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Students Expand Creativity in Santa Cruz Gives Arts Programs

How three nonprofits help students learn about arts, culture and themselves

A snapshot from Senderos’ recent “Colores de mi Tierra” show at Harbor High. PHOTO: KYER WILTSHIRE

Neuroscientist Lindsey Chester says the true gift of children’s musical theater is the way that it combines three spheres of learning—visual, auditory and kinesthetic—into one fun atmosphere that’s welcoming to all children.

Chester, who studied child psychology, is the executive and artistic director of All About Theater, which serves as an ambassador for children to the arts. From a neurological perspective, Chester says that musical theater builds up social emotional awareness, decreases rates of depression and even increases neural connections between the right and left hemispheres of the brain.

“If you start young and continue, you set a pathway and a foundation of learning and a flexibility in the mind of how to adapt to anything,” she says.

All About Theater is one of three arts organizations participating in this year’s Santa Cruz Gives holiday fundraising drive, sponsored by GT. One of Chester’s favorite things about her nonprofit is that, unlike with school, everything is constantly changing, including the casts.

“For us, it’s about making sure everybody understands that theater isn’t just about jazz hands and Broadway squares,” Chester says. “It really has so much more depth and wealth to it. A lot of it is about the process and what the kids are learning and going through.”

Every organization taking part in the Santa Cruz Gives drive has a “big idea” that it is raising money for. This year, All About Theater is prioritizing resources on its Arts for All project, which will focus on South County kids and bridging divides between regions in the Monterey Bay.

All About Theater divides groups by age and carefully selects age-appropriate plays for each level. Chester just announced that Disney’s Alice in Wonderland Jr. will be the spring show for the younger group. “The kids started screaming in the dressing room when I told them,” she says.

After 15 years and 150 shows, Chester says that All About Theater has had an impact on thousands of local kids. “Many of them are now older. They’re in their mid-to-late 20s, and they’re coming back as educators,” Chester says.

This year, there are other Santa Cruz Gives groups doing their part to expand the creativity of young people.

In Watsonville, the nonprofit Pajaro Valley Arts (PVA) is a gallery that holds between seven and eight exhibitions a year. PVA President Adrienne Momi says its spring show is usually centered around social justice issues. This year, it’s highlighting the importance of civic engagement, especially through voting.

Your Voice, Your Vote is the arts organization’s spring exhibit and its special Santa Cruz Gives project. Momi, a printmaker and painter, is currently soliciting artists for the show. “It’s not political,” she says. “We’re not taking any kind of sides or promoting one party or the other. What we’re promoting is that we are the government through our voice, our vote.”

The project was inspired by Latino voting rights legal activist Joaquin Avila, who died this past year, and once spearheaded a voting rights challenge on behalf of the city of Watsonville and prevailed in the late 1980s. With that victory, Avila, who argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, defeated decades of disenfranchisement. The ruling paved the way for districted elections and allowed for better representation of a town that had a growing Latino population, but also had a long history of all-white representation.

Momi says all of the exhibits are bilingual and have something to offer for visitors of all ages. Typically, the PVA receives about 100 groups a year to tour its gallery. “Everything is always free. There are no admission charges or costs for the tours,” Momi says. “It’s only through donations that these costs are covered.” PVA is working with Pajaro Valley Unified School District to create an Arts Now community program to build support for developing more arts education.

Meanwhile, kids who don’t picture themselves in a gallery are finding other ways to express themselves—thanks to a separate nonprofit that’s engaging local children in a different kind of art, one that gets people moving.

The dance troupe Senderos has been busy since last year’s Santa Cruz Gives campaign, which helped fund numerous performances throughout 2018. “We are busy. That’s the point—to keep the students, the musicians and dancers busy,” says Fe Silva-Robles, who founded the youth group with her sister Nereida Robles Vasquez 17 years ago.

Senderos, an after-school program with dance and music classes, shares elements of Mexican culture, welcoming in anyone who might be unfamiliar with Latin American traditions.

This past week, Senderos dancers led the procession at a traditional Las Posadas celebration. Senderos also partnered with Friends of State Parks for the Mole and Mariachi Festival, and performed a classical music piece at the Santa Cruz Mission State Park. “It was so beautiful seeing the musicians bringing the traditional music to that special place,” Silva-Robles says.

Senderos performed at the Ebb and Flow River Festival, as well as Soquel High School and Santa Cruz High School fundraisers. Students even performed at the Mexican Consulate in San Jose and the Carnaval San Francisco.

The group was in high demand for Dia De Los Muertos celebrations, performing at three celebrations of the Mexican holiday, sometimes known in the United States as the Day of the Dead.

A growing interest this year in the traditional Mexican holiday may have coincided with Pixar’s release of the animated musical, Coco.

Silva-Robles, who is from Oaxaca, says that the two years the filmmakers spent in Oaxaca learning how to represent the inhabitants in the film paid off, leading to an accurate depiction of the region’s people and culture.

Dipping into Spanish, Silva-Robles says that many people from Mexico were moved by the film. “Coco is a movie that touched a lot of our paisanos because of the connection, because of the culture, because of the different reasons they cannot travel and go back and leave,” she says, referring to the main conflict in the movie.

Similarly, Senderos serves the special role of bringing the culture of Mexican immigrants who long for it and cannot easily travel to fiestas in their home country. Often, Silva-Robles says, audience members are left in tears.

“It is a therapy, an emotional moment,” she says. “At least for one day, for one afternoon, for one evening, the audience can escape to a place they don’t see in their daily lives as immigrants.”

For information on how to donate to any of the 33 organizations participating in Santa Cruz Gives, visit santacruzgives.org by Dec. 31.

Contributor at Good Times |

Andrea is a freelance reporter with an ear for social and environmental justice stories. She has also spent over 15 years teaching students in both college and high school classrooms to become critical consumers of information and effective writers. She now lives in Seattle where she is learning all things Pacific Northwest.

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