Connie Chavez is a Peruvian self-taught filmmaker and photographer with a passion for solidarity work, education, and visual activism. Her project, Alegria Peruanx, is a culmination of her experiences as an immigrant to the United States and her desire to educate and heal through art. First launched in New York City the project has since grown, traveled to Los Angeles, and evolved – much like the creator. Chavez spoke with BELatina about her motivations to start the project, the process, and how Alegria Peruanx is truly a testament of community support.
How long did you have the idea for Alegria Peruanx and what finally motivated you to truly pursue this project?
Since migrating to the U.S. in the 90’s, I’ve always felt a sense of isolation. “What’s a Peru?” I would often get as a kid.
My parents did their best to educate us on Peruvian history, to fill us with a sense of pride and belonging since we had no community or family in New York – except for my grandmother. But being a kid who was made fun of pretty regularly for the way I looked, what I ate, where I was from and how I spoke, made me want to distance myself from anything having to do with Peru. I was never able to put into words all the isolation I felt. But I knew I was lonely because I couldn’t find a community like everyone else. I was sad because my Peruvian accent was slipping away from all the years I spent trying to sound like anything else. I was aggravated because the Peruvians I did meet would tell me I wasn’t Peruvian enough because I didn’t know the history. I carried all this anger, resentment and isolation with me into my mid 20’s. Then in 2017 two different experiences led me to unpack my immigration story and think critically about my views on Peruvian culture and representation. Since then, I have connected with many Peruvians across the country and even internationally that have felt the same way I have. Alegria Peruanx has healed me in ways I am only beginning to understand. It is the reason I went from surviving to thriving.
You launched the Alegria Perunax project in November of 2018. The event had a photo exhibit and a talk back session where Peruvians had conversations about the historical and modern day effects of the political climate in Peru that has led and or contributed to generational mental and emotional trauma. Why did you choose to include a talk about this during the photo exhibit?
I decided to include a conversation about the historical and modern-day effects of the political climate in Peru, and how that contributed to mental and emotional trauma, because it’s important that people understand how powerful hate can be. Hate isn’t simply a thought or a small action with no consequence. Hate is alive. Growing stronger in its ignorance, fueled by the fear of the collective, transforming and transitioning into whatever is most convenient at the moment. One day it looks like a sentence, the next day hate looks like a terrorist group, the next day it looks like a President, the next day it looks like our entire government. We – as Peruvians – create the climate for hate to thrive in. Allowing our own people to be hurt, ‘othered,’ forgotten and killed by its rampage. Hate even engulfs our babies before they are born. Disguised as fear, hate is passed down and finds its way into our nervous system and chemically destabilizes us. That is what happened to my family and countless other families within the last 40 years. My family experienced terror first hand and I, being in my mother’s womb felt her despair, sadness and pain. But if you can pass down hate in your DNA, then you can also pass down Love.
Love can transform. Love can heal. Love can educate. Love can tolerate. Love can unite. Love is more powerful than hate, but love requires a great deal of labor. Love can eradicate hate but only once we, as a people, as a community and as a country make that decision together. I wanted that talk to inspire people to understand the effects of what hate created. And that love can be critical, demanding, painful but absolutely necessary.
The people in your photos come from diverse backgrounds, genders, race, and social standings – did you intentionally choose these people to showcase or where they referred to you? Why did you choose to have such a diverse cast of people?
Alegria Peruanx started as a photo series. I intentionally wanted to feature Peruvian people who were not represented in the media. I put a call out on social media looking for Afro Peruvians, Queer Peruvians, Fat Peruvians, Indigenous Quechua & Andean people, and all people with ancestry from the Andean region. The response I received was overwhelming. Within a day my inbox was flooded with 150+ emails of people who wanted to be part of such a necessary project. I was in shock because I didn’t even know 150 Peruvians, but here they were ready to make history with me.
The audience of your New York City Algeria Peruanx exhibit was extremely intergenerational. Did you receive feedback from the audience about the talk back? If so, what was some of that feedback?
The mentality that I started this project with still had much growth to undergo. Some of the things that I said at my first gallery aren’t things that I agree with today, and community helped me realize that. It has been a process of unlearning, rebuilding and forgiveness of self. This project has always been a community-based project and I want to respect and honor the truths of the entire community. I want to give thanks and honor the community members that called me in and helped me realize this. I think it’s important to truthfully acknowledge that a change in the project did not come about through me, but rather a gentle reminder from my community. As this project grows, I feel it’s important to honor and state my privileges to better stand by my initial reason for creating this project. And that is to bring our community closer together through compassion, understanding and Alegria.
As a result, Chavez has refocused the mission of Alegria Peruanx:
Alegria Peruanx is a multimedia community-based archival project aimed at educating, unifying and healing the Peruvian American Diaspora. This project adds to the already existing conversation of accurate representation for Peruvians and creates events aimed at uplifting our community member’s work, supporting local Peruvian owned businesses and creating a safe inclusive space free of xenophobia.
According to Peru’s 2019 mental health reform assessment published by The World Bank Group and the Peruvian Ministry of Health, 1 in 5 Peruvians have a mental health disorder directly correlated to the decades of violence, conditioning and intergenerational trauma, how do you approach these sensitive conversations about what they have experienced when speaking to older Peruvians?
Many Peruvian people, but specifically the older generation, are deeply nationalistic. Having conversations about accountability, acknowledgement and inclusion has it challenges, especially when folks have been hurt by one another. For the events in LA, I wanted to try another approach a conversation that is still rooted in pride and history but ultimately healing, collaboration, forgiveness and community. I choose to integrate the teachings of our ancestors and Indigenous community into the events, conversation and artwork. I built an art installation called The Altar Of The Collective Conscious that was an overall theme of these events.
“The Altar of The Collective Conscious is a call for peace and unity inspired by Andean Cosmovision – the spiritual knowledge of the indigenous cultures in the high Andes. Their knowledge revolves around the importance of integration, collaboration and harmony. In this art installation, I choose to integrate the spiritual knowledge of Andean Textiles that teach us about the interconnectedness of our spiritual and physical worlds, storytelling as resistance and the power of evolution. We as a people have an ancient responsibility to take care of one another is a way to facilitate conversations on forgiveness and solidarity.
How was the Alegria Peruanx LA event different from the New York one?
My first event no one knew what the hell I was doing therefore the support was understandably not there. I did everything for my first event entirely by myself. I stretched myself too thin and ended up exhausted beyond belief. I asked my five homegirls to help me the day of the event – from set up, ushering people in, working the welcome table, collecting donations and break down. Shout out to Kat, Amarie, Ash, Silvana and Evelyn! However, for the events in LA I was supported the entire journey by community members who only knew me and my work via social media and volunteered their time to facilitate the curating of events. I want to give a huge shout out to Kimberly Hernandez (@kmbrly.hrndz) the event planner for both LA events, Celeste Aliaga and Catherine Garces for going above and beyond in their dedication, love and support. It’s a beautiful lesson in community. Community will show up for you, as long as you have put in the work for them. Gracias a ustedes!
Alegria Peruanx is about to turn one year old this November! How does that feel?
I feel very grateful and privileged to be able to create these events in different cities. This is 100% a community effort and without their constant support, teachings, patience, love and alegria, these events and even the takeovers would not be as successful as they are. I’m excited for the next phase of Alegria Peruanx and will soon announce what we have coming up!