the cult of ‘back to normal’ is leaving our most vulnerable neighbors behind.

I spoke with Aurora-based community organizer Javi of ArtBar about the case for antagonism amid a global health crisis that's hit marginalized people hardest.

Queering the Burbs is a weekly-ish distillation of pop culture, politics and queerness. If you like what you see, please consider subscribing, liking or sharing this essay.

As the temperatures rise and the vaccines continue to roll out in Kane County and beyond, it’s hard to miss the sense of hope in the air.

For some Americans (myself included), this past week marked the one-year anniversary of being sent home from our offices to work remotely indefinitely. At the time, many of us thought the Great Work From Home Experiment would last a couple weeks or a month or two, tops. And yet, here we are. It’s been a year of canceled plans, awkward Zoom happy hours and “your connection is unstable” alerts, and we probably won’t know for years post-vaccine exactly how the pandemic has impacted our brains. So, it’s hard not to blame folks for being excited about the promise of a return to some semblance of pre-COVID life.

And yet, for many more Americans not working cushy office jobs complete with generous equipment stipends and wellness benefits, the past year has had a much more pronounced impact. The pandemic has disproportionately impacted communities of color in America in every way imaginable. If you are not white in this country, you are markedly more likely to get sick and die of COVID-19. Racial disparities have also persisted in the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, as Black and Hispanic people are receiving smaller shares of the vaccinations when compared to their shares of COVID cases and deaths, and their shares of the total population.

Here in Kane County, though Latino residents constitute more than 30 percent of the county’s population, only 10 percent of the county’s vaccines had gone to Latino people as of last month. Black residents were also not receiving a share of the vaccines in line with their share of the county’s population. White people received 70 percent of the shots administered through mid-February, according to state data reported in the Daily Herald

These disparities were why ArtBar, a local pop-up art gallery based in the Two Brothers Roundhouse in Aurora, announced last week that it would not be participating in the upcoming First Fridays event put on by Aurora Downtown next month, the event’s first in-person offering after many months of being a mostly virtual-only happening.

In continuing with this newsletter’s original mission to highlight queer organizers, artists and activists who are out here doing the work of queering the burbs, I recently spoke with Javi, a community organizer and artist who serves as ArtBar’s executive director, about his decision to remain virtual-only at a time when other spaces are opening up.

Having grown up in West Chicago and later living in St. Charles before landing in Aurora, Javi knows the Fox Valley well. He told me that as someone who is queer person, as someone who is Brown and as someone who is an immigrant, he has no choice but to be an antagonist when it comes to speaking out on matters that impact people like him. As Javi puts it: “Someone has to do it.”

Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.

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Can you tell me how you first got into art and organizing?

I’ve always been into art. I went to COD to do graphic design and fine arts. I was going to grow up to be a magazine editor, when magazines were a thing. But I’ve been on my own for a while now, since I was a teenager, so art and all that other stuff took the back burner to, just, survival and working full-time. Around 10 years ago, I started doing work again in the community. 

And that led you to ArtBar. How would you describe ArtBar, or at least the pre-COVID version of ArtBar, to someone who’s never been there?

When I took over ArtBar, I wanted it to be accessible to artists. There isn't a jury fee, there isn’t a hanging fee, there aren’t commissions. It's a one-day pop-up. We're in a bar, so it’s not a pretentious type of venue, and it's very community-based and pop culture-based. Our thing is “low brow, hella heart,” and Teresa Fiehn Millies came up with that tagline. I like that because we want it to be a communal experience. We want it to be accessible not only to the artists, but to people who walk in — a very welcoming, non-threatening environment. Because of that, I think we have very different artists. We have a lot of young kids who are just starting to make art and we have older people who also do it, and the artists who are attracted to do it come from various backgrounds. You walk in and it’s not homogenous. It’s reflective of the people who live in the community, because everybody's welcome.

