“I started trying to see what we could do to really create a pipeline for students who are creative. Students who really want to get into a creative industry. Finding out what things they needed to do to be able to do that.”
Humberto Perez, Education Coordinator E4 Youth
LACE chatted with Humberto Perez, Education Coordinator at E4 Youth, about some of the challenges and opportunities that come with being educators in our communities. Humberto even shared some advice for Latinas/os/xs who envision a career as artists and/or educators.
Verónica: How did your journey as an educator in the arts start?
Humberto: My journey started… I guess I would have to say in college. It is not necessarily that I wanted to become an educator as much as I knew that I wanted to be a creator. In college, I really explored a lot of areas within the arts… Mainly music, theatre… The humanities in general. I ended up finally deciding to major in Spanish and minoring in Theatre. When I graduated, I really did not know what I was going to do. I just knew that I wanted to be creative. I graduated from the University of Houston and I lived there.
Eventually, I moved down to the Rio Grande Valley where I met this amazing theatre teacher. His name is Gilberto Zepeda. He is a nationally recognized teacher and an advocate of arts education. His wife was a principle in a middle school and they had a really strong theatre program. While I was there, Gilberto ended up getting a Disney’s 1999 American Teacher Award in the Arts. I think he was the only educator to ever serve on the Texas Commission on the Arts. He was then appointed, I think, by Governor Ann Richards and won a Texas Medal of Arts Award. So, to say the least, I had a great mentor. [Laughter]. Gilberto started connecting me with a lot of people in the community there in the Rio Grande Valley.
He kept asking me if I wanted to go and teach. First, I was really hesitant. I did not want to go into an institution! [Laughter]. He did teach me how to navigate the system. He was not too fond of the institution, but that is why he always told me, “Why do you think I married a principle?” He learned how to navigate that world through that.
I actually went to their house and I got to meet his wife and everything. By the end of the dinner, she was like, “Well, you have a job if you want to come work with me.” That is how I ended up teaching Theatre in middle school. I walked into a program that was just amazing. They had amazing teachers. I ended up leading that department and… Just learning a lot… Keeping it up to that level where they have had it and going beyond that. That is how I got into the educational part of it, but I have always considered myself an artist first. Someone who just likes to create and get stuff out there.
Verónica: Where are you in that journey right now? I know that you are working for youth. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Humberto: Yes. I taught Theatre down in the Rio Grande Valley for seven years at the middle school. I also had a chance to teach in Spanish because they have a dual language program and they asked me to teach some classes in Spanish because of my educational background. We ended up doing a bilingual comedy impromptu troupe. We ended up doing plays in Spanish and things like that.
Then I moved up. I have always wanted to live in Austin because of all the creativity and all the artists who were here. I taught two more years in middle school teaching Theatre Arts, and then this position at John B. Connally High School opened up where I would be able to teach Audio-Video Production. I was really interested in that because I have always been interested in technology and integrating it into the arts. I took on that position and ended up teaching at Connally for nine years. While I was there, I met Carl [Settles, Founder and Executive Director of E4 Youth]. Carl was basically giving marginalized youth—mainly youth of color—opportunities to know what kind of industries exist here in Austin to get them exposed to them. I credit him and E4 Youth for helping to build the great program that we have at Connally High Cchool.
One of the things that I keep seeing—even today—and it goes along with what Carl says a lot. It is that if you are a creative kid in a marginalized community, you cannot afford to be creative. Literally. You cannot afford it. You have to work. And that is just the reality. If you are a creative kid who has resources, you can afford to be creative because you can afford it. That was one of the big challenges that I was seeing with the young people from our marginalized communities.
I started trying to see what we could do to really create a pipeline for students who are creative. Students who really want to get into a creative industry. Finding out what things they needed to do to be able to do that. That is a huge part of the reason why I stepped out of the classroom after nine years. I currently work with Carl now because I want to work in a lot of different marginalized communities and provide tools, workshops, mentors—whatever it takes to collaborate with these young people and make sure that they have the skills to be able to work in places like McGarrah Jessee, GSD&M, or Sherry Matthews. Places like that.
Verónica: Those are all amazing projects. What is an average day at E4 Youth for you?
Humberto: An average day… Well… [Laughter].
Verónica: If there is such a thing!
Humberto: Not really. It is kind of like teaching. Everybody always asks, “What is your day like when you teach?” Every day is different. This job is definitely not boring. If you are bored, then you are not doing your job. [Laughter]. I could not do the same thing every day. That would drive me nuts. For me, it is about making every day different. What I mean by that is that even when I was in the classroom, it was always about finding ways to make things fun and engaging. Every day at E4 youth is different because a lot of times, I end up going to schools and traveling to meet with students. Sometimes, I am at home working on the computer answering e-mails. Sometimes, I am trying to figure out other solutions to problems that we encounter. And then writing curriculum. I love spending my time talking with students and finding ways to teach them how they can tackle problems. And ways that they can teach themselves how to learn. If they can learn how to learn, then they got it.
