Yovani Flores gives artistic voice to minority women in the community

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(Becky Brisley/DD)
Artist and activist Yovani Flores works to enhance minority voices through her collective, Mujeres del Sol. The organization puts on eclectic performances showcasing women of color and queer women. (Becky Brisley/DD)

Downtown Phoenix Voices is an ongoing series of profiles on the many diverse and inspirational voices in the downtown Phoenix community. To read the previous installment in the series, click here.

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Yovani Flores has made it her mission to ensure that all voices in downtown Phoenix contribute to painting the city’s history.

Flores is the co-founder of Phoenix-based Mujeres del Sol, a collective designed to give a voice to women in the arts community downtown — specifically women of color and queer women. The group aims, through performances, readings and workshops, to create safe spaces for women and girls to create and grow together.

“It’s really something that’s grassroots and community-based,” Flores said. “We’ve always done a really good job of reaching out to different communities and really bringing out more Latino families and telling stories that really reflect the community that lives in the downtown Phoenix spaces.”

There are several families that have lived in downtown Phoenix communities for generations, Flores said. She was inspired to create the group, in part, after speaking with many of the people from these communities. She gathered that, often, they don’t see themselves in a lot of art spaces.

“It’s really intended for communities, specifically families in downtown Phoenix, that probably don’t have access to performance and theater in terms of formal institutions, like the Herberger,” Flores said.

That’s because in some cases, families can’t afford it, Flores said.

“Typically in those kinds of settings, it’s not always conducive for a family to bring their children, so we really advocate for that,” she said. “Every show we’ve ever put on, there’s always been spaces for children.”

She set out to improve that with Mujeres del Sol. At the first event the group hosted, Flores noticed that there were many participants and volunteers from One.n.Ten, a nonprofit that helps LGBTQ youth. There were girls who performed their poetry in front of people for the first time.

“The ultimate goal is for women to feel they have a voice and a space in the arts communities, specifically women of color,” Flores said. “We need to have our voices heard and our stories reflected in what’s happening downtown and Arizona in general.”

Flores grew up in the Humboldt Park community in Chicago, a community with a large concentration of Puerto Ricans, who she said are still very present despite gentrification efforts.

“My neighborhood was a mix of low- to middle-income households where most families owned their houses,” Flores said. “My parents bought the house I grew up in when I was 6 months old.”

The park was the center of activity and play, lined with giant trees, ponds, a small beach and a boathouse, Flores said. She’d sit front of a large flower garden and play with her father as local musicians drummed conga beats in the background. On the clearest days, she could see Sears Tower between the park’s huge trees.

Though the community was beautiful, it also faced gang violence, Flores said.

“It was a tough community, definitely saw a lot of violence, but I never felt unsafe,” she said. “I felt like I was part of a community that had a voice and a really beautiful culture.”

Upon traveling to Phoenix for a job offer in her early 20s, Flores immediately sought the same type of community connection she had in Chicago. It took her 20 years to find a cohesive network and find her place in it.

“I love the community here,” she said. “But I’ve never lost that connection to Puerto Rico or that connection to my childhood, and it’s important for me to take my daughter and have her experience that. They say diaspora is genetic, you know?”

She recently came home to Phoenix after traveling to Puerto Rico to speak on a panel about queer parenting for the National Women’s Studies Association. The organization was hosting a conference on feminist transgression.

“(Puerto Rican culture) influences my writing in every way,” Flores said. “I know so many other Puerto Rican writers. I think that’s what we carry in our DNA, we carry our stories.”

She read an old story at the conference about coming out as a teenager. Flores, who is a queer mother, told her parents at the age of 14 that she was queer. She didn’t get the reaction she hoped for.

“It was really difficult and I felt rejected and denied my identity,” she said. “But when I write about it and I can tell that story from an adult perspective, I get to heal that for myself and humanize my parents.”

Flores said that she is able to draw from her experiences in the way she raises her daughter, as well as in the stories she writes. Sometimes, she even has her daughter edit her work.

“I look at that as I’m giving her an opportunity to see me and humanize me in the same way that I’ve been able to humanize my parents through my stories,” Flores said.

Flores took a writing class at the Phoenix Center for the Arts in 2012. Mary Stephens, who taught the class, said she noticed right away that Flores was much more than just a poet. Flores is an important crusader in opening of spaces for women, Stephens said, especially those who are queer and/or of color.

Stephens said that Flores’ writing style is powerful and thoughtful, often rooted in strong political ideas. While Flores wasn’t originally a performer at heart, Stephens said, she grew into her talents and learned to perform wonderfully.

“She was a poet and writer but wanted to learn to do the performance side,” Stephens said. “That’s the thing about her, is she’s not naturally charismatic, but she’s hardworking and wanted to advocate for other women too and create those (safe) spaces for others as well. She’s such an important leader for us.”

Flores took that learning experience and started Mujeres del Sol, inspiring the women in the group, whose numbers include graphic artists, photographers and musicians. And, like Flores, many are writers too. They have put on performances since the group’s beginnings in 2012, most recently having performed before Ana Tijoux at Crescent Ballroom and hosted a “Goddess Day” at Verde Park in the Garfield neighborhood.

Joy Young, a fellow queer writer and downtown community member, has worked with Flores in the past and spoken on panels with her. She’s attended events that Mujeres del Sol has put on.

“They often bring together various mediums, from dance to spoken word, to create really dynamic performances,” Young said.

For example, the group’s “Goddess Day” at the beginning of November featured a vast array of performances, from drumming and dancing to the construction of a community altar.

“Yovani is dedicated to her craft, and she’s also invested locally in projects that sustain both art and community,” Young said.

Flores said that since that since the creation of Mujeres del Sol, each of its members has grown immensely, including her. Now, she’s working on her first book, as well as getting her collection of short stories published within the next year.

“I wasn’t a performer,” Flores said. “We’ve all taken risks in putting ourselves out there and sharing personal stories.”

Contact the reporter at Rebecca.Brisley@asu.edu

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