Theater and social justice are a perfect match for San Diego artist and activist

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It’s a wonder figuring out how Sofia Zaragoza seems to squeeze so much time out of 24 hours, let alone what she’s already done in 24 years.

Her work in both the community and the performing arts has found her serving as an actor, writer, producer, director, teacher, stage manager and activist. That work is also vast and varied — from teaching high school students in the juvenile justice system about theater and justice, to teaching Girl Scouts about how to build healthy confidence and self-esteem, to volunteering to help people register to vote and providing support and resources for other activists in San Diego.

“One of my favorite quotes is ‘The theater itself is not revolutionary: it is a rehearsal for the revolution,’ by Augusto Boal. I don’t necessarily believe that any of the social-justice oriented work I do is going to ‘change the world’ on a macro level, but I do think that it provides a safe space to practice how to ‘change the world’ on a micro level in individual people’s lives,” she says. “I am passionate about doing social justice-oriented work because it allows me to impact real, tangible change in the everyday lives of people who are around me.”

It’s that kind of change that she’s found rewarding and keeps her going despite some of the challenges of remaining immersed in this kind of thoughtful, deliberate and intense work. Zaragoza, 24, lives in Clairemont with roommates from her days at UC San Diego, though she grew up in Spring Valley and has lived all over San Diego. She’s a freelance theater artist, among a number of other titles, and was recently accepted into a master’s program in directing at the University of East London (where she’s deferred her attendance until next fall). She took some time to talk about her work in both theater and social justice, and her passion for continuing this kind of work.

Q: A considerable amount of your work appears to be grounded in activism and social justice, in tandem with the arts. Where do you think your passion for activism in your community came from?

A: I think my passion for activism in the community began way before I had the language to define what social justice was. I grew up participating in constant community service projects and environmental justice projects. Some of my early community service projects included food drives, nature cleanups and toy donations. This led me to trying to do more substantial projects in middle school, like starting the recycling program at my school and collecting over 800 pairs of socks to send to orphanages in Afghanistan. I never questioned that volunteering time to help the community was an essential part of everyday life.

It wasn’t until I got older when I realized that most people live in their isolated circles and weren’t interrogating the systems of oppression at play within our larger community. This realization came to me after participating in “Empowerment Theatre,” a three-week workshop with all teenage girls through the La Jolla Playhouse, where we got to write and perform our own show around female empowerment … and was the first space that gave me words to understand my own oppression. I struggled with the prejudice of being an outspoken woman in both American and Mexican cultures. It was about the time when I performed in third grade when I was told to “learn English, you’re in America now,” and I realized my voice was powerful. I realized my story was important.

Q: I’d like to talk to you about some of the work you’ve been up to this year. First, talk to us about “Good Trouble” with Blindspot Collective, an organization that creates theater programming focused on advocacy, education and entertainment. This documentary audio play, “Good Trouble,” is based on dozens of interviews with young, local activists between the ages of 13 to 25? What was some of what they had to say in these interviews that resonated with you?

A: As someone ingrained in the activist/protest scene in San Diego amidst the #BLM (#BlackLivesMatter) movement and immigration reform movements this summer, it was an honor to get to document the stories of the young activists who are leading this fight. What resonated with me the most was how resilient, passionate and bold these young activists were. They speak of the solidarity between those who are fighting for justice, and they’re not afraid to call out what they see wrong with the world in order to have tough conversations about change. Some of my favorite quotes include: “It’s not about fighting for a seat at the table. Millennials did that for us. It’s about saying that if the table is not for us, we’re gonna build our own, or we’re gonna flip the damn thing” and “I really just want people, young people, all around the world to know that your voice is powerful. Your voice holds weight. And your voice can change the world.”

What I love about Clairemont …

I love that I live within walking distance from a large, natural canyon. The San Clemente canyon is filled with San Diego’s natural chaparral landscape, and is home to a creek and several large trees. I will often go there with a book or some paints around sunset, in order to unwind. It is such a wonderful escape to nature that is only a 10-minute walk away, where I feel like I can get away from the noise of the city and monotony of suburbia. I also love living within walking distance of Sipz Vegetarian Kitchen, one of my favorite restaurants! My favorites on the menu at the Tom Kha and the Thai Siamese.

