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Christina Boomer Vazquez: Woman as Warrior

Woman as Warrior
Curated by Sergio Gomez and Didi Menendez
Zhou B Art Center, Chicago
August 18, 2017
Interview with Deputy Director of the PAMM by Heidi Elbers

HE: “Woman as Warrior” is an exhibition dedicated to female empowerment, to women who are heroes among champions. The show’s co-curator, Didi Menendez, notes that our first experience with “warriors” can be found almost anywhere – at home, school, work, or even seen in the news. What does “warrior” mean to you, and who were your major role models who inspired you growing up?

CBV: My grandfather influenced me greatly. With his broad smile and quick wit, Andrew Vazquez could find a stroke of sunshine in every cloud. It was magic. Like so many during his time, he came to America from Cuba in pursuit of freedom. What he encountered was a world that didn’t quite understand the way he looked, the way he spoke, or the way he liked his coffee. A former Havana Law School student, my grandfather had to give up studying law and instead scrubbed cold floors at a Chicago factory and walked on layers of thin ice to and from the small apartment he occupied with his expecting wife and young son. The sunlit days were short, the winters long but never was there a hint of hardship in his description. Without bitterness or remorse, my grandfather often recounted for me each moment of his life with a sparkle in his eye. 

Each obstacle was a moment of reflection, each defeat a learning lesson. He was also a fierce defender of freedom of expression and freedom of speech. He understood the transformative power of words and images. He believed holding the powerful accountable was both an art form and one’s civic responsibility. As a Miami-Dade County auditor, he never backed down from a fight. He could be dogged in his devotion to transparency. But it was his unique ability to find the humor in just about any slight that I think afforded him the resiliency one needs in life. I truly believe it takes courage to be hopeful. To bet that the best is yet to come. To see possibility in the wake of life’s daily storms. Much of life is about learning how to thrive even after being dealt a perceived bad hand.

A ‘warrior’ is someone who tirelessly and courageously harnesses hope against any obstacle in pursuit of a cause. Emboldened by conviction, tenacious and resilient, a warrior powerfully inspires others with her fearless spirit and fierce determination.

Shellie Karabell was another inspiration and guiding light in my life. The veteran journalist has covered most major international news events since 1980 throughout Western and Eastern Europe and the Middle East for outlets such as ABC News, PBS, AP Broadcast, and CNBC.

I often think about how lucky I am that my path collided with Shellie Karabell in the sun-splashed, mid-century modern, California desert city of Palm Springs in 2004. Shellie empowered me to find my voice. Both figuratively, (not tolerating anything less of resolute confidence in expressing thoughts to connect with others) and literally, (instructing me to belt out Peggy Lee tunes for practice in pacing and intonation). She was ruthless in her critique and I loved her candor. This was a woman who broke barriers, dodged bullets and covered Presidents as she stood on the front lines of history in the making. By teaching me a bit about everything, from sommeliers, to poise under pressure, she left a lasting imprint on me through her fearless pursuit of truth and fierce defense of democracy.

HE: You are totally a warrior in the work force. In your career as a journalist, you’ve immersed yourself in difficult situations, maintaining strength and composure. What motivated you to pursue and, more importantly, persist in such a demanding field?

CBV: The desire to pursue journalism took root during the first Gulf War. I was 13 years old, documenting each development with pink and purple pens in a series of journals. One day I was listening to a radio reporter in the field in the thick of battle and that was the moment. History was always my favorite subject growing up and I thought as a journalist I could stand on the frontline of history.

As for what motivated me to persist. The short answer, one word, you. That’s who I fought for each and every day. You. The community. When I covered immigration in Arizona I used to deal with an inbox of hate mail. The vitriol included death threats some even urged me to “kill yourself”. That never deterred my insistence that all voices in what is a nuanced debate should be heard, my determination to give context to spin, to speak truth to power and to encourage empathy for different perspectives. I have also braved dangerous situations including a solo trip to San Pedro Sula, Honduras at a time when it ranked as one of the most violent cities in the world. Armed with my camera, I hired a fixer to help me navigate local roads as I explored why an unprecedented number of unaccompanied young children were fleeing along the dangerous migrant path north to the United States. I wanted to understand their plight, share their perspective, and uncover the social, economic and security reasons driving that heartbreaking decision in order to offer viewers context to what was a national conversation. With ‘Call Christina’, the investigative consumer protection segment I created, I felt honored to both assist and fight for economic crime victims. My team worked tirelessly to help thousands of individuals and families. My primary motivation behind every story was rooted in a fundamental desire to be in service to the community and to democracy.  

