Casandra Hernandez Faham of CALA Initiatives Thinks Arizona Needs to Create a New Vision of Itself

The 2016 edition of New Times' Best of Phoenix is out now,featuring a series of "as told to" profiles that explore how our city's proximity to Mexico makes it better.

I was born and raised in Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora, and moved to Phoenix 15 years ago. I never thought I would live in the United States, but my mom was a teacher, and in 2001 she heard about this opportunity for teachers to come work in the U.S., back when we had bilingual education. She moved the family, and I’ve been here ever since.

Phoenix has changed a lot. I come from a city where people would say, “Culture stops where carne asada begins.” It meant people believed that art and culture only existed in the central region, around Mexico City, and everything else, especially northern Mexico, was empty space devoid of any cultural contribution. Coming from generations of people who made their lives close to the U.S.-Mexico border, I was privy to all the rich culture and history that comes from the border region. And then I moved to Phoenix, where I encountered a similar attitude. People here were saying, “Well, Phoenix, we don’t have any arts or culture, there’s nothing here, it’s a big suburban utopia.”

I know people here long for certain kinds of experiences that are available in other places, but I’m excited about the changes I’ve seen here the last couple of years. They reflect the voices of people of color, our cultural identities, as well as our own local sensibilities, aesthetics and politics. There’s energy and momentum, and I’m hearing the voices from south of the border that are shaping what this place is and can become.

Senate Bill 1070 was a critical moment in our communities, one that created a sense of urgency and purpose for many of us. It helped define two situations we deal with all the time. First, that we’re often invisible. Our contributions may not be seen in the fabric of the city. And in other cases, that we are too visible, but portrayed in unfair, untrue ways, because someone else is controlling the narrative. The central question that comes out of that is: How do we create a new vision of what Arizona actually is, and who Arizonans are and want to be?

The good news is that we’re becoming a city that more intentionally thinks about cultural production as vital to our sense of belonging and participation in the urgent questions of our time. 

As a curator, I’m working toward creating a greater connection between Arizona, Mexico, and Latin America. In my work, I create spaces and events that engage the complex diversity of Latino stories and re-imagine Arizona’s place in the Americas. I just came back from Guadalajara, Jalisco, where I found many parallels with the landscape of Phoenix’s arts and culture. CALA Alliance and ASU Art Museum are working in partnership with an organization in Guadalajara called Programa Anual de Open Studios (PAOS) to host artist-residency exchanges beginning in 2017. This kind of cultural flow is important to nurture a connection between Mexican and American cities.

That connection is what motivates the work I do. When I lived in Hermosillo, everyone knew where Tucson and Phoenix were. Many of them had traveled to those cities. Everyone had an understanding of what was north of them. I moved here, and most of the people I talked to didn’t know about Sonora, or had never been to Mexico. I found this incredibly shocking.

We’re slowly getting to a point where we’re more aware of the reality that we’re a border state. Right now, though, the focus is still on the ways we’re different, separate, a threat to one another. I have firsthand experience of what it is to be treated as “other,” so I might be more aware of how the rhetoric is changing, of the arbitrary and artificial nature of this separation. It’s changing. — As told to Robrt Pela

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela