Alicia Rojas spent part of her youth in New Jersey, but she shares little in common with the Snookies and the Situations of the world. When she was 12, her family fled violence-plagued Colombia for the United States. Living in a predominantly white neighborhood in North Arlington, New Jersey, she had no choice but to grow up fast while her parents navigated an unfamiliar cultural landscape.
“I had a difficult experience adapting to American culture,” says Rojas, a cherubic 36-year-old whose lush, jet-black curls congregate royally around her shoulders. But when she moved to Southern California, “I felt more at home. There were a lot more migrants, and I felt connected to the Latino community.”
While overcoming childhood challenges explains the Santa Ana-based artist's current work as an advocate for Latino artists, her career was inspired by private tragedies, which led to an emotional breakdown in 2003. Rather than succumbing to the pain, she picked up a paintbrush and began expressing herself artistically. “I started showing in the [Santora Building's] Avantgarden , and I've been involved with the arts ever since,” she says.
Her self-portraits, often done in vibrant color with acrylic paint, are exaggerated renderings displaying raw emotion—often intense sadness. In some, Rojas' face peers straight from the canvas, tears dripping from her eyes. One minimalist rendering, done in charcoal, just shows a face twisted by grief.
“It was therapy, a self-release,” she says. “Acrylics were my best friend; they allowed me to paint all day.”
Emerging from despair with new direction, Rojas saw the concerns of gallery owners in the historic Santora structure who faced increasing rents as developers gentrified the downtown district. “In 2009, I started meeting people aligned with social causes who were artists,” Rojas says. “We started talking about forming a group and getting representation with the city.”
In early 2012, she went before the Santa Ana City Council armed with a mission statement and a vision for the city that would preserve the arts. Soon after, United Artists of Santa Ana was formed. Currently headed by Rojas, the group focuses on economic partnerships and professional development. “It has created a voice when we have issues with Downtown Inc. or the city,” she explains. “Now, we have more of a collective voice, and I think that was really needed. I want to give opportunity to kids who were like me. Art changes your perspective and gives us hope.”