HE: Being a warrior implies some level of invincibility but also a whole suite of challenges. What were some hallmark career moments where “nothing could stop you?” And, to counter that, were there ever any hurdles that felt insurmountable?

One moment that comes to mind when I read your question is a series of investigative stories I produced alongside a key mentor, veteran investigative producer Mark LaMet, documenting how the Maricopa-County Sheriff’s Office had failed to investigative hundreds of sex-crimes cases involving children. At the time I was near the end of my pregnancy. It was a race against time and biology. I remember rubbing my belly and telling my daughter Mina to hang tight if she could, Mommy had some more work to do to help kids. I remember being ripe with pregnancy, in Arizona’s unbearable summer heat, and walking in for a tense follow-up interview when the public information officer quipped “when are you having that baby?” Mina was born 10 days after her due date and I swore it was because she was right there with me, knowing we were both working to get those stories on the air. We felt a responsibility to the child victims of Maricopa County who had no voice, no way of telling the story themselves. 

There have been several hallmark career moments. I went toe-to-toe with a powerful Sheriff. I uncovered how a State Senate President was targeting Hispanic activists. I confronted an out of state landlord tenants dubbed the “slumlord millionaire” to get answers for people living in deplorable and dangerous conditions. And, I held a Governor accountable for an inaccurate fear-mongering assertion that there had been “beheadings” discovered in the Arizona desert. What each of these stories have in common is that at their core they were about the pursuit of the truth for the benefit of our viewers. That goal in each case was more important than any obstacle along the journey. 

Be it from within an organization to the community at large the biggest hurdle to any endeavor is apathy. It sours and strangles the compassion, awareness and curiosity needed to fuel change and community engagement. 

In a piece entitled “Cultural Guerrilla?” Argentina-born artist Julio Le Parc writes in 1968 “I believe that one must act. Act whenever possible. Act in order to create different situations where one can develop a more concerted, more orchestrated, action. Act even at the risk of making a mistake.” He goes on to say, “The role of the intellectual and the artist in society? Bring to light the existing contradictions within each sphere. Develop an action so that it is the people themselves that produce the change.”

I think the antidote to apathy is inspiration and I think we need more inspired leaders being change makers in their fields to galvanize communities to tackle challenges from the local to global level. 

HE: You recently underwent a pretty big career shift, moving from broadcast journalism into the art world. But as Deputy Director of Marketing and Public Engagement at Pérez Art Museum Miami, you’re still actively engaged with storytelling and community building. What crossover have you experienced in the two fields?

Artists and journalists are storytellers. In a recent appearance at PAMM poet Aja Monet stated, “I believe artists are the gatekeepers of truth.” Journalism and the art world are both truth-seeking and noble fields. I like to joke that my boss never changed. It was the public. And, it still is the public. Journalists and artists live in a framework of thoughts and ideas. They share an inquisitive mind, using images and words to tell a story, share a feeling, bear witness to history, confront perceptions, convey the human experience, expose a truth, challenge the status quo. And you won’t find two members of society who fight as fiercely for freedom of speech and freedom of expression as the journalist and the artist. 

In a Nieman Storyboard article entitled “Journalism and Art: Complementary and Collaborative Storytelling” Michael Blanding explains “art and journalism began converging sometime around the French Revolution, when images representing contemporary social conditions and politics began to appear in the work of artists like Francisco Goya and J.M.W. Turner…By the 1960s and ’70s, conceptual artists like Hans Haacke and Dan Graham were using the language and structure of investigative journalism to comment on controversial social and political topics.”

