Artist Isabel Contreras has made quite an impression since arriving in Santa Cruz County.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
City Life

‘She’s a connector’: How Isabel Contreras is building an emerging arts culture for local people of color

“A lot of young folks, they’re just trying to find their way in the world,” one Santa Cruz County arts leader says of 25-year-old Isabel Contreras, who has made a splash with both her art and her community organizing, “but they don’t usually take the kind of leadership that Isabel has taken on. It’s very unusual.”

When artist Isabel Contreras first moved to the area, she did not even realize that the cities of Santa Cruz and Watsonville were in the same county. The two seemed so different, not only in their demographics, but also in their orientation to community and the arts.

Many locals are quite familiar with the cultural divide that separates Santa Cruz and Watsonville, and have taken for granted that this odd-couple coexistence is just how things are here in the 831.

But as a newcomer who arrived fresh out of college, Contreras began to question what too many locals have accepted as business as usual. Why, for example, is Latino representation so strong and rich in Watsonville, yet nearly invisible in Santa Cruz?

“That’s definitely what I noticed,” she said. “I mean, I was looking for more places where my artwork would be valued, and people would understand it. And I just felt like the places or events or festivals that were already here were — I don’t want to be mean — they were pretty generic.”

So, she decided to throw her own cultural festival, in Soquel, to celebrate the Mexican observance of Dia de los Muertos. That was in the fall of 2021. And, though she had started her planning only two weeks before the event, it was a big hit.

“I just went hard,” she said. “It wasn’t until the actual festival when I was walking around, checking up on [the 20 or so vendors to the event], and hearing their stories, it felt like, wow, this is so amazing. [People were saying to me], ‘I’ve never been to anything like this in Santa Cruz. I’ve been here for however-many years and I’ve never been invited to an event like this in Santa Cruz.’”

Since her arrival in the community in 2019, Contreras, 25, has not only established herself as a visual artist with a striking signature look and style, but she’s also taken it upon herself to act as a cultural catalyst, an organizer with a taste for logistics and connections. She is that most prized of commodities on the county’s arts/culture scene — a young person with vision and energy, and with a distinct artistic point of view, willing to do what’s necessary to create cultural touchstones, to bring hidden or overlooked communities out into the open.

“She has a very clear vision of what needs to happen,” said Consuelo Alba, the director of the Watsonville Film Festival who has been doing similar culture-building work for years. “[When I first met her], we also had a great conversation about values. And I think that’s where we also resonated deeply. That was my question when I first talked to her — I mean, yes, we can do these events. But why are we doing them? And what I love to see is that every time she has an event, she displays her values.”

A painting by Isabel Contreras of a woman with a panther behind her
Aptos-based artist Isabel Contreras mines her personal background and her Mexican and Indigenous cultural background for her striking personal art.
(Via Isabel Contreras)

Though she’s only 25, Contreras has already had many varied experiences within communities that are defined by cultural expression. She was born and raised in the largely Mexican American part of Stockton, in the Central Valley. As a child, she learned to live and thrive in the liminal space between mainstream American culture and the Mexican culture of her grandparents. As a teen, she moved with her mom and sister to Virginia, settling near Williamsburg, a popular tourist draw for its theme park-like representation of 1700s colonial America, not exactly a milieu where a Chicana from California could find a lot of footholds. When it was time for college, Contreras enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy and the hometown of iconic Confederate general Robert E. Lee, again a radically different environment than what she was used to growing up in the Central Valley.

After graduating from VCU’s highly regarded art program, she moved to Santa Cruz County, where her sister was enrolled at UC Santa Cruz. She now lives in Aptos, almost halfway between Santa Cruz and Watsonville.

Since coming to Santa Cruz, Contreras has established two entities to move forward both her art career and her community activism. The former is Esa Chabe — taken from her childhood nickname — an entrepreneurial imprint from which she can take her original artwork and turn into everything from prints to smartphone cases. She and her mother most recently showed her Esa Chabe line of merchandise at a booth at the Watsonville Strawberry Festival.

Contreras identifies strongly with her Mexican American upbringing, but she also learned she has bloodlines that connect her to the Navajo in Arizona on her maternal side and the Purepecha in Michoacan on her father’s side. Her artwork reflects all those cultures, as well as what it means to be a Latina in contemporary America. Her artistic themes and motifs draw from cultural sources, but they also celebrate a kind of swagger of being a strong and defiant young woman in the modern world.

“My art is very much like a visual diary of the things I’m thinking about or going through personally,” she said. Many of her pieces, she said, are self-portraits both as a young woman and as a child, as she mines both her past and her ethnic heritage for clues on who she is now. “That’s one thing people don’t understand about art. You have to go backward in order to go forward. You have to do the unlearning to relearn.”

The other part of her efforts is the community part, expressed in her organization Mi Gente, which she uses to build culture and host events. Under the Mi Gente banner, Contreras has organized several events since the pandemic, including Brown Babes, a series of get-togethers for people of color, with an emphasis on socializing and networking, dance events and festivals, including a block party with the Santa Cruz organization Barrios Unidos. In the fall, Mi Gente is hosting the AfroLatine Festival on Sept. 16, celebrating the commonality of those from African and Latine backgrounds, and MexiPino Festival on Oct. 14, marking the common threads between Mexican and Filipino cultures. Both events will take place at Woodhouse Blending and Brewing in Santa Cruz. Contreras will also throw herself into the planning and celebration of the Dia de Los Muertos observation in October in Watsonville.

“I’m super impressed with her passion,” said Val Miranda, executive director of both the Santa Cruz Art League and Pajaro Valley Arts. “But not just her passion. Because there’s a lot of passionate young people out there with amazing ideas, but not all of them actually make it happen. She does. She’s a connector. A lot of young folks, they’re just trying to find their way in the world, and they may volunteer here and there, but they don’t usually take the kind of leadership that Isabel has taken on. It’s very unusual.”

Contreras insists that she has an introverted nature and did not come to Santa Cruz looking to take a leadership role in culture-building. Establishing oneself as an artist is hard enough.

“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” she said, in reference to those first efforts at establishing festivals and events. “I did it, just because I wanted to create a space for myself as an artist. I didn’t realize what I was actually doing. I very much only wanted to focus on my artwork, get a little art job somewhere, and then eventually leave Santa Cruz. It’s still not necessarily my goal to settle down here. But I don’t think my work is done here yet.”

FOR THE RECORD: This story has been updated to correct the date of the AfroLatine Festival; it is Sept. 16.

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