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California Arts Council honors Alicia Rojas as O.C.’s sole Established Artist Fellow awardee

Alicia Rojashas was named an Individual Artist Fellow by the California Arts Council.
Alicia Rojas, a longtime Santa Ana artist, painter and muralist, was recently named an Individual Artist Fellow by the California Arts Council.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)
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A year ago, Alicia Rojas led an all-women crew putting the finishing touches on “Las Poderosas,” a public art mural project in Costa Mesa honoring local Latina heroines, from Sylvia Mendez to Modesta Avila.

Now, the Colombian American artist from Santa Ana is feeling a little like a poderosa herself after being the sole Orange County artist awarded an Established Artist Fellow grant from the California Arts Council. Earlier this month, CAC announced its Individual Artist Fellows for 2021. Following the submission of a grant application and art samples that included “Poderosas,” Rojas was selected as one of 66 honorees in the established tier, which entailed winning $10,000 in grant money.

When she first learned of the news, it summoned an immediate flashback.

“The grant took me awhile to write,” Rojas said. “It’s pretty much an essay about my art and life throughout these 10 years as an established artist. I thought back on everything, how I got started, the challenges, the highs and lows.”

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Rojas’ family immigrated from Bogotá, Colombia during the 1980s to escape a decades-long bloody civil war. They arrived in North Arlington, N.J., where Rojas, an undocumented 12-year-old at the time who didn’t know any English, enrolled in public school. She recalled being bullied, told to go back where she came from and even spat on by classmates.

After a few years, the family moved to O.C. where other relatives resided. As a Mission Viejo High School student, Rojas realized people thought she had a “funny” accent, again — this time, a Latina Jersey one. But acculturation came easier, thanks to Santa Ana.

It didn’t take long for the city to feel like a home away from home. Within days, an aunt took her to Fourth Street, or La Cuatro, a thoroughfare of Latino shops and services. In time, downtown Santa Ana also proclaimed itself a home to the arts during the 1990s.

“I didn’t know there was an Artists Village back then,” Rojas said. “I wasn’t even an artist yet.”

Rojas grew up around a lot of artists and musicians in her family, but it wasn’t until a post-partum depression spell after becoming a mother that a series of self-portraits became a form of therapy; she painted more than a hundred in one year.

“I found myself painting to heal, to communicate things that weren’t allowed in my family,” Rojas said. “Art helped me through all of that.”

With newfound creativity, she frequented downtown Santa Ana’s Artists Village, whether at an open mic at the Den or in the basement of the Santora Arts Building. But as a single mom, she never had the privilege of attending art school, nor being a full-time artist.

“I’ve been criticized for that,” Rojas said. “I’ve been called a hobby artist.”

Rojas much prefers the term “community artist.” In whatever free time existed away from her day job as an accountant, she almost always involved her talents in service to community, whether participating in mural projects around town or helping establish the Santa Ana Artist(a) Coalition, a grassroots group that advocated for them.

Rojas poses in Santa Ana's art alley, a mural project she led.
Rojas poses in Santa Ana’s art alley, a mural project she participated in.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

In considering all applicants for its fellowship program, CAC kept a keen eye on artists, like Rojas, whose work engages directly with themes of race, diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility. In the past, CAC awarded arts organizations and nonprofits with grant money but decided to reopen direct support for artists this year. A trio of Emerging Artist Fellows from O.C. joins Rojas in representing the county from the current crop of awardees.

The grant money will allow Rojas to balance and blend community-based art projects with more introspective ones. Even before being honored by CAC, Rojas became an artist-in-residence at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, a program that’s a beneficiary of recent Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts grant funding.

Without divulging too many details, she’s hoping to create an exhibit around the migration of bees as a metaphor for her own life between Colombia and California.

“There’s so much power in sharing your vulnerability,” she said. “It took a lot of courage the first time. I’m in that place again, of sharing my vulnerabilities and my immigration story.”

Rojas is planning to visit Colombia soon for research, a country she’s only returned to once since immigrating, and is especially eyeing the annual Feria de las Flores (Flowers Festival) next year.

But before that, she’ll be joining the restoration effort of the fading “La Raza” mural in Santa Ana’s Artesia-Pilar neighborhood and hopes to continue bringing “Poderosas” mural to new communities.

It’s a palette of possibilities that’s felt like a long time coming for the artist.

“I’m turning all my struggles — the bullying, the lack of belonging — into art, unapologetically,” Rojas said. “Santa Ana is the city that has adopted me. It’s the only place where I felt I belonged. That’s why this city is so special to me because I’ve always been in this constant search for belonging.”

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