Mariana Rodriguez-Pardy, 51, Arts and Community Advocate
Mariana grew up in Mexico City loving the arts and culture that metropolis offered, from music to museums to movie houses. She took pottery workshops and learned to work with a wheel. She mixed her own clay and made functional pieces that were inspired in her Hispanic roots.
She studied international relations at the United States International University, now called Alliant International University. “I wanted to travel and I wanted to learn about other cultures,” she says.
She married an American, and they were raising their children in Mexico and traveling to the states to visit family.
In 2005, they decided to move to Greensboro to be closer to their U.S. family. Mariana worked as a community interpreter and later became a certified healthcare interpreter for Wake Forest Baptist Health.
She got studio space at 205 Collaborative and worked on her pottery, including commission pieces. She also shared her art with the community, teaching pottery classes at Industries for the Blind and to Guilford County Schools’ fourth graders through Greenhill’s artist in schools program.
“I shared part of my culture with the children and told them stories about my journey as a ceramic artist. Each child would create an individual piece that represented them which later became part of a collective project called the Tree of Life, a type of sculpture inspired in one of Mexico’s folk art traditions,” she says.
She met some local artists in the Hispanic community, but noticed there wasn’t an organization that promoted their work.
“I didn’t feel like there was a sense of community that included Hispanic artists or cultural expression,” she says.
In 2010, Mariana joined local creatives, community members and professionals to found the nonprofit Casa Azul, under the fiscal sponsorship of ArtsGreensboro, to promote Latin-American arts and culture, increase understanding of Latinos, and engage the broader community.
“In Casa Azul we bring art into people’s lives. We know that art can be a powerful tool for social change, but it also offers a voice for those individuals who otherwise do not have it. It gives a sense of hope,” she says.
The organization provides resources to artists and produces programs for the community, often in partnership with other local organizations, such as last year’s print exhibition Engraving Injustice at the African American Atelier and the popular Dia de los Muertos. This year’s Day of the Dead event was a “Community Ofrenda”, offered at the Greensboro Cultural Center as part of the City’s Greensboro Residency for Original Works program.
Ofrendas are decorated altars that honor loved ones who have passed away and their souls are welcomed on November 1st for Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. The ofrendas often include items representing the four elements and items to entice each of the senses. Typical items are bright flowers, candles, paper flags, incense, and food or personal items the person enjoyed in their life.
“It’s a spiritual practice. It’s a folk tradition that is so much a part of the Mexican life,” but it is also celebrated in other countries in different ways and is now gaining presence in the US, thanks to the growing Hispanic population,” Mariana says.
She created an ofrenda and showcased it for visitors at her pottery studio for years. Then Casa Azul took up the project for the last 10 years and did it in a larger, more public space. Some 350 people visited the first year, and another 500 the next and in more recent years over a thousand people get to be part of this celebration that also includes workshops for children and adults.
This year’s ofrenda was curated out of many tiny ofrendas contained in boxes created by members of the community. It was a way to do something intentional together, even though the pandemic has made it difficult to gather.
“People got creative. It became a really nice project for families,” she says.
Once it was complete, 10 people at a time were allowed to view it – masks on, of course.
“Culture is such an important aspect in people’s lives. It influences their values and perspectives. When we build relationships with other cultures it gives us an opportunity to understand them and helps us overcome and prevent division. With Greensboro’s revitalization, we see more and more diverse expressions of culture. Community projects can enrich and beautify urban environments and these collaborations usually have stories that represent the diverse perspectives and interpretations,” she says.
While she was busy working with the community, Mariana also took her work as an interpreter to the next level. She became fascinated by medicine and research; she loved working in an environment where she was learning alongside medical students.
“It just became so much a part of me, I felt like I needed to continue working with the community but in a more active role,” she says. “I decided to go back to school and get a Master’s in public health from UNC Chapel Hill.”
She worked at the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity to help integrate special populations in research, and is now working for the Public Health Sciences Epidemiology department at the Wake Forest School of Medicine.