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Latino artists in Kansas City formed a collective powered by a shared experience of migration

Two men paint the image of a luchador drinking an espresso on a large canvas while outdoors.
Zach Perez
Rodrigo Alvarez (left) and Isaac Tapia (right) finish a live painting display at Johnson County Community's Cultura Fest.

The Migrating Assembly for Stories and Art, or M.A.S.A., started as a group of Latino artists who had migrated to Kansas City looking for support and community. Now they're organizing in an effort to showcase their work beyond their own communities.

When people hear the word masa, art may not be the first thing that comes to mind. That’s because it’s the name for a type of dough used in many popular Latin American dishes, such as gorditas, tamales, and pupusas.

The dough is known for its versatility in cooking and its malleability, two qualities Edwing Mendez says made it a perfect option when looking for the name of a growing art collective.

“It's something that you can move around and break up and everybody can have their own version of it,” says Mendez. “That’s what we liked about it.”

Mendez, a 33-year-old graphic designer and art director from Miami, Florida, is one of the members of the Migrating Assembly for Stories and Art, or M.A.S.A.

13 people pose in two rows in front of a plaque that says "Migrating Assembly for Stories and Art."
M.A.S.A. members posed together at the group's first joint art exhibit at the Mattie Rhodes Art Center in July.

The emergent group is now a collection of nearly two dozen Kansas City-based artists and art consultants who share a history of migrating to Kansas City from elsewhere in the United States and beyond: Dallas, St. Louis, Uruguay, Chile, Peru and Mexico.

Isaac Tapia, Erick Felix and Victor Antillanca, a muralist, illustrator and filmmaker, respectively, first met as a group in November 2022.

“I was there at the very beginning when there were just three people,” says Tapia. “It definitely grew to something really big. It's come so far in such a little time.”

While each journey to Kansas City was different, M.A.S.A members say they found community with one another through the shared experience of migration. Now they're organizing in an effort to showcase their work beyond their own communities and establish their identities as artists beyond their Latinx roots.

“That was the one thing that we all had in common,” says Erick Felix, a 35-year-old printmaker and illustrator from Los Angeles, California. “We all migrated here and started doing art.”

Those shared experiences also carry a shared burden, includes losing parts of their identity in their journey to Kansas City as well as the growth they found after settling here.

“We have a kind of shared trauma,” explains Dani Coronado, a 33- year- old painter and art teacher from St. Louis, Missouri. “It’s the heritage of where you come from or where your family comes from, and the ideas and expectations placed on that.”

The group is holding its second exhibit, Lost and Found, this month at Kansas City, Kansas Community College.

While it’s only the second time members have worked together on an exhibit, the group's rapid growth and variety of art mediums excites them about their future as an organization.

Several pieces of are hang on the wall of an art gallery.
Shai Perry
M.A.S.A.'s second joint exhibit, Lost & Found, is being displayed at the Kansas City, Kansas Community College until October 27.

‘My work is reduced to my identity’

While M.A.S.A is not specifically meant to be a Latino-only collective, it was formed from a scattered collection of Latino artists who felt a lack of support from the broader arts community.

Rodrigo Alvarez, a 35-year-old metal sculptor and muralist originally from Uruguay, says that he and other members often felt siloed and excluded when trying to find work.

“When Isaac and I started doing murals, we had a small Latin community that was super helpful, but there were also voids in that community,” says Alvarez.

He believes that M.A.S.A. can expand the support he received and help young artists move away from the limitations their ethnicity can present.

“We thought we could fill that for the next generation. We’d make a space for ourselves to just be artists beyond us being Latin.”

Marisa Adame-Grady, a 28-year-old writer and filmmaker from Dallas, Texas, is proud of being Latina, but the fact that it’s often the only part of her work that gets noticed bothers her.

“A lot of my work is often reduced to my identity,” says Adame-Grady. “I write about mental health, family lineage, and legacy, but then whenever I would try to get published, it's always, ‘Oh your work's not brown enough. We don't know you're Latina if you're not speaking Spanish in your poems.’”

