Feb 5, 2018
30 Under 30, Class of ’18: Lauren Argentina Zelaya, Cultural Producer
Neighborhood: Crown Heights
Most Likely To: keep it real with you (and have fly nails)
Favorite Quote: “Caminante, no hay puentes, se hace puentes al andar. (Voyager, there are no bridges, one builds them as one walks.)” – Gloria E. Anzaldúa
Lauren Argentina Zelaya has a fierce personality and an even fiercer resume. If you pass by Lauren in her neighborhood of Crown Heights, you’ll probably be able to recognize her by her brightly floral-patterned clothing or razor-sharp painted nails. Previously at the Queens Museum and the Museum of the Moving Image, Lauren currently serves as an assistant curator of public programs at the Brooklyn Museum. It’s here that she curates Target First Saturdays—a free event that encourages the community to engage with art and local culture. As a curator, advocate, and educator, Lauren is committed to developing programming specifically for LGBTQ+, immigrant, and Caribbean communities.
What is your earliest memory associated with what you do now?
As a kid, my mom put me in art classes and always had art books around the house. Art was always a refuge for me—a window into other possibilities.
When did your occupation become real to you?
I started producing events and DJing parties with the student-run radio station when I was at Smith College. That was when I first fell in love with, and was able to learn about, event production. When I realized the endless ways that art can be a vehicle for celebrating difference and sharing multiple narratives and that it has the power to bring people together, create empathy, heal and transform our world, I was hooked.
The first time I witnessed the magic in action was when I first worked on the team that produces Target First Saturdays at the Brooklyn Museum, which welcomes thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds to come together and enjoy art for free each month. The joy and energy still has the power to bring me to tears. Wherever I am, I want to keep creating spaces like it.
My work as a cultural producer and curator became real and felt sustainable when I found mentors, colleagues, and collaborators that not only made me feel comfortable bringing my full self to my work but respected and valued me for my specific perspectives, experiences, and identities.
How does Brooklyn/your neighborhood particularly inform your work?
Brooklyn is globally influential in terms of art, music, and culture. It is in constant dialogue with so many places in the world. There is no shortage of talent to celebrate here. I stay connected to culture through formal partnerships as much as I do chatting with my barista in the morning.
Living and working at the intersection of rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, like Crown Heights, Flatbush and Bed-Stuy, it’s important for me to get to know the creators and communities that have been here and center the culture that makes the borough so desirable to so many. I book talent that is Brooklyn-born and raised as well as newer residents or immigrants who call the borough home. I’m fiercely committed to the work of using my position to contextualize and preserve the rich cultural heritage and traditions of our surrounding neighborhoods.
What do you feel is most challenging about being where you are now?
Striking a balance between my work and taking care of myself. Lack of money, time, and resources to produce all the projects I dream about. Even for a museum professional it’s becoming increasingly difficult to live comfortably in this neighborhood. Arts-related work is undervalued in our culture.
What’s most rewarding?
Creating spaces of joy and learning for hundreds of thousands of people. Witnessing artists and creatives whose work I provided a platform thrive and gain recognition. Centering the narratives and voices of artists and cultural creators who we don’t historically hear from in museums. Sharing my resources and power. Paying people for their creative labor and sharing what they create with folks for free—because I believe access to art and culture is a human right.
When artists I work with or people who attend my programs or parties share that they see themselves represented and feel heard in a space I curated, I know I did my job.
What’s your most significant accomplishment to date?
When a film series I curated was reviewed in Art in America. A close second was probably when my father first visited me at work and was beaming with pride after taking in the majestic building full of art that I work in. He has always supported me even when he doesn’t understand me—but if you have an immigrant parent and choose a non-traditional path like working in the arts, a moment of validation like this is a big deal.
Who/what inspires you?
People who are brave enough to tell their own stories and make art unapologetically. Queer women artists and cultural creators who have come before me whose names I am lucky enough to know and those I don’t. People who work tirelessly for equity in the arts and in our communities. My mentors Keonna Hendrick, Shelley Worrell, and Adjoa Jones de Almeida. The teens who host LGBTQ Teen Night at the Brooklyn Museum. Fierce creatives from Brooklyn like MeLo X, Latasha Alcindor, and Blacka Di Danca. The resilience of my brother who is formerly incarcerated and has been in recovery for 4 years. The confidence and style of both of my late grandmothers. Nail technicians who make art on the tiniest canvases. The writing of Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherrie Moraga, Sandra Cisneros, Toni Morrison, Ana Castillo, Julia Alvarez, bell hooks, James Baldwin, and Teju Cole. Films by Reina Gossett and Pedro Almodóvar and the women in them. The music, art, and activism of Chavela Vargas, Frida Kahlo, Lady Pink, Amy Winehouse, Prince, Grace Jones, Carmen Miranda, Nina Simone, Linda Sarsour, and Berta Cáceres. La Virgen de Guadeloupe. Freestyle music. Blue skies. The sea.
Thinking about the future, where do you see yourself in the next 30 years?
With my wife in our cozy, art-filled home. Our grown kid(s) is/are out of the house. We are somewhere warm. With tans and laugh lines. I am reading a good book.
What’s next for you?
You can always catch me producing Target First Saturdays at the Brooklyn Museum, which is the first Saturday of every month and is free and open to community. I’m also currently curating a performance series of new work by female-identified and gender non-conforming performance artists of Latinx descent to take place in July. I have a bi-weekly radio show that you can listen to here. The party I host with my friends called ‘sin título‘ will be back at ode to babel in the spring. Each party fundraises for qpoc-centered causes and communities and all are welcome.
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