An Interview with Artist-Researcher Jerome Reyes, Part I

by Leslie W. Rabine

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A few days after Jerome Reyes launched his public art project Abeyance (Draves y Robles y Vargas) on April 22nd, with a celebratory ribbon-cutting ceremony at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, he sat down to talk to SOMCAN supporter Leslie Rabine. Leslie wanted to know why Jerome, an internationally recognized artist, researcher and educator, is so passionately devoted to working with, and hanging out with, the staff and young people at SOMCAN. His fascinating story of WHY SOMCAN, WHY these relations, is being published in three parts.

Here is Part I of the conversation:

JR: "I know that you asked me: ‘Why SOMCAN?’ If you look at the range of programs and the reach of who they serve, but also at their space and what they do during the week, it’s really compelling how versatile they are. Multi-purpose is not a versatile enough word for what they truly do."

LR: "And you invited SOMCAN members to cut the ribbon during the ceremony. Can you talk about their place in the line of ribbon cutters?"

JR: "I’ll start by identifying the eight people in order from right to left in the photo: 1) Professor Daniel Phil Gonzales was an original 1968 student striker at San Francisco State University. This was the largest student-run protest up to that time. He is currently a SFSU professor in Asian American Studies. 2) Estella Habal recently retired as Professor Emeritus from San Jose State University; 3) Tony Robles is the nephew of Al Robles, the champion poet and a leader in the “I” [International] Hotel struggle. The rest are all SOMCAN members. Raymond Castillo is the tenant organizer. And then the youth who have been there for many years, Maverick Ruiz and Alexa Drapiza, are currently staff. Mary Claire Amable is also staff as well as youth commissioner for the city of San Francisco and my former art assistant. Finally, Jerold Yu is currently a student activist at Stanford. These young people grew up together in SoMa and SOMCAN.

Therefore, the youngest three are actually the lifeline, not just literally of the ribbon cutting, but symbolically, because they all are extremely public with the work they do. Even though they’re not even 21 yet. So that’s the three-generation line-up. I hadn’t realized what an epic line-up it was. But everyone in the crowd was saying ‘Wow!’ I didn’t plan it that way, that’s just who I work with."

LR: "Those professors and those young people are amazing."

JR: "Yeah, and I want to communicate to the young people: you’re an active part of this ongoing work. Many of them go to college directly with the professors that I work with. I’ve never been a student of Estella and Dan, and that’s a big difference. They are collaborators and I’ve worked with them in my research. These are wonderful relationships that the young people at SOMCAN have because they get to see everyone as resources. They also get to see that they’re just as important, and that’s a fundamental way that I work with SOMCAN."

LR: "It is amazing that SOMCAN has one room and that so much goes on in that one room."

JR: "And that one room is the perfect case study for a graduate architecture thesis about what multi-purpose means, given the history of San Francisco, the history of immigrants programming spaces for nonprofits, after-school education projects and social work.

And SOMCAN does all of that, but in an organic way. They say, ‘OK, what would be good for us to do for the community, what would we want to do to enjoy this space?’ And that’s fundamentally what they do, which is why I spend my time there. Previously I’d done long-term work on the International Hotel (I-Hotel) anti-eviction legacy. I actually have the bricks of the old building. I have two tons of the building in my home."

LR: "Wow!"

JR: "The I-Hotel struggle happened (eviction in 1977, demolition in 1981) before I was born in ‘83, but I’m a native-born San Franciscan. So if you do anything activist, anything related to housing, American studies, ethnic studies, I’ll refer to the I-Hotel case study. That’s how I work with different hats: as a researcher, as an internationally exhibiting artist, as faculty at Stanford. But to get to do all those things effectively, it’s about relationships."

LR: "‘It’s about relationships’ is a favorite expression of yours, and is really meaningful to you. Could you expand on that?"

JR: "The quality work of projects I did with the I-Hotel, for instance, and with the older people who were at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, is built over time. I get access to materials beyond academia and museums. Often, the best archival materials are never in museums. They’re in houses of people who have lived through this history and have materials getting dusty in their attics or garages.

And the way to get to this material is through the trusted relationships, where you remind them who they were. They haven’t completely abandoned themselves who once participated in those justice movements, but you’re reminding them of the amazing intellectuals and on-the-fly activists that they were, often as students, who also played music, also were artists, who then started families. They are all still those same people.

So when I say it’s about those relationships, this is the way I build that type of relationship, through trust, which is fun, and which becomes serious research. And it’s the same way I interact with those four younger people who cut the ribbon. It’s the same relationship-building when I tell them: ‘Oh, go to this professor or this organizer, they helped raise me.’ It’s so organic. It’s not extraordinary."

LR: "It seems pretty extraordinary to me."

JR: "It’s not extraordinary, because it’s so everyday for them. But it is extraordinary when you look at the range of what these young people do. Claire is only 19, she’s working at City Hall as a commissioner. She’s an activist, she’s an organizer, she’s a poet. She studies under those older academics, and they take care of her that way. Because they see that I’m working with the younger people professionally. I don’t call them youth, they’re already staff. They’ve already worked out how to have a public face in what they do in the South of Market.

If you look at the student activists in the ‘70s, similar dynamics. They worked with older immigrant laborers who had access to a history that wasn’t taught in school nearly as much as now, in ethnic studies. Younger people have so much more resources now. So when I say ‘it’s about relationships’ in terms of SOMCAN, it’s about these extremely valuable interactions that allow me to expand my artistic practice, research, and work with institutions."

This ends Part I of our interview with Jerome Reyes. Read Part II.