Indigenous Roots: Supporting BIPOC Communities Through Arts and Activism

This is part of our series, “Banking on Change,” which showcases local entrepreneurs who are creating a positive impact in their community. The series spotlights one local business each month. Above illustration: Indigenous Roots Founders Sergio Cenoch and Mary Anne Quiroz by Justine Lecouffe. 

It seemed unlikely before the spring of 1989 that Mary Anne Quiroz and Sergio Cenoch would ever cross paths.

The two were on completely opposite ends of the globe – Quiroz in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, and Cenoch in Torreón, Mexico, a city roughly 400 miles southwest of Laredo, Texas.

But in March of that year, Quiroz’s family immigrated to St. Paul looking for a fresh start. Nine months later, Cenoch and his brother followed suit, also in search of the opportunity so many emigrants seek in the United States.

Quiroz and Cenoch met in middle school in the early nineties. While they both were immigrants in a new – and much colder – city, the two also found they had something else in common: an appreciation for their similar cultural backgrounds.

In high school, the pair started organizing events like Día de Muertos celebrations with other students and eventually formed an Aztec dance troupe, Kalpulli Yaocenoxtli. Now, nearly three decades later, they continue to foster cultural diversity and understanding through Indigenous Roots, a coalition of artists and groups that focuses on preserving indigenous cultures like their own and offers a space for residents to explore their unique ancestral heritage.

Indigenous Roots is dedicated to offering opportunities to BIPOC artists through arts and activism. Quiroz calls it an “arts plus” organization, emphasizing the fact that Indigenous Roots offers more than just creative programming.

“The Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center and Indigenous Roots creates and provides accessible and equitable opportunities, space and resources for brown, Black, native and indigenous artists, organizers and people,” said Quiroz.

The organization also provided assistance during the initial pandemic shutdowns, helping nearby businesses board up their buildings to prevent protest-related damage and serving more than 3,000 families through the distribution of food and hygiene products in less than a week.

In 2020, more than 9,000 community members and artists accessed Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center while 30+ local organizations used the space. The events that take place at the arts center range from exhibits to dance clinics to supply drives.

Indigenous Roots also facilitates programming on traditional indigenous medicine, ancestral knowledge, philosophy and history.

Quiroz emphasizes the importance of including “intersectionality” into Indigenous Roots’ programming. That means not only creating classes based on Mexican or Filipino ancestry, but also working with all of its community members who represent the diversity of East St. Paul and beyond to bolster its offerings.

Much of the work Indigenous Roots does passes on ancient traditions that don’t always survive western assimilation. Quiroz said Indigenous Roots’ work offers a way for the younger generation to connect with their heritage.

“Our duty and responsibility, being from the older generation, is to impart some of that wisdom but also make sure we’re creating spaces that are led by youth,” she said. “I wish our organization existed when we were kids. I don’t think we would’ve suffered or wasted so much time on unnecessary things and we would’ve had a space to grow and strive to be the best version of ourselves.”

The work Indigenous Roots does has taken on a new significance against the backdrop of George Floyd’s murder and a renewed dialogue on race in the United States. Quiroz traveled to Mexico in the spring of 2021, and when she came back, one youngster thanked her and her family for providing the space, which acted as a refuge during the police-involved killing of Daunte Wright and ongoing demonstrations during the Derek Chauvin trial.

“There’s so much anguish and grief and sadness,” said Quiroz. “Not only are you worrying about the pandemic, but you’re also worrying about a system that is built to not see you as a first-class citizen because of the color of your skin.”

But at the same time, she also emphasizes the fact that change is not only possible, but inevitable.

“Nothing ever stays the same. That’s how I see it. There are only two things that are certain: change is inevitable and death is inevitable, and because of this it’s important that we strengthen our roots so that we can grow, bloom and be fruitful,” she said.

Read Indigenous Roots’ 2020 Community Report Off Site Link to learn more about the organization’s impact.