Bienvenido a Des Moines Celebrates Latino Art and Culture

June 6, 2024

Bienvenido a Des Moines poster

Seso Marentes was exhausted. 

He was tired with the lack of consideration for Latino voices within the Des Moines art community. 

So he approached Zuli Garcia, a respected community leader and founder of Knock and Drop Iowa, with an idea. 

The Des Moines-based artist had recently received a fellowship from a local arts festival but decided to turn it down when the organizers quickly made it clear what they were looking for: hurried work that muted the voice of Seso’s Mexican-American heritage that shines through everything he creates. 

Along with Zuli and Ruby Herrera, Seso has founded “Bienvenido a Des Moines,” an arts festival showcasing and celebrating Latino art and culture in Des Moines. The inaugural event will be held on Wednesday, June 12th, from 3-7 pm, at the Franklin Jr. High Event Center in Des Moines. 

Bienvenido a Des Moines means “Welcome to Des Moines,” and the organizers want to bring that sentiment to life. The event will gather Latino artists and food vendors, Latino youth, local organizations, and members of the wider community to connect across differences and learn more about the culture of the Latino people who call Des Moines home. 

“We don’t have a welcoming space? Let’s make a welcoming space,” said Ruby, advisor to the Latinos in Action class at Des Moines’ Roosevelt High School.

Within that welcoming space, they’ll lift up the Latino voices of our community.

“I want this to be a welcoming environment for all, and I want everyone to understand what our culture is about,” Zuli said. “We want to show what our culture brings to the flavor of Des Moines. It’s all about getting to know us.” 

Zuli Garcia

Uplifting Latino Voices

Seso grew more and more uncomfortable with the lack of understanding of Latino perspectives in some of the art spaces he inhabited. 

“I didn’t want to put my community second. So I made the decision to choose my community,” Seso said. 

Seso and Ruby after Seso won the 2024 G David Hurd Innovator in the Arts Award from Des Moines Arts Festival.

He’s creating an event that celebrates the textures of the Latino experience. Bienvenido a Des Moines will include musical performances, folkloric dancers, local food vendors, lowriders, charros, piñatas, and more from the various countries of Latin America. Seso will be creating an interactive work with local youth and attendees, and other Latino artists will be sharing their work as well. Nearly 40 organizations and small businesses will be in attendance. 

Food will be free from 3-6 pm and includes tacos and pupusas. The only exception are the raspados, a Mexican shaved ice, which will require a free health screening from one of the participating community health groups. 

Zuli sees the celebration as a chance to build stronger relationships between the Latino community and the greater Des Moines community. 

“We hear so many people talk about how great our cuisine is, but at the end of the day, they don’t like having diversity in their backyard,” Zuli said. “Some organizations want to partner with a minority community just to check a box, but they don’t truly connect with them. We want people to come here and get to know us and see the positive in our culture, not the negative portrayals that are constantly out there.” 

Inspiring Latino Children

The negative portrayals of the Latino community have ingrained themselves in many Latino children’s self perceptions. These are narratives Seso, Zuli, and Ruby work to change every day, and they hope the impact of Bienvenido a Des Moines will help local youth expand their perspectives around their own potential. 

“The more we empower them to feel comfortable about the culture, the more they want to speak their language and be proud,” said Zuli. “Our mission is to empower the youth to make that change and use their voice.” 

Seso has worked with Ruby’s “Latinos in Action,” a group of students selected for a leadership course at Roosevelt High School (the course is used nationwide). When Seso told them he’s Mexican-American and an artist, students were shocked.

“They looked at each other and said, ‘We can do that?!’” he said. 

Seso decided to interview and select students to work with him in his studio at Mainframe Studios, a nonprofit in downtown Des Moines providing affordable workspaces to artists. He trained them on printmaking and encouraged them to walk around the building and connect with other artists. One of the students in his workshop was a quiet young boy whose confidence soared as he worked with Seso. 

Ruby and Seso pose with several of the youth they work with.

“A few days before graduating, he told us, ‘I’m very quiet. But through my art, I was able to speak,’” Ruby recalled.

Seso, Ruby, and Zuli all try to do their part to help Latino youth see possibilities for their future. It’s a driving force behind the new art festival. 

“I’m looking to do something that you can’t put a dollar on. I want kids to never ask if they can do something; I want them to know they can,” Seso said. “They don’t have to be a doctor or a lawyer. They don’t have to do your lawn care or build your house. They can find peace and success at anything they do.” 

When the idea for Bienvenido a Des Moines was born, the students of Latinos in Action immediately began thinking of ways they could help. 

“Some of the students will perform and work with Seso on his art piece,” Ruby explained. “Some will be in charge of inviting others to dance and feel that joy from the music. Others will be involved in the organizing, helping out at the children’s booth and keeping things in order.”

Ruby, Seso, and Zuli each are working to make sure children in their community won’t have their voices stifled. Ruby’s Latinos in Action class utilizes a model that nominates children with leadership potential, rather than the highest achievers in the class, leading to more opportunity for students to prepare for life after high school. Seso introduces students to the world of art and shows them that every dream is valid. And Zuli’s community leadership is modeling for students what it takes to organize and execute a goal, empowering them to step up and lead when they take a bigger part in the planning of next year’s Bienvenido a Des Moines. 

The three are hoping to imbue that strength and determination into the larger community, too.

“We’re here. We’ve always been here,” Ruby said. “We’re placing us on the map. We’re proud of who we are. This is a space to tell our community, ‘Never doubt your identity. This is a space to remind you that who you are is meant to be celebrated.’” 

CultureALL believes that sharing the cultural richness of our community with others will elevate our society and the quality of life for all.