There’s a celebration for Mexico going on in Cleveland, and it’s a party that never stops.
Every day at Comité Mexicano de Cleveland, Mexico is celebrated for its colorful traditions, enchanting music, and imaginative and thought-provoking art. The energetic joy of Comité can be felt in everything they do, from helping people stay in touch with their cultural roots to exploring what life is like for the nearly 50,000 Hispanic and Latinx individuals living in Cleveland today.
Since 2016, the dedicated team of 25 artists and leaders have been working hard to bring the beauty of Mexico to the city through art, music, educational workshops, and neighborhood initiatives. Executive Director Eduardo Rodriguez said the organization helps people in Cleveland understand Mexican culture and counters negative stereotypes.
“We firmly believe that through the arts and through culture we can transform bad images that have been created out of hatred and resentment,” said Executive Director Eduardo Rodriguez. “Comité Mexicano excels in art and culture. More than eighty percent of what we do is art and culture, because [it] strengthens relationships and above all changes poorly-formed perspectives of neighboring cultures.”
Comité is about community and compassion
At the time of their inception, Comité Mexicano was seeking inclusion, solidarity, and cooperation when the President himself sought to divide two nations with a literal wall. “When the Comité was created in 2016, it was during [a time of] federal political tensions,” said Rodriguez, who used to be Director of Programs at the Hispanic Alliance, an organization that focused on not-for-profit missions within the community such as census representation and educational support.
“The Mexican community was being attacked by politicians [who were] calling us rapists, bad men, and blaming us for stealing jobs and abusing the United States’ system,” Rodriguez continued. “At that time, we did not see representation from an organization that defended the Mexican community in Cleveland, and for that reason several Mexican leaders met and decided to create El Comité Mexicano.”
The shift to a more Mexican-centric committee provided the Hispanic Alliance with a chance to continue serving the greater Latinx community while simultaneously sending a strong message to Clevelanders that Mexicans were not their enemies. “We wanted to be a well-represented, integrated Mexican community,” Rodriguez said.
However, it wasn’t until June of 2020, after the Hispanic Alliance had dissolved, that Comité finally gained its formal legal approval as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Many Alliance members remain on Comité’s board today, including committee president Rey Esparza. Like most nonprofits, Comité secures their funding through programs, individual donors, and grants from agencies like Cuyahoga Arts and Culture.
Dreams for the future
Rodriguez has high hopes for Comité Mexicano in Cleveland. “I would like to see a Mexican center, where it is the meeting point to promote Mexican pride, where we are educated about who we are as Mexicans in the United States,” he said. “A place where all those who want to learn about Mexican-ness, Spanish and Mexican customs can be received.”
Such a place could help to heal some of the wounds caused by the loss of Club Azteca, a historic Mexican American club at Detroit Avenue and West 54th Street that fell on hard times and was torn down in 2021 to make way for the Waverly and Oak apartments, which are now under construction. While Comité Mexicano has partnered with the Young Latino Network to archive the site’s history, secure a historical marker, and preserve signage, photos, and documents, that alone cannot close the gap left by Club Azteca’s absence, Rodriguez said.
“When we think of losing these institutions,” Comité historian Bella Sin told WKYC, “we think of thousands of people that are going to lose their history and their roots … and understanding how important these little buildings are to us is crucial.”
Impressive strides towards increasing awareness have already been made, however, as Mexico finally secured a place in the Cleveland Cultural Gardens in 2021 with the help of Comité.
“Little by little we are becoming known for our work,” said Rodriguez, citing the organization’s efforts to increase awareness of Covid-19 health resources during the pandemic.
Education is another area in which Comité Mexicano wishes to expand. Currently, their Leadership MX program connects university students with speakers from UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) while their entrepreneurs program takes a more holistic approach to preparing prospective business owners for success.
Art as a gateway
The artistic creation of Alebrijes holds special meaning to both the Mexican people and to Comité, as these mythical creatures represent spiritual protection and the ability to endure, or be guided out of, difficult times. During Comite’s alebrijes workshop, participants are taught not only the cultural significance of these brightly-colored creatures of modern folklore, but also their history and the process of making them.
Hector Castellanos-Lara, local fine artist and artistic director of Día de Muertos Ohio, takes his students on a journey through the life of Pedro Linares López, the Mexican folk artist who created the alebrije after falling deathly ill in 1943. In this way, everyone can fully understand the symbolism and value of the art they are about to create.
“The alebrije is both a real creature and a fantasy creature,” said Castellanos-Lara. “You can see elements of animals you recognize and then you have the spikes, or wings, and patterns everywhere. Each alebrije is very unique and has a life of its own, very beautiful in its own way.” He also expressed his hopes for another round of alebrijes lessons in Spring 2022.
Additionally, Comité’s Exchange MX program creates connections through virtual or physical residencies, conferences, presentations, and more. Artists from Mexico visit to teach and speak with Clevelanders on their subjects of expertise, from watercolors to murals to classical guitar.
Language is no barrier
Comite is open to anyone, regardless of whether you speak Spanish. “We try to make all activities bilingual, in English or Spanish,” Rodriguez said. “Everyone is welcome. Even though we are a Mexican committee, everyone who is interested in Mexican-ness is welcome.”
Inclusion is central to the organization’s mission. “The Mexican community has been relegated and we have suffered from a lack of equity and exclusivity,” he said. “We don’t want others to suffer what the Mexican community has suffered in the United States. Therefore, within our reach, we will always be inclusive.”
Rodriguez hopes to welcome people from all over the city for many years to come. “Cleveland is a very open and tolerant city to new cultures and we want to open more doors to us, so if Cleveland can get to know us, it would be excellent,” he said.
Follow Comité Mexicano’s Facebook page or join them at an upcoming event.
Saturday, March 26th: Covid-19 Vaccination Clinic at Zelma Watson George Recreation Center, 3155 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Cleveland, 44104 from 10 AM to 2 PM.
Saturday, April 30th: Children’s Day (Día del Niño) presented by Comité Mexicano and Cleveland Play House at Pivot Center of Art, Dance, and Expression, 2937 W 25th Street, Cleveland 44113 from 1-3 PM.
Alebrijes Spring 2022 Sessions with Hector Castellanos-Lara at the Hildebrandt Artist Collective, 3619 Walton Ave, Cleveland 44113, dates TBA.
Kristy Ockunzzi-Kmit is a freelance author and artist from Cleveland’s West side. In addition to her freelance career, she enjoys writing fantasy, fiction, and sci-fi.
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