Supporting Spirit through Bomba and Philanthropy

Vanessa Camarena-Arredondo

I was making my way home from the Financial District to the Mission on the train after work, feet pinched by the not-so-comfortable shoes I wore as part of my daytime drag, nose buried in some reading about cultural participation in the region while texting Ilia, one of the dancers in the group I sing with, about picking her up for rehearsal.

On the ride to Ilia’s, my personal, work, and creative “to do” lists duke it out for top billing. Sometimes all three fall to the floor in exhaustion, and at other times there are glorious triumphs among them that spark a call to Mom, excitement about an organization we’re funding at work, or a breakthrough on a melodic conundrum for Bomba practice.

Ilia and I arrive for rehearsal in West Oakland at the house of Denise, our lead drummer. She’s prepared a roast with salad and freshly brewed iced tea, and there’s beer and wine for those who need a little something extra. Eight hungry women push open Denise’s door sometime between a seven o’clock call time and when they can make it. Amidst sharp elbows (my own included) and stories about dreams, family, and lovers, I serve my plate. It occurs to me that the women, Las Bomberas de la Bahia, have made it to the center of my heart, with the rewards outweighing the challenges, of which there are many! Dinner begins.

At the table the conversation asserts its place between stabbing hands constantly swooping at the roast. The conversation centers on how we will pay for skirts, instruments, and teachers to come from Puerto Rico, Chicago, and New York, where there are many more practitioners and teachers of Bomba, an Afro-Puerto Rican musical tradition established by the slaves who worked the sugarcane plantations on the island.

I view Las Bomberas as a microcosm of the larger community in many ways. Although there never seem to be enough funds, a deep purpose and need call us to this work and motivate a do-it-yourself spirit among us. At the risk of romanticizing struggle, there is a fierceness and a freedom in the DIY spirit that permeate the nonprofit cultural sector.

In my day job, I am the Arts and Culture Multicultural Fellow at the San Francisco Foundation. In this role, I have been able to interact with and appreciate the myriad and diverse artistic and arts administration talent in the region. Through the fellowship, I have been thrown head first into the mix of grantmaking and have been expected to come with a perspective while having extreme sensitivity to the challenges that the community and the nonprofit sector experience in their efforts to declare a space for creative work.

The role has allowed me to observe all the complexities of running an organization — mission, staffing, programming, budget, leadership, boards, funding, burnout, and so on — albeit from the comfort zone of a funder. It has given me a new appreciation for the importance of supporting and building infrastructure for diverse traditions and creative communities to thrive. This is not an easy task because, although there are many nonprofits in the region, not all communities have the infrastructure to support a grant in the way the Foundation is set up to give them. There are many groups, like Las Bomberas, who play a vital role in communities but lack nonprofit status and many times are without homes/organizations where they can build their work, so they end up fully funding themselves.

Part of the onus is on the group. How do we come up to speed and develop a structure and presence in order to secure grant support? However, the onus also lies within philanthropy and government to continue to think about how to build infrastructure to support such groups and how leadership in these communities is recognized and engaged. How can philanthropy adjust itself to address this question?

In this work I have learned that although there is a rigor involved in being a good grantmaker and supporting the development of creative spaces and individuals, there are still more questions than answers about how to sustain work in the cultural sector and, especially, in DIY-spirited communities of color. With the challenges the current economy has presented, affirming the importance of the arts is all the more important. Bomberas is spirit work for me, and good grantmaking, I have learned, supports the spirit as well.

Vanessa Camarena-Arredondo is an Arts and Culture Programs Fellow at the San Francisco Foundation and a vocalist with Las Bomberas de la Bahia.