In the LGBTQ+ community, you will often be advised to “find your community.” It’s the one thing that can keep you grounded in a world that tells you that you don’t deserve the same rights as everyone else.
When I found my community, “Los Muchachos”, as we named our text group chat, I gained eight amazing friends from the gay Latino community who, like me, don’t put themselves (and each other) in a box.
As luck would have it, Hispanic Executive asked me to interview one of them, Edgar Miramontes, to talk about his historic appointment as executive and artistic director at the Center for the Art of Performance at University of California, Los Angeles (CAP UCLA).
For Miramontes, family is everything and that includes his chosen family. He lights up as he shares how his parents provided for his family, he speaks proudly of his grown son and daughter, and he speaks lovingly of his partner of twenty-one years, Antonio Castillo, a senior city planner for the City of West Hollywood, who alongside Miramontes make up a quarter of Los Muchachos.
Like other queer Latino leaders I have interviewed before him, his words and actions make it clear he leads for something bigger than himself.
Can you share your personal journey as a gay Latino immigrant and how it has shaped your work?
I am a geographer by training, a former professional dancer, and special faculty in contemporary performance with experience as a curator, producer, administrator, performance maker, fundraiser, and regional and international festival organizer. It was a circuitous road [here], and I’m still arriving.
I was born in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, raised between East Hollywood and Silverlake in Los Angeles to a lively, forward-thinking, working-class family of six. I spent a lot of my time (to exhaustion) navigating multiple intersectional identities: Mexican immigrant, formerly undocumented, light-skinned Latinx, and expressively gay-queer. Exhaustive because this framework oppresses; it “others” anything and anyone that carries these identities. I didn’t realize this then [but] felt and knew I was “different,” mostly in my gayness and queerness—a secret identity per se.
It wasn’t until attending Hollywood High School for the Performing Arts (HHS) that I embraced this difference. I took a deep dive into my curiosity and [learned of] the inspiring and challenging figure of James Baldwin and read Giovanni’s Room and his great collection of essays Notes on a Native Son. They were not only informative on race, class, and gender but formative to my development.
I entered HHS intent on being a [professional] actor [so] off I went to auditions, and after several, I kept hearing, “not dark enough,” “too light-skinned,” “be more aggressive” (i.e., less feminine). I realized that this was not the world I wanted to be in. In my first year of community college, I unknowingly “auditioned” for the Avaz International Dance Theatre, a Middle Eastern traditional and contemporary dance ensemble, by participating in a rehearsal a friend invited me to. The environment was [so] incredibly welcoming that I stayed, and dance stayed with me and became the art form that constructs my perspective.
Now, as a presenter of performance and performing arts working with artists, my programmatic interests bridge artistic rigor, experimentation, and practical concerns of viewership to cultivate conversation with local communities about global concerns. At the heart of my practice is a commitment to work closely with historically marginalized and underserved artists, primarily people of the global majority, women, and LGBTQIA+ identified artists who make experiential, experimental, hybrid contemporary performance that are globally influential.
What challenges did you face as a gay Latino immigrant pursuing a career in the arts? How did you stay true to yourself while navigating those challenges?
Being an artist was a risk for me and my family. It continues to be a risk for artists as it is a life of precarity that isn’t financially stable nor straightforward, especially for an immigrant like myself. This is something that continues to concern me and I am conscious of not only the current crisis of the performing arts ecology but how I may be able to advance equity discussions in the arts.
My parents made a living from borrowing a truck from a neighbor to sell their moriscos on the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Virgil, to my mother selling vitamins and Princess House crystal, to my father finding an ongoing job as a manager of a record store. It clearly wasn’t an ideal career choice. As with many immigrant parents, they wanted a doctor, so I split the difference.
Through geography, I visited cultural and political landscapes I couldn’t physically visit. I simultaneously found art and art spaces in Los Angeles where I discovered a conversation, an exchange, a window into a world I recognized but others seldom noticed, spaces that revealed the deep humanity shared across borders and geographies. At the time, AB540 [bill allowing undocumented US citizen students to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities] had not passed in California, so I was accepted to UCLA as a foreign student, paying out-of-state tuition, often with grants. I had to take a quarter off and a quarter on to give me and my family the opportunity to raise the money to pay for the next quarter. Challenging as it was, as an artist, you find your support system in other artists and family, chosen, biological, or otherwise.
What does being a leader in the arts mean to you? How do you aim to inspire others through your position?
I had to learn to code-switch, construct careful sentences, and structure tones of voice suitable for a professional work environment that rewards unsustainable leadership models and problematic, hierarchical white supremacist frameworks for success. I am working towards not having these models continue so people like me [can] succeed. [I want to] encourage curiosity, wholeness, and a deeper sense of purpose within the work that [we] do characterized by features like intuitive reasoning, self-management, and decentralized decision-making.
I intrinsically lead with curiosity, generosity, and empathy with a keen lens on equity, diversity, and inclusion in all aspects of leadership, partnerships, and programs. It is a tremendous honor to have been selected as executive and artistic director of CAP UCLA, and to join one of the nation’s greatest public research universities – and my alma mater – in this capacity.
I want to bring along with me the unconventional route to achieving a place at the table, where stories like mine—that of a formerly undocumented transfer student from community college—are present in institutions like UCLA and are the norm, not the exception.
How do you view the intersection of art, diversity, and social change? Any specific themes or issues you’d like to explore through the Center’s programming?[We aim to] center artists of the global majority, also referred to as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and their allies. Given the ongoing global pandemic and its repercussions, many of us are placed in an exasperating bind in our desire to intervene. In the spirit of joyous resistance and our desire to intervene as we can, CAP UCLA (especially with the Nimoy) will [launch] a multiyear series of artist performance residencies, commissions, and collaborations. [These] artists [will] reflect on the conditions of making, acting, and experimenting and engage the complexities, inequities, and challenges of engaging art and culture [today, in Los Angeles, the US, and beyond].
This series will launch with an interdisciplinary mix of projects by influential international and emerging artists who [will] share unique perspectives and crucial visions, giving us an opportunity to view a changing world in different and striking ways, and connecting to communities they reflect.
My goal is to provide a reflection of the communities I serve in the work that I do and [to] reinvigorate hope in art. When I think about an equitable arts and culture sector, I imagine many contemporary cultural art spaces that serve the multiplicity of languages that reflect, move, and shape life in this city every day.
What advice would you give to others aspiring to leadership roles in the arts?
Find power in embracing perceived and actual limiting circumstances and develop them into opportunities from wherever you can.
If you tend to not speak up, lean into the discomfort . . . someone else in the room is thinking it too and your contribution matters. Although, you will be pushed to identify as x, y, and z, know that identity is fluid and evolving. It is not fixed. Understand that both cultural identity and cultural experiences affect how you view and perceive your world, your beliefs, and values, and know that yours are valuable. Define who you are otherwise others will define you. Stay curious.