Sacramento gets Sol

A new collective dedicated to education, youth activism, social justice and multicultural arts opens on Del Paso Boulevard

Estella Sanchez uses art and social activism to help keep kids away from drugs and gangs.

Estella Sanchez uses art and social activism to help keep kids away from drugs and gangs.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Spray-painted on the south-facing side of the sign that juts from Sol Collective’s storefront on Del Paso Boulevard is “Soul Salon ‘Troubleman.’” The word “troubleman” refers to the Sol Collective’s current art show featuring artists’ interpretations of Marvin Gaye’s life and work. The show came from the Museum of the African Diaspora in Oakland and includes a piece composed of military jackets hanging on a wall with red paint behind them; another includes mountains of flour, symbolizing Gaye’s cocaine habit.

But the Sol Collective isn’t simply an art gallery showing provocative work. It is a space where the people who live in the neighborhood are meant to feel welcome. Sol Collective also aspires to bridge Sacramento’s diverse cultures through multicultural arts events, provide hands-on educational programs for children and teens who otherwise might be tempted by gangs and drugs, and support social-justice activists by providing a space for meetings and fund-raisers.

“I want these kids to know that they can use art as an escape mechanism, rather than doing drugs or joining gangs,” said Blanca Gabriele, 16, who teaches a break-dancing class. “Dance is a real good expression for anger and releases stress. Places like this can change a child’s life.”

Twice a week in the afternoons, local artists provide area youths free classes in photography, guitar, silk-screening, break dancing and Aztec dance. Upcoming events include a fund-raiser for a documentary called Inventos: Hip Hop Cubano, about the hip-hop scene in Cuba; a youth gathering; and a cultural festival.

Estella Sanchez founded the Sol Collective in May and is one of seven core members. In a first meeting, she came across as unhurried and focused; she wore long, gold-colored earrings and thin-rimmed glasses, and her black, waist-length hair was tied up and fastened with a pencil.

She said the idea for Sol Collective grew out of the feeling that “every time I came here, I felt sad we didn’t have spaces I found in New York City or the Caribbean. We’re one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country, but we don’t have a place to celebrate that.”

She also drew on her experience as an organizer over the last three years for the Libertad Tour, which takes young, poor artists to Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico to perform and network with artists in those countries. “If I could take 120 people with no money and be successful in doing these tours and meeting with the community, then I could do something in Sacramento, in my own city, where I grew up,” she said.

Sanchez grew up in Oak Park and works as the youth-program director at the Sacramento Black Alcoholism Center. She dropped out of C.K. McClatchy High School when she was 16. “I never found anyone I connected to,” she said. Later, she went to Sacramento City College, where she became involved in student activism. “I found people who were mentors. It made such a big difference in what I ended up doing—working with youth who get in trouble, working with youth who don’t go to school.”

An organizer rather than an artist herself, Sanchez considers having an adult mentor an essential element of helping at-risk and disadvantaged youths make positive life choices. “You need to find something you like to do, or find a teacher. That’s what we’re trying to do with the arts. We’re trying to teach kids,” she said. “We don’t have any fancy computer equipment. Sometimes what’s more important than the actual program is having someone [the kids] can connect to.”

Sol Collective’s biggest successes may be Victoria Balderas, 17, and Dea Montelongo, 16, who currently are working on a film they plan to screen at the Sol Collective’s youth program in the fall. The film is about “the schools-to-jail pipeline,” as Balderas calls it, concerning schools that don’t provide enough resources and are unwilling to deal with students who act out—particularly those students most at risk for turning to gangs and drugs.

The film comes out of each of their personal experiences. Balderas, who will be a senior at Sacramento High School this fall, says she had no direction or ambition until she met Sanchez. “I had nothing going for me. I was just stuck,” she said. She turned to drugs and gangs. “What I do now, I’m a political activist—I’m a youth activist. If I hadn’t met Estella, honestly, I don’t know what I’d be doing or where I’d be.”

“Part of the work I’ve done here is getting them back into school,” said Sanchez. “We have a mural program and other things. I saw that it worked. Victoria and Dea, they were excited about gangs. It’s part of the culture they see growing up, being Mexican, being African-American—that you have to dress a certain way, you have to talk a certain way. It’s showing them an alternative, that that’s not all there is to it.”

Sometimes, that alternative needs only be an affirmation. “For someone to be there and say, ‘You can do this’ or ‘Try this,’ it was really inspirational for me,” said Balderas. “I look at my future, and there’s so much I know I can still do.”