Verónica: Right. That is half of the battle.
Humberto: Yeah. So yeah, I do not have a typical day! [Laughter] I hope it stays that way.
Verónica: What are some of those ups and downs that you face sometimes at work?
Humberto: I know our program works. It works because I have seen it work for eighteen years as an educator. I was trained by very amazing people and I saw the results of their training on me. I used a lot of their strategies and a lot of their pedagogy, and I see results every day. Even if they are incremental and small. That is what they are supposed to be. I think that the most frustrating thing is that I know we have solutions to a lot of problems but funding is an issue. People are talking about all these problems that they have with young people, yet the solutions that we have work. It is not that I want to have a ton of money. That is not why I do this. But I do want to have a steady income and I do want to do this for the long-haul. I took a huge pay-cut to come do this, but in order to continue doing it, I have to make what I was at least making as a teacher. It also frustrates me because people say, “Kids are not showing up to school. Kids are not engaging in activities. Kids are not learning.” Well, they are engaged with us. They show up, and they learn, so it is frustrating to know that we have a solution but that funding is difficult.
Verónica: Absolutely. You are touching on what I think is one of the biggest challenges for educators and artists who want to go to non-profits. You have all this amazing work that you know is important and gives results, but you do not have the income or money to sustain those programs. A lot of non-profits have a very short life precisely because of funding. It is a challenge. And yet, we do it. There is a lot of passion there.
Humberto: Yeah. And it just brings communities together. I have seen the ways it brings these kids together. For us, it is not just an organization. It is like a culture. What blows my mind is when these kids are all hanging out together. Kids who did not know each other, kids who might have not even talked to each other, and all of the sudden they are building community with each other and working with each other. Like I mentioned, just bringing a whole community together and solving problems that people are talking about in the news. We are solving those problems.
Verónica: Speaking of challenges, but also how rewarding this work is: What is one piece of advice you would give to Latinas/os/xs who are looking to become artists and/or educators in the arts?
Do not listen to the nay-sayers! I think a lot of that comes from education. I know that my dad and I butted heads a lot. I think that he kind of knew I was creative from an early age, but he was always like, “You are going to be a lawyer, doctor, or engineer.” That was his attitude. I was always in music and all those other things, but I never got to do that because all throughout school, he wanted me to get A’s and B’s, and I never did. I find that a lot of creative Latino and Latina kids are creative and their parents do not understand that they can make a living being creative. I think that a lot of people end up telling them, “Hey, do not do that. Go get a real job.” You know? [Laughter].
Verónica: Right. Yeah, it is a big thing in our culture.
Humberto: Yeah. It is. I do not think that it is because our parents are mean or have mean intensions. I just think that they are not educated about the reality that you can make a living being creative and what kind of pathways are available for young people so that they can continue being creative. I would just say: Do not listen to the nay-sayers. If your heart is telling you that you are creative and that you want to be an artist and want to do something creative and get paid for it, then there are ways to do it. Find organizations. There are so many arts organizations. There are so many artists. Reach out to them and find out how you can continue doing what you are doing. Do not stop what you are doing. Eventually, you will run across amazing people like I have had the fortunate of doing by going to school. Hopefully, they will help you leverage those creative talents and skills that you have.
Verónica: Our guiding question at LACE (Latino Arts Culture and Education) is, “What if arts were for everyone?” Let me ask you: How do you envision a world where everyone has access to the arts?
Humberto: One of the first things I do when I work with young people is that I tell them to look around. I tell them to look at their clothes… Their shoes… Everything was made by somebody. Your building, your chairs, even. I really find it hard to believe when humans tell me that they are not creative. I just feel like a lot of us already show the way we are creative just by the way we design and form our homes, our buildings, and everything that we do. We just need to be more conscious of the fact that we are already doing it and bringing our communities together to share those art experiences—that storytelling, that food. If you think about it, there is this Texas Folk Life Festival that happens in San Antonio every year. There is food, music, and storytelling between people. One of my friends says that one of the most amazing things you will see is the Jewish community over at the Palestinian place eating food at the courtyard, and then vice-versa. The Palestinians are over there with the Jewish people to eat and share their culture as well. It was really every culture sharing with each other. That is what makes the arts so powerful. It is sharing each other’s culture and what we have created. Food, music, storytelling, and art. That is what it is. That is what brings us together.
Verónica: That is wonderful. Thank you. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Humberto: No, just thank you so much for including me in this. This is really cool. I am just grateful to share a little bit of my experience about what I do and hopefully inspire somebody else.
Verónica: Absolutely. That is one of the goals of this blog. A lot of it is to get to know each other because sometimes we are here but we do not know other communities, and in part it is also to inspire other people. Thank you so much.
Humberto: You are welcome.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.