Collective Unconquered

Israel Francisco Haros Lopez rallies a bold new type of Santa Fe art collective

The first New Mexico home for Israel Francisco Haros Lopez was a tent. In the summer of 2009, he moved here from his native city of Los Angeles and set up camp not far from Santa Fe. "I was coming from East LA—Boyle Heights—which has been going through lots of gentrification battles," Haros Lopez says. "I was getting pushed out. A two-bedroom place was already half a million, so there was no way I could ever afford land in Los Angeles."

One day during his high desert camp-out, Haros Lopez headed into Santa Fe and went on a job hunt. He'd recently graduated from California College of the Arts with an MFA in creative writing, and was looking for teaching work. "I was trying to find the place where you could register to be a substitute teacher, which is how I accidentally ended up in the Adelante office," Haros Lopez says. The Adelante Program, an affiliate of Santa Fe Public Schools, works to provide academic resources and other opportunities to homeless children, youth and their families.

Adelante's director offered Haros Lopez a job as the organization's program coordinator, and he went from temporarily homeless to uplifting homeless kids. The near-poetic twist of fate stands out as a turning point in his story, one that inspired him to harness wisdom from his own early-in-life fight for survival in service of powerful community organizing efforts. As an artist, he works with local teenagers to paint murals across the city. As a writer and performer, he hosts readings and workshops.

His latest project is Alas de Agua, a mercurial collective of New Mexico artists that directly addresses structural inequality in the art world. The group is open to all, but explicitly positions itself as a resource for artists of color, Indigenous artists, queer artists and immigrant artists. There's nothing quite like Alas de Agua in the local creative milieu; its members envision an equitable society by modeling one in microcosm. As a uniting force behind the collective, Haros Lopez aims to shine fresh light on deep divides in the Santa Fe community—and open up space for what he calls "compassionate conflict."

On a Tuesday afternoon in early April, Haros Lopez sits in the back corner of Counter Culture Café on Baca Street. He's just finished his workday at the Adelante office, where his title is now high school homeless liaison. His name badge from work still dangles around his neck. Tomorrow is the weekly gathering of Alas de Agua at the collective's headquarters on Lena Street. Haros Lopez conceived of the group last May with three other local creatives: Darryl Lorenzo Wellington, John Paul Granillo and AJ Goldman. They'd been collaborating on an ongoing series of readings called Poetry of the People, so collectivizing felt like an organic move.

The roots of Alas de Agua go back nine years to when Haros Lopez first arrived in Santa Fe. "When I got here, I felt this deep silence—physically, internally," he says. "For a year I did not perform, I didn't go and read poetry, I didn't do anything." He finally attended a writing workshop at SITE Santa Fe, and was surprised to be the only Chicano writer in the group. "It was me and 15 older white women. I wasn't used to that dynamic, coming from Los Angeles, which was really mixed," says Haros Lopez. He'd unknowingly crossed an invisible partition in the community, an idea that started to figure more prominently into his writing. "I realized how many spaces in Santa Fe don't feel safe, I think, to people of color," he says.

Not long after that, Haros Lopez participated in an open mic at El Farol on Canyon Road, and read poetry about his experiences in Santa Fe. "I had a Chicano come up to me after and say, 'You can't talk about that,'" he recalls. "It was a bit of a shock to hear that. This older generation Chicano who's been in Santa Fe for a while felt that you couldn't speak to complex issues around Chicanismo, or issues around people of color."

Haros Lopez has been honing his writerly voice—it's rapid-fire and witty, with searing undercurrents—for a lifetime. He was raised in East Los Angeles by a single mom, who worked in a sweatshop but still managed to buy him notebooks to fill with words. As a 19-year-old, first-generation college student at San Francisco State University, he had a health scare that shifted his path towards writing and visual art. He completed his undergraduate  degree in English with a minor in Chicano Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where he started making large-scale paintings inspired by the Aztecan iconographic language of Nahuatl.

