed and it’s now the Latino Center of Art and Culture.

I turned our focus towards the growing, underserved, Latino immigrant community in Sacramento, seeing an opportunity to celebrate and uplift century-old traditions crucial to our identity as Mexicans and Latinos in the United States. Preserving and honoring these cultural practices, elevating them to the same esteem as mainstream art is an act of resistance. I initiated three programs centered around traditional celebrations: Dia de los Muertos/Day of the Dead, Dia de los Niños, and a Pastorela. These programs not only thrived but became staple events within the community.

An inspiring example of the impact of these efforts is my collaboration with Vidal Aguilera Beltan, who was undocumented at the time. I assisted him with legal paperwork and helped him embrace his artistic potential. Today, he is the Director of Folk and Traditional Art at the Latino Center of Art and Culture in Sacramento. He has achieved homeownership and is on the verge of revisiting Mexico legally for the first time in over 12 years. Witnessing his journey from a cook paid under the table to a recognized artist and community leader has been an incredible gift.

Reflecting on accomplishments, it's clear that our community's needs, similar to when I first identified as Chicana, remain pressing. The battle against substandard education, poor housing, and the stigma of being viewed as "other" and "less than" continues. This realization prompted a return to our roots to pave a way forward. I'm immensely proud of the programs the Latino Center of Art and Culture established, which attract 12,000 to 16,000 attendees, primarily newly arrived immigrants. They bring to life dances and traditions you'd otherwise only witness in small Mexican towns. My work in Sacramento, especially in recent years, stands out as an achievement I hold close to my heart.

B&A: It's truly impressive. What's your perspective on the work accomplished in San Francisco? We often discuss how San Francisco is at the forefront of cultural equity in the arts. We've seen strategies, similar to those developed here, being adopted or emerging simultaneously in cities like New York.

MA: Indeed, securing the Cultural Equity Endowment in San Francisco marked a significant milestone. It catalyzed further initiatives and broader recognition of the importance of supporting Black, Latino, Asian, and Native groups through dedicated grant programs. The moment was a pivotal one that influenced similar movements across the country. Until we acted, united by our common experience and informed by our brilliant strategist Jeff Jones, no other city was propelling change and acknowledging the importance of cultural diversity and creativity within our communities as San Francisco has.

JJ: Reflecting on today, San Francisco’s new motto, "it all starts here," really resonates, especially considering the LGBTQ community's history. San Francisco was pioneering in adopting public policies that prohibited discrimination against LGBTQ individuals. It was the first to recognize domestic partnerships, lead the way in Marriage Equality, and introduce the Transgender Rights ordinance. These initiatives laid the groundwork for the cultural equity grants program, which now includes the queer community as an integral part. This inclusion is now a nationwide phenomenon, rooted in San Francisco's progressive actions.

MA: I’d like to add a point, Jeff.  Vidal Aguilera Beltan endured great hardships crossing the border, compromising both his and his mother’s very lives, is particularly poignant. He is gay and was married when I met him. Yet, his sexual orientation is never discussed or promoted, despite his significant contributions to cultural events that showcased his artistic talent. His silence on his identity made me wonder, and I concluded it stemmed from the norms of his upbringing.

B&A: Maybe it wasn't the most important thing to know.

MA: No, it wasn't just that for him. It was a way of life. And I think in Mexico...

B&A: We're planning a trip there next month. A friend has bought a house in Pátzcuaro and is setting up an art center there. As we wrap up this incredible interview, Jeff, any more questions?

JJ: No, but if anything comes up, we can include it in the final draft.

B&A: Thank you so much.

MA: Thank you. 




Posted in Interviews.