Victor Payan and Sandra “Pocha” Peña Sarmiento need a wheel barrel for what’s on their plate. The married couple organizes the annual OC Film Fiesta—under the umbrella of their Media Arts Santa Ana (MASA)—and run OC Cinema Camp and the Mural and Media Class for youth. Up next is the Philip K. Dick Science Fiction Film Festival March 15-17.
Some MASA workshops, guest filmmaker programs and other assorted community events have been presented with such partners as Bowers Museum, the Santa Ana Unified School District, Orange County’s Heritage Museum, the Mexican Consulate and Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Peña Sarmiento chaired Santa Ana’s Arts and Culture Commission while running in the City Council Ward 2 race in November, in which she finished second to Councilman David Penaloza. (Her takeaway: “So much of politics is performance art.”)
But Payan and Peña Sarmiento just received 50,000 reasons to take their act on the road. Creative Capital chose them from among 5,200 applicants to receive one of 50 $50,000 artist grants.
“I’m used to grants of $7,000,” Peña Sarmiento says. “This is definitely game changing.”
Creative Capital fills a vacuum created in 1996 by Congress, which mandated that National Endowment for the Arts grants go only to projects, not to individual artists. Mr. amd Mrs. MASA had participated in a workshop the New York City-based nonprofit staged a decade ago, and they had applied for grant funding three or four times before. But the couple’s expectation was to again get frozen out by, as Peña Sarmiento put it, “New York people giving New York awards for New York stories about New York people.”
Such cynicism is justified. Of the 50 latest Creative Capital recipients, the only other Southern California projects this cycle are: Riverside gender-nonconforming/transmogrifying artist Ni’Ja Whitson’s dance performance The Unarrival Experiments; Santa Monica playwright/choreographer/stage director Larissa FastHorse’s South Dakota Lakota community-generated Native Nation; and, from Los Angeles, Lauren McCarthy’s data-visualization and performance-art piece Surrogate and Alison O’Daniel’s sculpture/video art story of a deaf drummer, The Tuba Thieves. (Kia LaBeija and Taina Larot’s photo/experimental film project Wom(y)n With a Y boasts LA and New York as bases.)
Rising to the top with Creative Capital required a bold, ambitious proposal. Payan and Peña Sarmiento offered up a modernization of French diplomat, historian and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville’s sociological study Democracy In America (or De la Démocratie en Amérique as it was known in two volumes published in France in 1835 and 1840).
Figuring Tocqueville ended his journey without encountering a massive geographical region, let alone entire populations, Payan and Peña Sarmiento tweaked the name to Dreamocracy In America (Nuevo DIA), which is described as “a take-no-prisoners time-travelling transdisciplinary tour of America that picks up Alexis de Tocqueville’s journey into the American character where he left off and completes his epic project by examining immigrant- and refugee-detention centers, Native reservations, and communities west of the 1831 U.S. border.”
No wonder it is the only Santa Ana project to get Creative Capital recognition. “Our application was a reflection of our times, this multidimensional intersection of society,” says Peña Sarmiento. “We’re reflecting that reality, so it’s really great they opened up to include us.”
That’s important because it also exposes MASA to the nation’s big three charity foundations (the Ford, Rockefeller and MacArthur). The selection process alone had the couple meeting with representatives of the Smithsonian, various New York galleries and the Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts.
“It also opened doors all over the region, including Los Angeles,” says Payan, adding that it has put spotlights on the larger Santa Ana and Orange County art communities.
He estimates it will take five or six years (and two more election cycles) to complete Dreamocracy In America (Nuevo DIA). The couple is currently mapping travel plans that so far include stops in Denver, San Diego, the Mexican border, and Arizona and New Mexico Apache reservations. “Santa Ana will definitely be one” project city, notes Peña Sarmiento, who was born there.
The goal is to share what they know about stagecraft with migrants, DREAMers, indigenous Americans, transgender warriors, and MeToo and Black Lives Matter activists—or, as Payan put it, “all the communities that are being attacked right now.” The couple will in turn learn from them, and all will create art together.
“We will be speaking with people about the issues they are grappling with, what they are most wounded by, and we will use theater and poetry to deal with that,” says Payan, “even game shows.” (Peña Sarmiento has experience with those from past work with Telemundo and the Latin American Fox Channel.)
Whatever the format, healthy doses of humor will be added because “we can heal with laughs,” says Payan.
“Humor is a really sharp tool in breaking through biases and the old order,” adds Peña Sarmiento. “Humor gets you around the suffering and changes the narrative to something else.”
They will wind up with a national project “because in the end we’ll have a total view of the picture,” she says of Dreamocracy In America (Nuevo DIA). The couple vows it won’t detract from ongoing local projects, but rather enhance them.
Asked if footage from their travels might flash on OC Film Fiesta screens, Payan replied, “Oh, yeah,” as though it were a foregone conclusion. The veteran of documentary filmmaking for public television already envisions a “Dreamocracy In America” theme for a festival short-film challenge.
“We’re going to have a lot of fun with this,” Payan says. “It is still kind of sinking in, the impact this will have not only with this project, but also with our careers. I’m excited. We invite everyone to be a part of it.”
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.