Artivists in City Heights: An Interview with Diana Cervera

(UN)Sheltered Conversations 2017 (The AjA Project) 

(UN)Sheltered Conversations 2017 (The AjA Project) 

Professor and author M.K. Asante defines an "artivist" as an individual who uses their art  to “fight and struggle against injustice and oppression—by any medium necessary.” This interview with artivist Diana Cervera will be the first in a series of pieces highlighting women of color working to cultivate spaces where social justice and the arts intersect in San Diego.

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The AjA Project is a non-profit organization based in City Heights working to teach underserved youth in Juvenile Court & Community Schools how to “turn the lens outward” and critically examine issues that affect their lives and communities through the arts, particularly with an emphasis on photography. Last Summer I had the opportunity to volunteer with the organization. This is where I met Diana Cervera, artivist and Program & Artistic Coordinator at the AjA Project.

What is your name, what are your preferred pronouns, and where are you originally from?

My name is Diana Cervera, my pronouns are she/hers. I am originally from San Bernardino, California and my family is originally from Yucatan, Mexico.

Diana Cervera of the AjA Project

Diana Cervera of the AjA Project

In your own words, can you describe what the AjA Project is?

The AjA Project is an organization rooted in the heart of City Heights. It is a home and refuge for the community here. We do more than just teach photography, I think we really provide a space to creatively intersect photography and social justice -- in such a way that we can ultimately impact larger narratives and discourses about the various communities we serve. Beyond what we do, we are also a family where the personal is political and our lived experiences as immigrants, refugees, trans-border folx and, people of color inevitably inform the work we feel passionate about creating for and with our communities.

Why is art important to social justice?

Art is revolutionary work. It is probably one of the only things that has the power to change the way we imagine our world and each other. Art can help to paint the vision for change or for hope when politics and rhetoric alone cannot. It is a companion to the movement, the songs or poems we need to hear when feeling like we cannot push forward. Art creates hope. It allows us to express struggle, joy, pain, and if only for a moment it can make the impossible real and tangible.  

How do you think the AjA Project has had a positive impact on the San Diego community?

For the past 17 years, and within the various phases of it’s history, AjA had provided a platform for critical self-expression. I find this to be very important especially when thinking about the current administration and it's exclusionary policies often using rhetoric that paints immigrants, refugees and people of color in a light of otherness and criminality. AjA provides a space to create the counter-narratives and counter representations to those that dominate popular media. On the most basic level I think our impact is really to validate the experiences folks bring to the table and help promote those experiences as valid, powerful and central to the fabric of what an inclusive society can really look like.

Printed with photographs taken by BorderClick participants. 2017 (AjA Project/BorderClick)

Printed with photographs taken by BorderClick participants. 2017 (AjA Project/BorderClick)

What are some creative projects you are involved in outside of AjA?

Outside of AjA, I am currently working on a short documentary project entitled Mujer Mariposa: Voices of Womxn on the Periphery which is a short documentary film tracing the lives, experiences, and relationships between first generation migrant womxn and their daughters. The film's narrative seeks to position and explore how the often unseen labor being done by migrant and refugee mothers of recreating home is a revolutionary act of resistance. I also make earrings and am working on utilizing that platform to highlight WOC artists and their work. My brand is called Poderosa Earrings and you can find it on Instagram.

Poderosa Earrings

Poderosa Earrings

How has social justice influenced the way you approach your artwork?

I dabble in a few different mediums including music, spoken word, and theatre and think that social justice is always at the center of my work. Whether in the subject matter of my poetry or the need to create spaces that elevate the stories of POC. I believe art has the power to transcend the conscious reality and impact our material world.

Can you tell me one or two things you would like others to know about the AjA Project?

AjA stands for Autodeterminacion Juntado con Apoyo which translates to self-determination united with support. I would want people to know that AjA does more than just teach photography. Beyond teaching youth how to utilize the rule-of-thirds or how to determine the correct exposure, we work with communities impacted by institutional racism, discrimination and exclusion meaning, that our classrooms have to be about more than just pretty pictures. We are trying really to revolutionize this idea that representation matters and that self-representation is critical to self-determination, especially in this current political moment. I would want people to think about photography and the work our youth are creating in our programs as tools for transforming narratives our communities have historically had no control over.

Note: a previous edition of this article mistakenly featured a project from the Collective Voices project lead by artist Rebecca Goldschmidt in 2016. We have since removed the images.