Editor’s note: This story is one of an occasional series of pieces about community artists in Milwaukee.
Poet Alida Cardós Whaley co-founded STITCH Milwaukee, a summer open mic series in 2009, when she was just 19. “The idea was to be literally stitching our black and brown communities together,” she said.
Offering youth the opportunity to perform dance, spoken word and music, as well as share visual art, weekly sessions rotated between neighborhoods on the North Side and the South Side, Cardós Whaley said.
STITCH, which was co-founded by Jeanette Martin and Tony Garcia, has since evolved into a program of creative projects, rather than an open mic forum. Examples include a summer-long mural project that brought together artists of different ages and ethnicities to share their stories in talking circles and create a mural, one half in Alice’s Garden on the North Side and the other half at 1230 S. César Chávez Drive on the South Side. In addition, STITCH has created a Mexican-style market each December for the last three years.
Cardós Whaley writes English, Spanish and Spanglish poems, sometimes pairing them with songs and photographic images. She also makes visual art, sings, plays music and makes jewelry, natural medicines and body products. Facilitating healing from trauma inflicted by poverty, racism and sexism, among other social ills, and connecting people through art and culture are central to her work.
Now 27, Cardós Whaley counts co-founding Wisconsin Doulas of Color Collective among her community-building accomplishments. She was born in her maternal grandmother’s home and was present for the birth of her sister. Drawn to birth work, she is working with others to establish a birth-workers cooperative, she said.
Cardós Whaley also co-founded Necia Media Collective, a multimedia platform and online community for women of color, people of color and trans and gender non-conforming “media makers and theorists of all kinds.”
Cardós Whaley grew up with her white mother on the predominantly African-American North Side, believing she would someday connect with her Mexican father and his family in Merida, Yucatan.
She began to study Spanish at Roosevelt Middle School of the Arts (now called Roosevelt Creative Arts Middle School) because she wanted to be able to communicate and express herself to her father and her paternal relatives.
“I used to think I was going to find them through a show like Oprah,” she said.
Though her mother took her to visit her father when she was a baby, Cardós Whaley lost touch with her father until 2009 when they connected through Facebook. Cardós Whaley has visited Mexico several times since then.
Though she has always loved stories and wrote them as a child, she began to write poetry as a student at Rufus King International High School. She met poet and mentor of young poets Dasha Kelly during this time. Through Kelly, she learned of the First Wave Hip Hop and Urban Arts Learning Community at University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she was accepted in its first year.
The program offers young Hip Hop artists a four-year scholarship and an opportunity to create, share and perform with others in a close-knit artist community. The program included a junior year in Panama, where she met her partner, b-boy dancer Alcibiades Ortega, with whom she now has a 4-year-old child, A’lialei.
In addition to her community leadership and work as an artist, she is employed as an academic advisor and programs coordinator for the Latin American, Caribbean, and U.S. Latin@ Studies (LACUSL) major at UW Milwaukee. Cardós Whaley majored in Latin American, Caribbean, and Iberian Studies in college.
She said that in the First Wave program at UW, the young artists experienced “so many hard things,” such as trauma associated with low-income urban backgrounds. She learned that by “sharing through words, or through music or song or dance” they were able to support one another.