"It's all about this intrinsic language that starts to surface, and this ancestral knowledge that we've been told is lost but has always been with us," says Haros Lopez. He teaches this idea to young people in different parts of the Santa Fe community through his collaborative mural projects. Working with organizations such as the Esperanza Shelter, Milagro Middle School and the local juvenile detention center, he inspires kids to tap into their respective wells of intrinsic imagery and translate what they discover into monumental artworks.

After UC Berkeley, Haros Lopez pursued an associate's degree in visual art at Berkeley Community College. He continued to build his writing portfolio, and gained entry to the graduate program in creative writing at California College of the Arts. He returned to his old neighborhood in Los Angeles with three degrees, and started performing at open mics that taught him how to speak to different audiences. "I got a lot of practice pushing all kinds of boundaries, getting people to laugh and look inside," Haros Lopez says. "It's compassionate conflict. People say, 'You're wrong' or 'You're right,' but there's an in-between. We have so many complex ideas about what the world's supposed to be."

Haros Lopez brought this vast artistic toolkit into his work with Alas de Agua, with the intent of opening up spaces for tough conversations. "I really started looking at these different layered histories in Santa Fe," he says. "There's a lot of silencing, there's a lot of trauma, there's a lot of 'you can't talk about that.' I was like, 'Um, yeah we can, and I'm going to show you.'"

Alas de Agua does not hold meetings. "For me, that's death. It becomes a meeting about a meeting about a meeting," says Haros Lopez. "We do art jams instead."

It's a little after 5 pm on Wednesday, and the group's members are lounging on bright orange picnic tables in an office space in the Lena Street Lofts. Local artist Hernan Gomez Chavez has brought in a new series of sculptures for critique, while other folks are making art or just chatting. Out back, three teenage boys from a DACA activist group are painting murals on moveable walls salvaged from Warehouse 21, now Studio Center of Santa Fe.

In this space, there's no set agenda or central conversation. Sometimes the collective will hold workshops or host guest speakers, but projects typically start with one-on-one conversations. "It's mostly about just being here every Wednesday," says Haros Lopez. "Relationships create your sustainability."

The door to the space reads "SEED," which is a nonprofit that's affiliated with the youth mentorship project Inspire Santa Fe. Todd Lopez, who cofounded SEED and Inspire, offered his space and a fiscal sponsorship in January. The previous spring, the nonprofit organization Santa Fe Partners in Education had offered the collective a fiscal sponsorship. Alas de Agua had just received a $5,000 grant from Santa Fe's Kindle Project, and Haros Lopez was looking for a way to put it directly in artists' hands instead of tangling it up in bureaucracy. With the offer of the SEED space, all of the pieces were finally in place.

Kindle Project is an initiative that's just as radical as Alas de Agua. The local nonprofit works with young inheritors of wealth to redefine philanthropy, distributing awards and grants to leaders of the creative community in New Mexico and far beyond. "We're really giving from a place of no strings attached," says Sadaf Rassoul Cameron, Kindle's cofounder and director. "We're looking at money as a tool of colonization—how money has been used in communities as a tool for oppression—and how can we help liberate that."

Kindle gave Haros Lopez its $10,000 Maker's Muse award in 2016, and offered Alas de Agua the seed grant last April. "With folks like Israel and the people that are involved in Alas de Agua, they're doing the work anyway," Rassoul Cameron explains. "With or without the money, they're doing the work. They don't need the money to validate what they're living and breathing."

Haros Lopez dreamed up a name for the collective that is as free-flowing as his vision for the group: Alas de Agua is Spanish for "wings of water." Haros Lopez explains, "We're teaching community members to be resilient and resourceful where there's nothing but blockade borders. How do you do something just with Sharpies, or just with pencil and paper? How do you do something when you have total access to a gallery? It's the whole spectrum."

Like most aspects of Alas de Agua, the collective's membership base is a liquid property. Anywhere from three to 30 folks show up at the weekly art jams, and the collective's open mics and other events often draw much larger crowds. However, a circle of regulars has coalesced since the group secured the SEED space early this year.

