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The Human Face of the Stimulus

RUMBO/New America Media, Special Report, Lolb Corona Posted: Feb 15, 2010

Editor's Note: This story, which originally appeared in RUMBO, was produced as part of NAM's Stimulus Watch coverage and was funded with a grant from the Open Society Institute. This is part three of a three-part series. You can read part one here and part two here

Erlinda Ayala, Ph: Lolbe CoronaWhen Erlinda Ayala, a 19-year-old student, describes what art is for her, the sophomore graphic design student at the Art Institute of Houston uses only one word: imagination.

Her father Jorge Ayala, Honduran immigrant who paints automobiles for a living, showed her how to draw when she was little and that is how her taste for design was born. She would like to work for a newspaper or do the layout of a magazine like Vogue or Marie Claire.

In order to achieve her goal, Ayala studies and works half time as a receptionist in the student affairs office at the Art Institute of Houston.

"Sometimes it's hard to work and study, but I'm very organized," says Ayala, who earns $7.25 an hour and uses the money for gas and food. Her father helps her with school expenses, which are supplemented by aid she receives from the government to pay for her education.

"It's not easy, because we don't have much money. Thanks to government aid and my father's effort, I can go to college. He wants me to study and have a better future, because he came to the United States without papers when he was 19 and he had only finished high school, that's why he encourages me to stay in school, because he knows what it means to not go to college," says Ayala.

The Department of Education designated $48,830 in funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to the Art Institute of Houston to spend on student scholarships.

"It's not money the school receives. They just raised the amount of financial aid the students can receive. In the past, the maximum amount was $4,700, now there was a jump to $5,350," said Dora Espitia, director of student financial services of the Art Institute of Houston.

According to Espitia, it is hard to say how many students have benefited from the ARRA, since some already had aid and they just received a little bit more money, while others received it for the first time.

"We can say that it made a significant impact, since out of the 2,000 students we have, almost 80 percent get financial aid," said Espitia.

The amounts of financial aid range from $400 to $5,350. It all depends on each student's application (FAFSA) on family income.

In Ayala's home, there is no excess money and even less so in this time of economic crisis. Her father, originally from Tegucigalpa, has his own business and he has felt the economic downturn like everyone else. Some months show profits, others do not. Her grandmother lives with them as well as her 24-year-old sister, who is studying to be an accountant.

"When I chose my major my father told me he wanted me to be a doctor or something else, but I know this is what I like, and just like some people are born mathematicians, I was born for this. I know that I might not make much money, but if I'm successful then I can have a good future," says Ayala.

"A dollar can go very far. Financial aid [like the ARRA stimulus] could make the difference for students to go to school in these special times. Obviously, at our school, which practically depends on the fees students pay, [the stimulus] helps a lot to keep up our work. But it also helps the economy, it changes the life of a community, of businesses, it's a whole cycle," said Larry Horn, president of the Art Institute of Houston.

According to the Texas Art Commission, art plays an important role in attracting tourism, which is the third most important industry in the state. Tourism generates $60.6 billion annually in Texas.

Saved employment, continuous work

Eric Lucas, the technical director of Latin American Artists Group (GALA) in Washington, D.C is, an even more grateful man. The stimulus package saved his job.

"It's great to still have my job," said the 40-year-old Lucas. "I'm very happy [with the people at GALA] that they have let me continue earning a living... especially in these times when doing so is getting harder and harder every day."

GALA, national center for Latino performing arts, presents classical Spanish theater, contemporary Latin American works, original musicals and creations by young community Latinos. In addition, it visits schools with its bilingual program for children, among other activities. GALA received $50,000 in stimulus funds from ARRA.

"Money from ARRA saved the theater season, because if the position of technical director could not have been saved, it would have been very difficult to carry it out," said Rebecca Read Medrano, executive director of GALA.

In past years at GALA -- whose audience totals 11,000 people per year and employs 200 Spanish-speaking artists -- 10 people used to work here, today only nine do.

Lucas, who is in charge of creating the sets as well as setting up the teams needed to carry out the events, saves as much as he can to adjust to these times. Three people, Lucas and two freelance carpenters, now do the work that used to be done by five or six people.

Currently, according to Medrano, they have a deficit of $80,000, due to which they have to make cuts in their production expenses.

Production expenses are substantial considering that many times directors or artists from other countries are invited to act or participate in them.

"Many actors know Shakespeare, but not Lope de Vega or Garcia Lorca. If it weren't done like that our organization would lose its meaning, because we also look for Hispanic kids to connect them with their cultural expressions and so they won't lose their Spanish," added Medrano.

"The crisis is affecting us very much, the public no longer buys tickets like they used to, and aid has decreased a lot. 2010 is one of the most difficult years in our history. We don't know what will happen. The effect of the crisis on the artistic world is being felt very hard," said Medrano.

In his personal life, having almost lost his job has led Lucas to tighten the family budget and make a plan B. Lucas acts in other theaters and around the city during the day.

"My job is very flexible and mostly in the afternoons. So that during the day I look for other jobs as an actor," said Lucas, who recognizes that in these times the life of an actor is even more difficult than ever.

"In general, theaters and other cultural organizations depend a lot on aid and they aren't receiving much now. Audiences have dropped, too, because many families prefer to buy food rather than tickets for a play," Lucas concluded.

Related Articles:

Art in Times of Crisis
Stimulus Leaves Out Latino Arts Organizations

Brooklyn Asks: Where Did the Stimulus Funds Go?

Obama Administration Threatens to Yank Stimulus Funds Over Civil Right

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