Brenda Hernandez leads the HOMAGO way

Brenda Hernandez is a Program Coordinator for Yollocalli Arts Reach, an award-winning program of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago offering free arts and culture programming to teens and young adults.

“Yollocalli” is derived from the Aztec language, Nahuatl: yolotl means “heart” and kalli means “house.” If home is where the heart is, Yollocalli Arts Reach provides a home for youth where they can learn from emerging artists, collaborate with them in their art making practices, and become active members of Chicago’s growing creative community.

Yollocalli started in 1997 with the intention to address the educational needs of young people in Chicago’s underserved Pilsen community, and to create opportunities for young artists to explore interests and uncover their artistic talents while learning about careers in the arts. The open community center, recently expanded and now located in Little Village, has studio spaces, a computer lab, a radio production studio, a large art library, and a creative, supportive staff and teaching artists who are always around to help, encourage, and inspire.

Hernandez is part of that staff, and brings her background in arts and education to the program, through which she examines different styles of learning and doing.

Hernandez was born and raised in Chicago, though her parents emigrated from Mexico City before she was born. She was a Yollocalli student herself in high school, which she says really started her engagement with the arts community. She went to college to become a high school art teacher and worked in Chicago’s public school system for four years, during which time she developed programming that highlighted underrepresented communities in Chicago and the Midwest.

One of the projects she worked on was the Festival of Latin Electronic Music (FMEL), exploring the contemporary digital culture and artistic practices of Latin America.

“For me I was mostly interested in how we can start highlighting things that are made by Latinos but are not necessarily about being Latino,” says Hernandez.

That interest brought her back to Yollocalli.

“The Yollcalli people are interested in being cultural producers and being engaged in things that don’t necessarily have to do with identity,” she says. “Especially in the area where Yollocalli is located, everyone wants to ‘save the poor brown children, they don’t know any better.’ We do know better but we might not have access to the same resources.”

Hernandez has been working for Yollocalli since 2011, overseeing the program design, development, and implementation of youth digital media and visual art programs. In that time she has led a number of projects with the goal of helping youth navigate other cultures and other people and helping adults reconnect with youth and “see young cultural producers in a new light.”

She curated a three-day program in the neighboring Little Village and Pilsen communities for Chicago Artists Month, highlighting organizations that work with youth and support young artists in the community. She also led the production of the HOMAGO Guidebook and is currently working on the Pop Up Youth Radio Toolkit.

“HOMAGO” is an acronym developed by cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito to describe “Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out,” reflecting the learning process youth engage in while “messing around” with various forms of digital media and technology. What adults might scoff at and dismiss as yet another symptom of idle youth culture is actually a rapidly evolving adaptive learning process for today’s digital native youth, and a valuable tool for youth workers and educators with which to engage them.

“We’re always tackling how we translate our practice to other people,” says Hernandez. “People ask us, ‘How do you do all this work?’ ‘I don’t know; we just let the kids do what they want to do.’ We see the benefits of this kind of informal learning space.”

Ito studied the way youth interact with digital media and condensed all of her research into this idea of “HOMAGO” that utilizes online sources as a way to hang out with people, to mess around, to peak into other things, test things, geek out, and dive into something they find absolutely interesting.

When Hernandez began leading research on informal learning practices, she was immediately drawn to “the homago way.” She compares it to an artist’s studio practice: “A studio practice can be very dynamic. It’s not stable. One day you might just need to be in the studio and stare out the window and that’s’ okay,” she says.

“When it comes to youth, we’re so used to the idea of institutional and formal schooling; we don’t consider that experience of ‘hanging out’ as a youth learning experience or the importance of having an informal learning space for youth, especially youth of color.”

The lack of informal learning spaces for youth of color often has to do with a lack of economic resources. Hernandez says this kind of “third place” – somewhere outside of home and work or school – is the glue that stabilizes that life outside of home and school, but youth of color and youth without resources are often limited in their options of places where they can just “hang out.”

“Maybe upper class youth have money to hang out at a café with their friends, but youth that come from lower economic brackets don’t have those opportunities, and when they do, because they’re groups of kids of color, it’s then, ‘Why are there 10 kids hanging out at the park at 10pm?'”

She led the production of the museum’s HOMAGO Guidebook, which is available for free and serves as a reference tool for anyone interested in creating spaces for youth cultural production. “We share our art and our best practices with other people,” she says. “We want people to find value in that informal space and create their own.”

In addition to leading the way of HOMAGO, Hernandez is currently working on a project of pop-up youth-made media in partnership with the nonprofit Public Media Institute and its independent radio station Lumpen Radio. “They have a similar interest in how we can have an institution that has access to those resources and make those accessible to learning, and get people making radio who have never made radio before but are interested enough to learn on their own or just do it.”

The museum previously had an award-winning radio broadcasting training youth program. Students went through a nine-month training and were able to produce their own shows, but the program eventually ended. Yollocalli is resuscitating this with their media partners, producing live two-hour radio shows completely produced, hosted, and engineered by youth interested in radio. Check out the Lumpen Radio schedule for the shows produced through Yollocalli.

“We hope this is a good example of how we can provide youth with the right resources and right support so that they can produce what they would on their own instead of what other people think they should.”

Hernandez will speak more on the subjects of HOMAGO and creating informal learning spaces for youth at the IdeaLab panel on May 13 during the Lake FX Summit + Expo, the Midwest’s largest free convening of artists and creative entrepreneurs. Oskar Ly and Andrew Simonet will also join her on this panel.