Many of the visual artists claim they’ve had similar experiences, especially this time of year.

A man stands in from on a painting a crowded art gallery.
Zach Perez
M.A.S.A. founder Isaac Tapia stands beside his featured artwork at the Mattie Rhodes Dia de los Muertos Family Festival.

They say during Hispanic Heritage Month and the Dia de los Muertos season, demand for their work is high. Some believe that they and the other artists at seasonal events only have their art on the wall because they are Latino.

“Sometimes the artwork doesn't even line up with each other. It's just different things that collectively don't speak to who these artists are other than their identifier as Latino,” says Coronado. “We’d like to break those boundaries and say, ‘Here's how we as individuals are going to represent ourselves in the art world.’”

Even as members attempt to move away from discussions based solely around their identities as Latinos, they don't want to lose the rich cultural context their art comes from.

“It’s not that we are against having these conversations. I think we just want to get past that '101' stuff,” says Edwing Mendez. “There's so much more interesting things to talk about in the breakdown of (our culture’s history and experiences.) We want more substance to come out of it, not just the usual Dia de los Muertos and Cinco de Mayo ideas.”

‘It takes all kinds of people’

As M.A.S.A continues to help its membership expand their reputation as artists, its founders are hoping that it will also be able to open up new options for where they show their work.

A few members have already been shown at the Nelson Akins Museum of Art and The Kemper Museum, but others would like to see more widespread representation of M.A.S.A artists in such established institutions.

“We get invited to go do live printing or do school murals or do live drawings (out in the community,)” says Felix. “We're all a bunch of talented artists but we're not in a lot of these bigger galleries. We’re good enough to be up on those walls.”

As some members begin to find greater success, others hope that by collaborating and networking with one another, they can reach bigger audiences with their work.

“Eric and I are collaborating on a lot of print stuff. I know (other members) have worked on videos,” Mendez says. “It's been great. Yes, we have the group, but the group doesn't have to control everybody's projects. Everybody can kind of organically help each other out.”

Three people stand in a sketch artist's studio while having a conversation.
Zach Perez
M.A.S.A. members Erick Felix, Dani Coronado, and Edwing Mendez discuss an upcoming festival in Felix's studio in the Bunker Center for the Arts.

As the group gains more attention, they hope to move their existing exhibit beyond KCKCC. Members are seeing interest from others within the arts community and are using it to move beyond their label of a Latino arts collective.

“We are the Migrating Assembly for Stories and Art, and that's all we are. We're not trying to put labels on ourselves or say, ‘You have to be this type of person and this type of artist.’” says Coronado. “(Being Latino) was a great bonding point to start with, but we want to expand more.”

Beyond expanding membership to non-Latino members, the group is also looking at attracting members that can assist them with the business side of the art industry.

Right now, a few members serve informally as copy editors and exhibit curators. Mendez believes that it is important for M.A.S.A to understand the business of art in order to sustain the venture long term.

“The art world isn't just artists,” he says. “It takes all kinds of people for it to exist. Dani is an educator, I’m an art director. We may not all have art in galleries, but we’re all part of a network that helps an art industry exist.”

M.A.S.A's Lost & Found exhibit will be on display at the Kansas City, Kansas Community College Art Gallery until October 27.

As KCUR’s Community Engagement Producer, I help welcome our audiences into the newsroom, and bring our journalism out into the communities we serve. Many people feel overlooked or misperceived by the media, and KCUR needs to do everything we can to cover and empower the diverse communities that make up the Kansas City metro — especially the ones who don’t know us in the first place. My work takes the form of reporting stories, holding community events, and bringing what I’ve learned back to Up To Date and the rest of KCUR.

What should KCUR be talking about? Who should we be talking to? Let me know. You can email me at zjperez@kcur.org or message me on Twitter at @zach_pepez.

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