There's cofounder AJ Goldman, who's spent most of his adult life bouncing around the Southwest but saw Alas de Agua as a reason to stick around for longer than he ever has anywhere else. He's been helping the other artists beef up their websites and portfolios. Jeanette Iskat knew Haros Lopez back in East Los Angeles, where he inspired her to start writing poetry and perform it at open mics. She moved to New Mexico on his suggestion, and is one of Alas de Agua's most reliable members.

Like Iskat, Yvonne Sandoval and her 8-year-old daughter Yoli (short for Yolotzin) make the hour-long drive from Villanueva every week for the art jams. Sandoval has woven the collective's activities into Yoli's homeschool curriculum, and the group inspired her to start making art for the first time. When she was strapped for cash during the holidays, Haros Lopez offered her part of the Kindle Project grant to buy supplies and make art
to sell.

Hallee Fresco is about to graduate from the soon-to-be-defunct Santa Fe University of Art and Design, where she organized a gathering of Indigenous artists as a freshman. She's been searching for a similar sense of community ever since, and found it here. Yvette Serrano, also a SFUAD senior, grew up in Santa Fe and lived in Denver for three years before returning here for school.

"Look at us, we're a bunch of weirdos and brown people," says Serrano. "I always feel super uncomfortable in groups where I'm the only brown person there. We all come from these different, but somehow similar, backgrounds and experiences. That's what keeps me coming back."

Darryl Lorenzo Wellington, another early Alas de Agua member and a writer whose work has appeared in SFR, sits with a topsy-turvy heap of notebooks and papers in front of him. His new book of poetry, Life's Prisoners, crowns the stack. The assemblage embodies the complete arc of a writer's process, from meandering scribbles to an award-winning book; Life's Prisoners received the Turtle Island Poetry Award last year. Wellington is using money from Alas de Agua to order another round of copies from his publisher.

"I'm from the South, and I would say that there's less discussion of racial tension here than there," Wellington tells SFR. "It's very liberal, obviously, but people tend to feel that it's so liberal that there's no need to have such a discussion. At that point you're simply fooling yourself." He's a fan of local projects like Meow Wolf, but when the opportunity came to build his own collective, Wellington was looking to fill a hole in the creative conversation. "[Meow Wolf] exists in this sci-fi metaphor, which is fine; but that's not enough, especially in a place that in some ways is really very divided," he says. "It's politely divided relative to other places, but it's very divided."

Wellington hopes the group can spark a larger dialogue that directly addresses current social issues, on a local and national level. "That's my main thing, that it's focused on social issues, racial issues," he says. "To me, it's a minority majority. You can have that frame of mind as a white person, too, but this space starts with minorities."

Another week has passed when Alas de Agua gathers at Zephyr Community Art Studio for the Poetry of the People open mic. Once a month, the group breaks from their usual art jams for another entry in the series that they call POTP, which sounds like a superhero sound effect. Around the same time the collective landed in the SEED office, Zephyr's director Alysha Shaw offered him a key to her space as well.

Along the exterior wall of Zephyr, students from Santa Fe High School are painting murals on enormous plywood boards. Haros Lopez hovers just inside the door, rapidly stapling together copies of the latest Poetry of the People chapbook. "Now because we have three volumes, in the fall I'll put it into a book format," he says. "If you say you're making a book at the beginning, people start backtracking, like, 'Oh, I'm not ready for that.' Three chapbooks in, you can say, 'But you've submitted all these poems already!'"

Haros Lopez's wife Isabel Ribe is curled up on a squashy couch in the cozy warehouse space, sleepily watching her husband flit like a hummingbird around Zephyr. She also works for the Adelante Program, and they just had their big annual fundraiser yesterday. "Do you have an espresso shot?" she asks with a laugh. "I had a super late night last night." Apart from her day job, Ribe is in the final stages of a graduate program in occupational therapy.

"Lately, I kind of show up and that's all I can do," says Ribe of Alas de Agua. "Izzy always kind of has this river going that I jump in and out of. I've never really known him to not be doing 12 projects at a time." The couple first glimpsed each other, of course, at an open mic that Haros Lopez was emceeing. "I was like, 'Who is this guy?' Apparently he noticed me that night, too," Ribe says.

