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Off the Cuff with Marcela ‘Xela’ Garcia

Feb. 7, 2017
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Born in Guadalajara and raised in Milwaukee, Marcela “Xela” Garcia’s professional life has reflected a need to reconcile her multicultural background into a unified, coherent identity. Art has been her preferred means for doing so. Recently, Garcia assumed the post of executive director of the Walker’s Point Center for the Arts at a critical time in the institution’s history. As it celebrates its 30th anniversary, the WPCA finds itself catering to a Walker’s Point whose demographics are shifting with the neighborhood’s development. Off the Cuff spoke with Garcia about her own past, present and future as well as that of the WPCA. 

What is your background?

My parents moved from Mexico to the South Side of Milwaukee when I was about 4 years old. I am very fortunate to have been raised in a household with a strong cultural identity. In middle school I was bussed to the North Side to attend Rufus King International High School. Being one of the few Latinas at Rufus King made me aware of my “otherness” and the segregation we have in Milwaukee. It was also when I started gravitating towards drawing, painting and dancing.

My feeling of otherness was amplified when I went to UW-Madison, where I majored in creative writing. I was involved in radio, theater production and other activities that helped me find myself and convinced me of the role that the arts play in building confidence and constructing identity.

When I returned to Milwaukee, I decided to pursue a career in non-profits. I’ve worked with Milwaukee Public Schools, private charter schools, done governmental work and plenty of volunteer work. It was a combination of all these experiences that made the WPCA appointment so appealing. The position allows me to use my passion and expertise to bring arts to the people.

How is your own work as an artist related to your passion for community building and even social justice?

Having creative outlets was transformative for me at a critical age—as it is for many teenagers dealing with normal doubts and questions. My own art explores how identity is constructed and deconstructed. It has been an empowering activity not only as my identity has undergone shifts, but especially considering the contemporary political climate with its anti-Mexican rhetoric. Art is a way of finding pride in one’s cultural background. I pride myself on being bilingual and bicultural because it’s a bridge between two worlds.

How would you describe the mission of the WPCA?

For three decades the WPCA has been a leading proponent of the arts. We provide free afterschool art programs to thousands of youth, without regard for socio-economic status. We have also built an excellent reputation for exploratory visual and performing arts programming. Our goal is to encourage and nurture creativity in people of all ages and backgrounds.

What do you see as the future of the WPCA?

Very few organizations can say that they’ve been in the same neighborhood for 30 years, which we’ve managed by being very nimble and adaptive to shifting needs. Our community is undergoing changes. The WPCA strives to provide a welcoming and inclusive place, especially for populations that are being displaced on account of development. As the demographics of the neighborhood change we can’t lose sight of who we are and what we represent. But it is equally important to serve new community members and generally to build bridges instead of walls. Over the past 30 years, the WPCA has done a great job building a base of supporters. Now we are focusing on connecting with emerging artists so as to maintain their support for the next 30 years.

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