People Who Make NY Special

No Wall Can Stop This New Yorker From Celebrating the Best of Mexican Art

Through her Celebrate Mexico Now! festival, Claudia Norman brings Mexico’s artistic community to New York City.

One of the many things that’s been lost in the recent fury surrounding relations between Mexico and the U.S.—along with, you know, perspective, pragmatism, and basic humanity—is the meaningful role of artistic exchange between the two countries. It’s a challenge that Claudia Norman, founder of the annual New York cultural festival Celebrate Mexico Now!, has devoted no small part of her life to meeting.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but when American politicians discuss Mexico, Mexican artistic culture is not part of the agenda,” Norman tells me. “Sadly, that’s proven equally true in our own country, even during our own recent presidential election. Culture is often an afterthought in policy.”

That unfortunate idea motivated Norman to start Celebrate Mexico Now!, which she says was “created because the official cultural agenda of both Mexico and the United States did not match with the needs of arts-presenting organizations in New York City.” Norman has combatted this complacency by bringing hundreds of native Mexican artists—sculptors, musicians, poets, chefs, filmmakers, actors, painters, directors—to showcase their works at venues across the boroughs during the multiweek festival. The goal is to share both the rich traditions and vibrant new ideas emerging in Mexico’s vital arts scene.

In advance of Celebrate Mexico Now!’s 2018 season, I spoke with Norman about the difficulties and triumphs involved with importing art from her mother country.

Photo by Stephanie Berger/Courtesy of Claudia Norman

What Should We Do?!: How did you become an arts curator?

Claudia Norman:  I was born and raised in Mexico City. When I moved to New York in 1989, I saw a real lack of cultural representation in the city for artists coming from Latin America and felt compelled to change that situation. I enrolled in NYU’s arts administration program, where my final project was producing a concert of music and poetry at Lincoln Center headlined by my husband, composer Carlo Nicolau. Together, we raised $15,000 and created a performance that engaged multiple international artists and was written up by The New York Times. In 2001, I began coproducing and cocurating a music and poetry series at Lincoln Center called La Casita, which I’ve been working on continually since. For all those projects, my work required me to travel all over Latin America to learn and connect directly with artists. I try to stay very busy!

WSWD: So I see. How did that lead to your founding Celebrate Mexico Now!?

Norman: It became clear to me that we needed to build a program specific to the Mexican arts scene, which just wasn’t getting due exposure in New York City. We started with a bang: I called a meeting at Arts International with some 60 different curators and programmers of the performing arts venues in New York, really cleaned out my address book. I asked them three questions: When was the last time they had presented a Mexican artist? When was the last time they spent some time acquainting themselves with the contemporary Mexican cultural scene? What were they planning to do to change the answers to questions one and two? Then I presented Celebrate Mexico Now! as an answer.

WSWD: Tell me about a couple of the artists you’ve championed over the years.

Norman:  In 2010, La Casita at Lincoln Center Out of Doors presented the New York/Colombian band M.A.K.U. Sound System for the first time. M.A.K.U. is a collective of musicians mixing sounds of Colombian folklore, psychedelic rock, and Caribbean grooves. It has gone on to make multiple albums and tour internationally.

More recently, in 2017, we presented the first New York show with Mexico City–based Ampersan. The band honors its close relationship with traditional Mexican music in its song structure while also embracing sound experimentation and contemporary classical music. It has played across Latin America, and I expect we’ll hear from the group again in the States soon enough.

WSWD: What should we expect from the 2018 fall season of Celebrate?

Norman:  As this is the festival’s 15th anniversary, we are celebrating our quinceañera by showcasing the work of women in music, dance, film, visual arts, literature, and cuisine.

Separately from Celebrate, I am also collaborating with a festival in Santiago de Chile called Teatro a Mil. It is seeking to serve the new Haitian community in Chile with concerts and public art by internationally renowned Haitian artists. That’s scheduled for January. I am also collaborating with the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., identifying Mexican artisans for its programing this fall, and working as part of the committee to stage the Association of Performing Arts Presenters Conference in 2019 and 2020. As I say, I stay busy!

WSWD: Given the current political turmoil at the Mexico–U.S. border, how difficult is it to bring South American artists to the States? 

It’s always been difficult, not only for South American artists. I remember filing the visa applications for Ravi Shankar—it was complicated then and it’s complicated now.

Norman: It’s always been difficult, not only for South American artists. I remember filing the visa applications for Ravi Shankar back in my days at [talent management organization] Sheldon Soffer; it was complicated then and it’s complicated now. During my tenure at the Latino Cultural Festival, we would have to translate all its marketing materials into English and rebuild artists’ press kits in order to have the required promotional materials that the U.S. immigration offices need. Thankfully, just because something is a hot-button issue doesn’t change the way a cultural exchange program works.

WSWD: What is the role of the curator in bridging ideological and artistic gaps between cultures?

Norman: It’s crucial. Over the past 20 years as a New Yorker, I’ve aimed to be a cultural translator. I take great pleasure in exploring the reasons why and how some artistic tendencies are developed in Latin America, how to find their equivalences in American culture and then presenting a program showcasing my findings. New York gives me access to the full scope of cultural institutions, but my connections with Latin America offer perspective and depth.

WSWD: How would you define New York City’s Mexican community? 

Norman: Compared with other immigrant communities, it is relatively new and very diverse. You can see a real representation of Mexican society’s complexity here: On the one hand, you have one of the richest men in the world as The New York Times’s largest shareholder. There’s also a growing middle class of small-business owners, a very active artistic community, an intellectual Mexican elite, and an entire second generation of DACA recipients who face a very difficult situation because of their immigration status.

At the same time, most of the service industries and restaurants in New York survive because of the often less-than-minimum wage paid to Mexican workers doing menial labor. This sort of economic and educational diversity makes it very difficult to find one voice that represents all Mexicans.

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