Haros Lopez and Ribe have been together for six years now, and married for almost two. Last year they put their first down payment on a house in Pojoaque. Ribe is from Washington, DC, but has family in New Mexico and has lived in Santa Fe on and off throughout her life.

"Santa Fe is a city of bubbled experiences," says Ribe. "When I tell people who live on the east side that there are 1,700 homeless kids in Santa Fe, their jaws drop on the floor. They're like, 'What are you talking about, where are these people, what's going on?' It's my experience that other cities don't necessarily have that level of blindness about what's happening in their own city."

Over the years that she's visited and lived here, Ribe has watched communal spaces that unite cross sections of the community begin to evaporate. She sees a severe shortage of gathering places in Santa Fe outside of the commercial sphere, something that Alas de Agua is working to address. "One of the really beautiful things I've seen happen in Santa Fe is that whenever there's a space, a physical space that's empty or available, it gets filled like a vacuum," Ribe says. "The space that's been so beautifully and generously donated to us by SEED is literally bursting at the seams."

Haros Lopez isn't just hosting the Alas de Agua meetings at the SEED space. He has also invited a DACA activist organization, a group that addresses domestic violence in Indigenous communities, and the creative collaboration 3 Sisters Collective to use the office throughout the week. It's a packed schedule.

Further illustrating Ribe's point, Alas de Agua members and other locals have drifted into Zephyr and sit along the walls, elbow to elbow. Haros Lopez jumps up and grabs the microphone to start the reading, but 8-year-old Yoli soon commandeers the role of emcee. "This is why we do what we do!" Haros Lopez says, beaming down at her and surrendering the spotlight.

Alas de Agua is in their Lena Street space for another Wednesday art jam, though this one feels more like a dreaded meeting. Niomi Fawn, an independent curator who owns and operates Curate Santa Fe, has convened the collective to offer them their first-ever group exhibition at ART.i.factory, the gallery portion of the Art.i.fact consignment shop on Baca Street. It opens during the Baca Street Bash on July 21, a prime slot on the shop-cum-gallery's schedule.

Hernan Gomez Chavez has the floor, and outlines the themes he's been exploring in his art recently. Over the last year, Chavez has exhibited an abstract sculpture series at OTA Contemporary on Canyon Road, but his new work is more political.

"How can I speak to the violence that Native people feel, or violence against women?" Gomez Chavez says. "It's been very difficult to move outside of making those sculptures, and work towards something that has more to do with what really speaks to me on a deeper, personal level. This new stuff that I'm making might put off my family, or art collectors who are looking for something that's purely aesthetic."

Fawn nods in approval. "If your family doesn't get your art, take it as a compliment," they say. "The point is that this show is an opportunity to be radical, and it seems like that's where we all are. I don't think radicalism and beauty are mutually exclusive, by any means."

A week later, the group meets again to settle on a name for the show. Among the options are Divided States, Who Are We Now? and Divided But Unconquered. They finally pick Who Is My Neighbor? with the subtitle "Facing the future in a divided New Mexico." The title is inspired by an art installation about gentrification that Gomez Chavez recently debuted in Chicago. Not long after the name is set, Haros Lopez arrives—a few hours late and covered in rare high desert raindrops—with good news.

"I know it hasn't been long, but it looks like we've already outgrown our space,"Jaros Lopez announces to an uncharacteristically silent room. "The Kindle Project is giving us another grant, and they've offered to pay the rent if we can find a bigger space on the Southside." He tries to continue, but he's quickly drowned out by cheers.

Later, Haros Lopez outlines his vision for a new community gathering space somewhere near Airport Road. "You get down towards Airport, and there's a lot of resources that aren't there for our families," he says. "This space, it will be an art space, but it's a space where community members can come and know what different resources are available to them. The art is at the center, but it's also just an excuse. People have answers, but what we don't have is space—until now."

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