Can you tell me more about your decision not to participate in this upcoming First Fridays in Aurora?

We were the first First Fridays venue to stop doing in-person [last year] and originally we were thinking, OK, it’s going to be one or two months of no in-person gatherings. But we’ve stayed virtual because we believe the pandemic is real. In the fall, a couple venues went back to in-person and we stayed virtual. There was a decision by Aurora Downtown not to do any shows over the winter in person, which we fully agreed with. They decided to come back in April, and for us it’s not safe yet. 

It comes from our perspective that the hardest hit demographic has been the Latino community. According to the Kane County Health Department, like 64 percent of hospitalizations for people under 60 are Latino, and 68 percent of deaths for people under 60 are Latinos. And I live that because, on my day job, I work in a warehouse. Throughout the pandemic, I've seen coworkers get sick. I've seen coworkers who have had family members die of COVID. So, for me, it's a very tangible real thing. 

When you have organizations that are primarily built by people of a certain privileged demographic, their decision making is going to come from that perspective. We don't come at it from a privileged perspective, and that’s why we make decisions like that. We’re going to look at it like, OK, this is our community, this is our community, this is our community. ArtBar has a lot of Latino artists, ArtBar has a lot of women artists, we have a lot of queer artists, we have a lot of different types of artists. So when we see that a part of our community is being disproportionately hit, that's going to be the focus on our decision making. We have to be responsible to our community and we have to be responsible to the community that others are ignoring.

It feels like there is a sort of broader societal push happening right now that the pandemic is ending now that vaccines are going in arms. What is your reaction to that sort of impulse?

I think the people who are thinking the pandemic is over now have thought about the pandemic being over for a while now. I'm not surprised that organizations that are primarily white are thinking, “Oh, the pandemic's over. Let's go back to in person.” It makes total sense to them because they’re viewing the world through their lens. I’m viewing the world through my lens, which is different and has very real, tangible realities of how the system works and how the system affects the marginalized.

As someone who has grown up in this area and seen it change over the decades, how do you think the western suburbs are doing, generally speaking, in terms of inclusion and equity for marginalized groups right now? Is progress being made or is it more of the same?

I think the suburbs are a lot more segregated than people are willing to admit. There's a lot of cool events I go to on the East Side that are mostly attended by Latino people. then there’s a lot of events I go to in Aurora downtown where I’m the only person of color there. But the suburbs are segregated by design. There’s a reason why Geneva is like 98 percent white [according to Census Bureau data, it’s 93 percent]. And take Batavia, for example. In Batavia, there's been a lot of really good people who have been trying to be more inclusive, to be more open to other perspectives, but then you also look at the reality that Batavia is an expensive town to live in. So, when houses are selling for half a million dollars on Wilson Street, how diverse are you going to legitimately be?

I’ve definitely noticed that there seems to be very little affordable housing or even rental housing in general in Batavia at all.

Privileged people in the suburbs value their comfort and their convenience above all else. If you disrupt that, shit hits the fan. Affordable housing hits that nerve.

What do you think is the most urgent change that could be made to make this place a better place for marginalized people to live?

Housing is the number one thing. I like Batavia a lot. I go to a lot of events there, the downtown area is very pretty, but I'm fully aware that living in Batavia is not accessible to me, because I’m a blue collar worker. And then you have Aurora, and it’s getting more expensive to live here. You can’t be inclusive if your city doesn’t allow for certain people to live there. You can throw a nice Black Lives Matter parade, but if Black people can’t live in your town, what’s the point? 

One last question, I saw that you’re on the executive board of the Goldfinch Cafe. Can you tell me a bit more about what the Goldfinch?

I just joined Goldfinch to help with events and have done one so far, [a pop-up drive-through at the Wesley United Methodist Church]. At Goldfinch, we want to address food insecurity locally. We want to address the fact that there are people in the community who aren’t getting enough to eat or who aren’t getting healthy stuff to eat. Our goal is to have a brick-and-mortar restaurant where people can pay their own price for a meal. We want to bring dignity to people, so you can sit down, get a meal and if you can’t afford it, it’s not an issue. 