Q: You also teach a theater and justice course for high school students in the juvenile justice system and in community schools? How did you go about creating the curriculum for this course? What did you want to focus on and why?

A: I have been teaching high school students in Juvenile Court and Community Schools (JCCS) for a little bit over a year now. I first begin planning my curriculum by checking in with the teachers about what the students are passionate about. The last eight-week class that I taught in the fall, focused on theater and justice, and was called “Theatre, Voice, and Protest: The Revolution is Now.” Each class focused on a specific type of justice, the historical context of this activism, and the current activism happening in San Diego to continue to fight for this justice. For example, we’ve focused on Native American land sovereignty and immigration rights, the Kumeyaay Rebellion of 1775 and the labor movement of the early 1900s, and the current Kumeyaay occupation of Camp Landback to halt construction of the border wall on sacred land. In each class, we then did a creative, theater-based project in order to express our feelings on these topics, and how we can visualize a brighter future. I wanted to teach students about how the fight for civil rights is rooted within history, but that it is also something that is ongoing that we can be a part of, even today within our own city.

Q: In “Refractions: A Collection of Human Anthems with Blindspot Collective,” a series of collaborative songs based on interviews with people who’ve lost a loved one during COVID-19, you serve as an associate producer. What was the process for getting these interviews into songs that worked together?

A: The first step for “Refractions” was to gather a team of artists who were passionate about documenting the joy, love and life of individuals lost during COVID-19. As artists, we went through trauma-informed sensitivity training in order to handle the topic with the care and nuance it deserves. We then looked for individuals to interview who were willing to share their experiences. Once the interview was complete, the interviewer would make content selections of the interview to send to the musician. The musician was then able to compose an original piece based on the interview. We selected the composer and singers based on what genre of music the interviewee thought was best. We then had a review process where we would send the song to the interviewee to get their feedback before creating the final product. We delivered the final song to the interviewee as a memory of their loved one.

Q: What did you hear from those who lost loved ones during this pandemic? Were there any themes that seemed to come up again and again?

A: The biggest theme was to hold onto and cherish the people you love while you can. Each person’s story was so specific and heartfelt that it was difficult to complete the interview sometimes, but I was surprised at how strong a lot of the interviewees were about focusing on the joy and happiness with their loved ones.

Q: As a guest teaching artist with Girl Scouts San Diego, you lead a series of movement and theater workshops that teach high school girls how to be confident in their own skin? In general, what happens during one of your workshops?

A: I normally begin by giving the context that although it is a theater workshop, I want my students to go into this with the mindset that performance skills are something crucial we can use in everyday life to effectively communicate what we feel, think and want. I then start with warming up our bodies, voices and imaginations as the tools we will use to build our confidence. The main activity of the workshops focuses on visualizing the kind of person we want to become, practicing embodying what confidence feels like in our body, and writing/speaking our truth in a safe way. This usually culminates in a final performance where there is nothing but praise, celebration and support.

Q: Why is it important to you to teach teenage girls about confidence, particularly in healthy and safe ways?

A: One of the hardest skills to learn in theater/public speaking is to simply feel comfortable being looked at fully, and to feel comfortable fully looking at others. As a young woman in our society, this can be particularly challenging because of the intense beauty standards we are taught to adhere to at such a young age. It is important to teach teenage girls about confidence in healthy and safe ways because, oftentimes, we are either shamed for our bodies by things like punitive dress codes and sexist articles about what female politicians wear; or we’re exploited for our bodies by things like social media and high fashion culture. No mainstream media truly accepts the diversity of the female mind and body, so we need to find spaces to celebrate the beauty of individuals within our own community. An example of practicing safe confidence is practicing “power poses” before performing, an interview, or high stress situations. Standing in an open, confident pose scientifically decreases the levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) in our brains, allowing us to feel more at ease before jumping into an intense scenario. These “power poses” can be embodiments of the type of confidence we want to channel. For example, if I want to become “resilient,” a power pose I might embody is one where I stand with my feet shoulder-width apart, have one hand on my hip, and the other hand reaching out in front of me with an open palm.

Q: We’re living through a fatal viral pandemic, and civil and political unrest. As an artist, storyteller and activist, how has this past year informed your voice and point of view as an artist?