What I bring to PAMM is certainly my background in community building and storytelling. I added to the staff a full-time Digital Journalist, a first of its kind position for the museum, with the aim of connecting people to art. Modern and contemporary art is by its nature challenging. Some visitors describe it as “hard”. Our goal is not to interpret the art, but to tease out details to highlight relevancy for our viewers ranging from the technique, to the artist’s background, to the subject matter in order to create new pathways for people to be engaged with the work. In addition, to both add warmth to the museum’s digital channels and make that human connection with our visitors, we are now producing a wealth of original content to include artist interviews, behind-the-scenes curator-led tours, PAMMily profiles highlighting museum staff and their involvement in the community and we just launched a new #PAMMKids Ask a Curator series where children can ask our curators the questions on everyone’s mind creating fun moments for art education. 

I have also worked to launch a new monthly series of public programming on one of the museum’s free days called quite simply, “community night”. The goal is to increase PAMM’s visibility and relevancy by inviting folks to join us in a conversation on a subject matter they care about that is timely and topical because in the words of PAMM Chief Curator Tobias Ostrander, “All contemporary art is a conversation about contemporary life.” Community night has been successful in reaching people who may not have come to the museum otherwise and is part of this effort to build relationships and foster dialogue. 

HE: Journalism is an art form in itself, so I’m interested in how that passion translates to the visual arts. What attracted you to start working with the museum? Do you collect? Create? Admire?

CBV: There was one day not too long ago when my daughter asked, “What makes us human?” From the dawn of man there has been art. Etched into stone, carved out of bone, dyed onto parchment. What makes us human is to ask the question, to sing it, to sculpt it and paint it. I have always been fascinated by artists’ minds and the prism by which they see the world and the medium by which they choose to share that with us. I also believe an arts education fosters analytical, problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. For these reasons my daughter and I were frequent visitors to the museum since its opening in the new New Herzog & de Meuron-designed Building. In fact, it was only after I accepted the position at PAMM that I learned Mina and I were already on the website! There she was, barely two years old, perched on my lap in front of a Polly Apfelbaum floor piece. 

I felt very much called to the museum and to this position. It took just one conversation with PAMM Director Franklin Sirmans over a cup of coffee to know I wanted to make that career shift.  With a mission bigger than the study and display of artworks, I believe museums can and should be a place where the community can talk about the issues we face in a nuanced and robust way. Museums play a very important role in society, far greater than perhaps in decades past, as America finds itself short on spaces created for thoughtful discussion. I’ve always felt that PAMM, with its architecture designed for public engagement and stunning waterfront location in Downtown Miami, should serve as Miami’s town square. That Franklin shared that vision, and my passion to see PAMM grow and connect with the community, is what drew me to this position. In a heartbeat I realized I could serve my community in perhaps a more robust way in this capacity. Whereas in broadcast journalism I would have to fight for 90-seconds of air time, at PAMM we can build an evening’s program. One example was last March when we built a community night program with the local school district, police department and Guitars Over Guns, an arts-based mentoring program to empower at-risk youth, for an evening discussion about youth gun violence in Miami. As a Miami native, I have been proud that we have PAMM and feel blessed to be part of an invigorated new senior team working to guide and shape its future in service to the community.

HE: In any field, career growth and being a “lady boss” can feel daunting. Young female professionals are often challenged by their age and gender, met with disbelief – “oh, you’re in charge?” Do you have any advice for young women and gender-identifying women who aspire to be “the boss” and take charge of their careers? 

Stand firm, hold your ground and know things about yourself to be true. Since my daughter was about three years old I’ve told her knowing things about herself to be true was like her Superhero power. If the truths are you are hard-working, you are capable, you are kind, you are tenacious, then when anyone hurdles an insult or casts some shade, it is like a bullet bouncing off Wonder Woman’s silver cuffs, “clink, click” - they don’t penetrate, they don’t even hurt, because you fundamentally know who you are. 

The best response to critics and the best way to take charge of your career is to, ‘do you’. Stay focused, lead with a strong moral compass, with compassion and be yourself, because after all, everyone else is taken.

Woman as Warrior
By Lorena Kloosterboe...
Photo book