In late September, writer-educator-activist-podcaster Karla Estela Rivera became the first executive director of Arts Administrators of Color (AAC), a service organization that advocates for BIPOC artists and administrators, after serving for three years as the executive director for Free Street. (She began collaborating with Free Street in 2012.) Born in Puerto Rico and raised largely in Albany Park, Rivera has been challenging authority from an early age.
Interview by Kerry Reid
Photos by Eddie Quiñones
You know, the science fair was always a pain in the ass. In an ideal world, you get help from your parents. So they’re social scientists, so they’re like, “Well, why don’t you do a social experiment?” My first science fair project was about TV’s influence on homework. And so I sent kids home with surveys about what kind of grades they got and how much TV they consumed. That did really well. And then there was a whole other one I did about divorce and its impact on kids. And then my eighth-grade teacher was like, “You can’t do any more social experiments.” Because she said it wasn’t real science. And so my eighth-grade science fair project was on “Are the social sciences real sciences?” I surveyed all of the teachers in the school.
I went to [University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign] for a little bit. Hated it. ’Cause I’m a city kid. From a really young age, I was told, “This is your city. This is your backyard.” As soon as I could get on the train by myself, I was going to the train by myself. And I feel like there was a lot more opportunity back then—this is the 90s—for this inter-neighborhood city exploration conversation.
Maybe this is my own experience, but I went to Sayre Language Academy on the near west side. Kids from all over the city were going there. If there was a birthday party in Austin, I was going to that birthday party in Austin, you know? And so I had always seen the city as my city. No matter where I live.
My mom’s brother had a huge hand in raising me. He was a high school dropout who got his master’s and PhD at Harvard. He came back here to the city, taught sociology for twentysomething years. Then he and my aunt had their own business. It was diversity consulting and a lot of education consulting. And that’s the lens I always had.
Since I was a kid, I’ve always been a storyteller. Always. My grandmother was a self-published poet and writer. And her autobiography is the only text that exists as the firsthand account of the generation of Puerto Ricans before my parents. It is all about her growing up in rural Puerto Rico. And then it ends with her being on the boat, coming to New York. She had a seventh-grade education, worked in factories, all of that. But then after she stopped working, I just always saw her writing on legal pads. At family reunions and stuff, she would recite her poetry and all of that. So that’s always been a through line for me. And then when she passed, I wrote my first play.
I studied journalism. This won’t come as a surprise, but you know, the arts economy being what it is, I don’t think that my family doubted that I had talent, but they were like, “We have no money to support you chasing your dream.” So I started at Gallery 37. I was one of the OG Gallery 37 kids. I did playwriting with Pegasus Theatre. Second year I did the New Expression journalism track. And I just stayed. I caught a lot just going downtown, being in the Cultural Center, people watching.
I went to grad school at NYU for a bit. And it was a very dark time. I was in the dramatic writing program. I realized how regular I was. There was an elitism that existed amongst the cohort and there was already, like, cutthroatness happening and the overintellectualization of work. And I had just spent ten years working in dive bars, you know? I think all the good stories come from real human beings. No one with airs about themselves—just heart. And what I found at NYU was a lot of head and very little heart. I think there was a vision I had of living in New York that was informed by being rugged and living poor. But none of the kids at NYU were living poor. Very few of them came from poor or struggling backgrounds.
I became a teaching artist. I did a program called Project Playwright where we went into schools in rural Vermont, New Hampshire. I taught playwriting to sixth graders. But it changed my life because it was there that I was like, “Oh, I can utilize this.” Coming from educators, I really gravitated towards it and I was good at it. I came back here and taught theater at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and I became a company member of UrbanTheater Company. And then I got pregnant. [Rivera’s husband, Ramon Charriez, is a member of Latinx sketch troupe Salsation!] I was trying to find my space in the ecosystem. So I went into nonprofit [management].
This whole time I knew about Coya [Paz] through the theater world. We were like passing ships. When she became artistic director of Free Street, she began to have these conversations with folks across communities about what Free Street could be. And I was at the first meeting. She invited me and I was like, “Well, I’ve got a baby.” I had been kind of systematically handled or pushed out in some previous situations because I was like, “You have to accommodate my kid,” or “You have to deal with my new timeline and schedule.” She was like, “Bring the baby.”
I had found this group of folks that were multihyphen. They were out in community, they were social workers, they were teachers, they were artists. In my soul, I had always pushed against this notion that you had to be one thing. ’Cause I was never one thing. I mean, some people find their vocation right away, and God bless them. Like, that’s their jam. But I just always knew I wanted to be artistic, I wanted to make an impact, I wanted to be involved in social change, however that came out in the wash.
One of the reasons why I was attracted to AAC—and I’ve been a part of their programming for the last three or four years—was because of a situation at a previous job. I looked great on paper. But I was not allowed to do the things that I very much felt needed to be done from an organizing and an advocacy standpoint. And I wasn’t trusted.
We have a Facebook group that’s made up of just all folks of the global majority. “Anybody ready to leave the field? How can we help support you regardless if you leave or stay?” And these are folks across the country desiring a larger salary and more time for their art and family. So work-life balance, pay equity. You know, financial stability is a whole thing. People are already planning their exit strategies from the sector. “I’m so tired and frustrated by five point five years of patronizing disrespect and disdain from outside majoritarian stakeholders who think I am dumb and a waste of space, and that the communities I want to enlist and empower are meaningless.” This work is exhausting and [AAC] is one of the spaces that recognizes that. And I think, particular to the arts—this is our vocation. And I think there are very few, if any, career fields where you have a deep passion and connection to the work, and you are asked to settle for less consistently.