You can check out ArtBar and its virtual galleries on Facebook, on Instagram and on its website. For more coverage of queers in the burbs, read my interview with artist Annie Hex from last fall. As always, comment, share and subscribe if you like what you read.

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Watch: OK, I know some of you may have been expecting a hot take this week on the big Meghan and Harry interview. I’m sorry to say you’re not getting it. To be completely honest, I’ve never been a royal watcher. Of course, I love the general chaos and the vibes of the Oprah memes are immaculate, but it’s not at all surprising to me to learn of the family’s racism. While I’m going to be thinking a lot about the fact that the interview was allegedly filmed at Rob Lowe’s house, I’m afraid I don’t have much else to contribute to The Discourse on this one.  

Meanwhile, I’ve mostly been consumed by another piece of high culture: the incredibly surreal premiere of a new season of The Masked Singer. This probably warrants its own essay (don’t worry, it’ll come eventually), but this chaotic show has no respect for the laws of nature and I can’t get enough. The concept (stolen from South Korean television) is simple: B-to-D-list celebrities appear on the show each week to sing covers of songs while concealed in elaborate costumes. These performances, and clue packages, are the only hints provided to help you and a panel of mostly terrible celebrity “judges” figure out who’s who. 

Last week, the first celebrity un-masked was… not even an actual human being. Observe for yourself below, and if you want an hour of escapist, nonsensical entertainment once a week, this show is your ticket.

Read: Speaking of trash television, I’m one of the less than half a million viewers (0.16 in the 18-49 demo, ouch) still watching The Real Housewives of Dallas. While the show booted one racist Texas woman (RIP “they’re not knives, they’re just hands”) from its cast ahead of its latest season, there are unfortunately still several more left to go. Its newest cast member, anesthesiologist Dr. Tiffany Moon, is now on the receiving end of this racism. A new piece in Vice details the microaggressions and vile treatment she’s been experiencing as the show’s first Chinese-American star.

I also caught a bit of the Grammys, which seemed entirely serviceable. I was happy to see Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B writhing together on top of a massive bed, and delighted to hear of some of the milestones associated with the night: Kaytranada became the first Black musician to win a Grammy for best electronic/dance album (how had this not happened before?!), and with her twenty-eighth grammy win, Beyoncé has now won more Grammys than any other woman in the history of the award show. Still, as NPR’s Stephen Thompson points out, this achievement was in spite of the fact that Queen Bey has been historically passed over for the ceremony’s biggest categories. If the show is to remain relevant and avoid boycotts from influential artists, more progress is still needed.

Listen: For some reason, every spring and every fall I find myself regressing to my emo kid days and feeling drawn anew to pop punk — the whinier and angstier the better. This week was no exception. As such, here’s a new-ish track from the Ohio band Citizen. The band tends to incorporate some shoegaze vibes into their sound, though this particular offering feels a bit more traditionally Warped Tour-y. their next full-length album, Life in Your Glass World, is dropping this month. 

Disassociate: Have I mentioned that sometimes I’m so exhausted these days that all I can bring myself to do is to scroll mindlessly through TikTok and see what the algorithm serves me? Honestly, it’s led me in some interesting directions (not the least of which is seeing my own town going viral). But I need to share two new favorites from this week:

  • This West Virginia woman (posting as @aleenashay) essentially cosplays as a waitress named Micaela at a greasy-spoon diner called Ma and Pa’s. I’ve watched all her videos at least twice.

  • If you’re feeling antsy for the COVID-delayed Academy Awards, Anne Hollister is recreating the stilted, earnest summaries that celebrities recite when introducing nominated films at the award ceremony. See if you can guess the films she’s talking about without reading the comments. You’ll probably be wrong.