From the outside, 209 Central Street blends in with a handful of other generally well-kept and historic homes dotting this section of Central Falls. But upon entering the doors of this unassuming pastel house, an assault of bright color and culture encapsulates the vibrant visual arts, theatre, music and dance community it hosts.

Rhode Island Latino Arts (RILA) has been part of the Rhode Island landscape since Marta V. Martínez, founder of what was then known as the Hispanic Heritage Committee, spearheaded our state’s first celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month back in 1988.

Since then, RILA has continually sought to raise awareness of the art, culture and history of Rhode Island’s Latino and Hispanic communities through classes, workshops, events, festivals, and plays. Martínez also founded Nuestras Raíces, Rhode Island’s longest-running oral history project capturing and celebrating stories from Columbia to Cuba to the Dominican Republic.

RILA’s new(ish) Central Falls home allows public visits to La Galería del Pueblo in addition to community gatherings for everything from dance lessons to drum circles and from poetry slams to performed plays, but the organization recognizes that not everyone will travel to Central Falls – so they decided to bring their art directly to the greater community.

Executive Director Martínez sat down with me to share how Rhode Islanders can learn more about Hispanic/Latino arts and culture and how artists’ work during the pandemic has literally opened doors.

Welcome to RILA

“We wanted a welcoming, vibrant space that makes people feel happy,” Martínez tells me, gesturing at the walls around us which indeed are all of those things. We look together at family heritages pinned on a world map by scores of RILA visitors who’ve stood where we’re standing – not only from Mexico, Latin America and South America, but also from Europe, Africa and Asia, because you don’t need Hispanic or Latino ancestry to appreciate the culture.

Martínez sounds energized just talking about the artists who enjoy RILA’s space, brightening as she points to chairs where plays started as scripts and where spoken-word productions began as poems. “It’s like a blank slate for ideas, and it’s exciting to see them develop,” she says. “I love being in the room for those moments when things come out.” With musical instruments tucked throughout the rooms, magic can spontaneously happen at RILA.

She recalls an unplanned but beautiful collaboration between a tap dancer and a percussionist who wowed everyone around them at RILA. “With visual and performance and culinary art, with music and videography, there’s so much to watch and see what happens next,” says Martínez.

I feel that I stump her a bit when I ask her to pose in her favorite spot for a quick photo, as to be fair the space brims with paintings, drawings, photos and sculptures of all kinds, and I can tell that asking for a favorite spot at RILA is like asking a mother to choose a favorite child. But she humors me, choosing to pause among several beautiful drums, pining for the days when percussionist sent beats throughout the space: “Drums are so happy.”

The Traveling Puertas

When the pandemic hit in 2020, RILA, like other organizations, had to pivot from in-person to virtual gatherings and creations. Artists who rented physical spaces to make everything from jewelry to pottery were hit hard, and Martínez researched and secured some small grants to help provide struggling artists with rescue funds. During this time, the idea was born to commission several Latino artists to document their quarantine experience through art.

RILA provided Stephannie Cames, Tamara Díaz, Rene Gómez and Pablo Youngs with a unique platform to express what was on their minds while working in isolation: two- and three-panel doors. Each artist created something completely unique to their style, and the resulting installations can physically travel around Rhode Island to bring Hispanic and Latino art to all residents. RILA has often been contacted by schools and libraries to provide art for exhibit spaces, but now the “traveling doors” are being requested by private businesses such as banks, too. RILA is happy to arrange for the art to come “visit” anyone willing to host them, and eventually hopes to themselves exhibit the doors in an outdoor space.

We look closely at the door panels by Pablo Youngs, whose artist statement noted that their inspiration came from his Mexican cultural heritage. “I felt our Lady of Guadalupe was looking down on us, ready to listen to our prayers and to protect those who died during the pandemic,” Youngs had written. “The skeletons are images I use in most of my work.”

Día de los Muertos recognizes death as a natural part of the human experience, following birth, childhood, and adulthood,” Martínez explains. “On Día de los Muertos, the dead are considered part of the community, awakened from their eternal sleep to be in spirit with their loved ones. The idea is, you shouldn’t mourn them, because they will be with you forever.” In the spirit of Day of the Dead, people have been able to release their grief by sharing their stories with Martínez, finding healing through art and storytelling.

It takes me a moment to realize that she has hand-painted the names of loved ones lost to COVID-19 in very tiny letters on very tiny crosses on the panel we’re looking at. There are already too many crosses, but dozens of cheerily colored post-it notes hold additional names that are waiting to be painted onto additional ones, immortalized on the door panels. Among the most heartbreaking is the note, “I love you, Mom – Dylan.”

When I ask Martínez what her favorite reaction has been to people encountering the doors, from Rene Gómez’s candid social commentary to Tamara Díaz’s colorful observations to Stephannie Cames’ larger-than-life portraits, her answer is instantaneous: connection. “You can see people forming a connection with the work,” she says, “and it’s always beautiful to see that.”

What’s Next for RILA

Although they hope to retain 209 Central Street as a home base – and what many artists consider an actual home – RILA needs a bigger space. They are looking for a second venue to host larger productions, perhaps at Trinity Rep or at RISD. Artists are also selling some of their wares online to connect saleable art with patrons.

RILA also plans to take more events outside for more members of the community to enjoy, particularly those feeling uncomfortable being indoors. They’re planning for pop-up events in warmer weather, from bachata dancing to a crafts table, and plan on continuing collaborations with local businesses such as Mills Coffee Roasting Co. and Bomes Theatre and with the Southside Cultural Center of Rhode Island for additional off-site events and galleries.

During the winter, RILA’s gallery is open to the public by appointment only. However, you can check their website to view and register for various classes and workshops.

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