Isabel Contreras, a Stockton native and VCU Arts alumna, was named Community Builder of the Year for the 2023 NEXTies. The award recognizes her contribution to the Santa Cruz community through the establishment of Mi Gente CA in January 2022.
Mi Gente CA was born out of Isabel’s desire to address the underrepresentation of BIPOC artists and entrepreneurs in Santa Cruz County events. After moving to Santa Cruz post graduation Isabel noticed this gap in representation and decided to create the space she felt these creators desvered. Her vision for a culturally-centered event organization sought to amplify and support her underrepresented neighbors.
Get to know Isabel below and be sure to join the NEXTies award show happening at Woodhouse Brewing on March 31. Get your tickets here.
Describe what you do in two sentences.
Isabel Contreras: Mi Gente CA creates culturally centered events to amplify and support underrepresented artists in Santa Cruz County and beyond. Our events range from arts & culture festivals, to dance socials, to networking events for under represented artists and allies.
What inspired you to pursue your current path, and how did you get started?
Isabel Contreras: I’ve pulled inspiration and motivation from all different parts of my life starting from childhood. Growing up in a Mexican household, I don’t want to say my family was entirely unsupportive, but there was definitely some skepticism and hesitation given it was a “risky” career choice. I tried to veer from it and find something more “reliable,” but it was my calling and passion, and I couldn’t silence that voice.
The second big piece to my puzzle was moving to Virginia. I moved in the middle of high school to Williamsburg, like Jamestown settlement Williamsburg…from Stockton… Needless to say it was a huge adjustment, but really helped me hold onto the things I took for granted when I was home; which was that cultural representation that I discussed previously.
After graduating in 2019, I moved back to California anticipating the same culture I grew up immersed in and found that wasn’t the case in Santa Cruz. After being locked down, processing & mourning my old life, and longing for a place that I felt safe & represented, I was feeling a little depressed and discouraged. I was tired of going to events and art scenes that lacked Black & Brown representation. I definitely sat around (I’ll say COVID lockdown was my excuse) and waited for someone else to do it, especially because this wasn’t “my town.” But I finally accepted that I was getting those messages from the Universe because I was the one being called to do something about it. I threw my first event in October of 2021 and connected with artists from Watsonville for Dia de Muertos in Soquel Village. They started sharing their stories of finally feeling seen, being invited to an event in Santa Cruz FOR THE FIRST TIME, and expressing their gratitude for something so meaningful. And so, after much internal debate, I came out SWANGIN’ with Mi Gente on January 11, 2022.
What do you consider to be your biggest achievement so far in your career, and why?
Isabel Contreras: I think continuing the work to deliver the mission and vision of Mi Gente, day after day, and staying very true and dedicated to my own personal and professional growth is my biggest achievement. I am humbled to be recognized for the organizational work, which is super dope, but the internal work is FOR SURE the hardest and most rewarding. Entering a new town (a small one at that), speaking up about my story and my mission, ignoring gossip, these are things that are hard enough to deal with on a surface level, but pushing past my own self-doubts in addition to those issues is the biggest feat in itself.
What are you most looking forward to in 2023?
Isabel Contreras: I’m looking forward to enjoying the fruits of my labor and pacing myself a little more this year to focus on the main goals and projects I have planned. I met so many great people and connected with so many organizations last year, so I plan on continuing to cultivate those relationships further. I was also recently appointed to the City Arts Commission so I’m super excited to use my voice to invite, elevate and empower others while in that new role. I feel like the more I listen lovingly to what I have to say and the more I envision the spaces we need, the more that I am able to share that through the work of Mi Gente. I do have some stellar projects lined up for this year, so everyone will just have to stay up to date on announcements!
What are your future career goals and aspirations?
Isabel Contreras: I am definitely looking to extend past Santa Cruz with this work in the future. In the meantime, I feel like I haven’t completed the work I set out to do here yet. I am still actively exploring how to create a more meaningful degree of impact on our community, and want to continue to ignite more passion for cross-culture collaboration and appreciation. Until it becomes a normal part of Santa Cruz culture, I will continue to make a statement through the events that I curate. Receiving city recognition with the Mayoral Proclamation, being appointed to the City Arts Commission, and now the NEXTies award, all in my first year of doing this work, has really reassured me in using my voice to advocate for others through arts & culture. So whatever my future has in store, I know it’ll be somewhere up that alley of empowering others.
What role do you believe mentorship and networking have played in your success?
Isabel Contreras: This has honestly been a new one for me. I remember back to being in an arts business class at VCU, our instructor taught us lessons on how to network. We had to really practice our elevator pitches and be prepared to come with an “ask” whenever we met someone. To be honest, I avoided networking for that very reason. It felt so unnatural to me and I wasn’t the type of person to ask for anything (still working on this). Since I was super unfamiliar with community work, I decided to start meeting with experienced professionals and artists to get to know them, their stories and professional experience. As a result of sharing similar interests, they began to ask how they can contribute to seeing my vision come to life. I remember coming home one day and surprisedly sharing my experience to my mom, to which she responded, “Isabel, you do realize that’s what you’re doing. That’s what networking is.”
All that to say it’s been the base of my work. One of my main goals is to connect the community and reach further to these unseen and underrepresented groups, so talking, connecting, networking, whatever you want to call it, has been crucial to building trust between myself and the community. On top of that, asking for help and guidance, especially from local community members, has helped me understand the history, culture, and dynamics of this town so I know how to move forward intentionally and with impact.
How do you stay connected with your community?
Isabel Contreras: I do my best to attend and support many community events especially given that I am fortunate to be connected and supported by so many of the artists and organizers now. I’ll bring flowers (literally) and jump at the opportunity to shoutout mi gente, because people deserve their recognition while they’re still here!
I am always doing my best to welcome and talk to everyone at my events and listen to their stories and reciprocally validate their thanks and experiences, not because I have to, but because I genuinely love to connect with such sweet folks. It’s such a contradiction because although I’m an introvert, I cannot be found in the same place at any given community event because I’m so busy greeting people, hugging people, or connecting people.
What does being a NEXTie honoree mean to you?
Isabel Contreras: To be honest, it’s a huge deal. I’ve never received an award and given what I mentioned about not feeling welcome entering into this space and this work, I feel like it’s definitely a statement I’ve worked on getting others to recognize my entire life: Artists of color deserve celebration and recognition for our work. We need to be at the center of this movement; it’s our own stories and experiences that need to be amplified. Though we use our own gifts to showcase these topics through visual arts, music, dance, performing arts, etc. this is the voice of all our people - toda nuestra gente. We tell the stories of the world in a way that others can understand and identify with. We cannot exist or survive without art. It is our roots, it is our history, it is our truth. And because Mi Gente CA, an organization focused on holding a space for just that, I feel like it’s a step in the right direction.
Who will be joining you at this year’s NEXTies award show on March 31?
Isabel Contreras: Lots of wonderful human beings: my beautiful family, my loyal friends, new and old, and my loving boyfriend. I know my full-time staff already have their tickets and hopefully some supporters of Mi Gente CA will be in the house!
Anything else you would like to share?
Isabel Contreras: I just want to say thank you to everybody who has truly seen me and my work from day one. As much as people express how welcome, loved, and valued they feel through Mi Gente, I feel the same and am extremely grateful for the collective celebration and healing we are sharing with one another. It has made this work extremely rewarding and sacred. Stay up to date with Mi Gente events on Instagram at @migenteca or through our website at migenteca.org!
Celebrate with your NEXTiesDress up and come out for an evening in honor of those in Santa Cruz County who inspire the community.Friday, March 31, 2023 - 6:00 PM