A: This past year has informed my voice and point of view as an artist in such an acute way. A really challenging role I had this year was to be on the BIPOC Artist Relief Fund Steering Committee for the San Diego Commission of Arts and Culture. I got to review almost 200 grants of BIPOC artists in need and experienced firsthand the devastation that artists in San Diego are dealing with due to COVID-19. It was really hard to come to terms with the scope of suffering that my community is experiencing. The movement toward a brighter future isn’t about an individual anymore; the entire globe is sharing a united trauma right now. It is apparent to me now, more than ever, that we must share our stories. Documenting what is happening to us through storytelling is vital to our survival. We need to listen to each other. We need to understand each other. We need to understand each other in order to care for each other in the best way possible. I truly think that we (young people, artists, activists) can positively change the world for the better, we just need to work together and be creative with how we do it. I believe the role of the artist in our contemporary society is to be the creator of culture. My goals as an artist are to invoke positive change in the world; to increase empathy, cultural understanding, and justice for all. I hope to inspire those around me to turn away from the current trends of apathy and numbness, and to realize that there is so much more growth possible in the world that is worth fighting for.

Q: What’s been challenging about your work?

A: The most challenging part of my work is that it really requires 100 percent intellectual, physical and emotional labor each time I take on a project. After leading a workshop or performing a challenging story, I am usually completely drained. In this type of work, you experience a lot of heartbreaking stories, expose insufferable injustices, and experience the effects of deep-seeded trauma. People will lash out or shut down completely. Sometimes it’s hard to not let it get to you. As a freelance artist, it is not just a job that I can clock out of, but is consistently ongoing. Another big challenge has been how much of this work has been canceled because of the pandemic; it’s hard to make enough finances doing what you love when the work is nonexistent.

Q: What’s been rewarding about this work?

A: The most rewarding part of this work is being able to truly connect with individuals on an interpersonal level. It’s a little bit harder over Zoom right now, but what I love the most about theater is that it is an art form that allows us to live, breathe and feel together in real time. I remember the first class I taught, a student came up to me afterward, looked me in the eye and told me that I inspired her and changed her whole life for the better. Since that moment, I’ve really felt like I did what I was meant to do on this Earth, and that everything else from here on out is such a blessing. I have had so many individual, lovely moments like that. There are times when students or audience members cry, sing, dance and share space with me in such earnest and beautiful ways that I feel like the luckiest person in the entire world. The immense gratitude, love, and healing that I’ve seen happen through my work makes every challenge worth it.

Q: What has this work taught you about yourself?

A: This work has taught me that I am constantly a student as much as I am a teacher. It has taught me that no matter how knowledgeable I think I am, I still have the space to continue learning, growing and changing into the best version of myself. It has also taught me that I have more power, love, grace and light within me than I thought possible.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: Some of the best advice I have heard echoed by several mentors throughout the years has been “take your time” and “lead your life with love.” I think, as a teenager and in early adulthood, I was very preoccupied with launching my career, which led to years of overworking myself and compromising relationships for the sake of a job. While I am thankful for the foundations and connections that period of my life gave me, I now understand that I don’t need to rush planning for the future. Since I have started to lead life by making sure that I love myself, the people around me, and my job, I have actually begun to feel younger each year that I get older.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: People would be surprised to find out that I have been attending San Diego Comic-Con for 18 years. My parents first took me when I was 5 years old, and I have gone every year since then. Because of the young exposure, I am pretty nerdy when it comes to comic book lore and pop culture. Every year, I like to cosplay my favorite characters, buy the newest issues from Boom! Studios comics, and get sneak peeks of all of my favorite TV shows. People would also be surprised to know that I have been to 16 different countries: Mexico, France, Italy, Monaco, Switzerland, Germany, England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, The Netherlands, Taiwan, Japan and China.

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: My ideal weekend would be jam packed with food, friends, music, and nature! I’d start with a morning hike, make chilaquiles from scratch with my roommates, go thrift shopping in Hillcrest, go tide pooling and watch the sunset from my secret spot at Sunset Cliffs, and pick up food from one of my favorite restaurants for dinner (Bronx Pizza, Tajima Ramen, or Tasty Noodle House are top contenders). The end to a perfect day would be to have a bonfire at the beach with my friends who are musicians, so we can play music together all night.



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