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May 2005
Art for Change at Carlitos Café y Galeriá

By Sangamithra Iyer


Carlitos Cafe y Galeria
Photo by Wan Park

Growing up in Bolivia, Eliana Godoy’s early childhood was filled with confusion in a country of violent dictatorships. She recollects, “Priests were murdered, journalists tortured, students were disappearing. My elementary school would get tear-gassed. I was an angry and bitter child and felt I was born on the wrong planet.” It was only through art that she was able to envision a better life for herself. As a small child, Eliana would memorize poems and created a theater group amongst her little cousins. She would spend her summers at her grandparents’ place where her grandfather, Carlitos, would often entertain guests with performances and music. Eliana would also perform for them and receive a little money, which she saved to attend a theater academy. Eliana believes that this academy saved her life, offering her a way to get the anger out of her body and imagine different possibilities for her future. Art changed her life and that is essentially what she would like to extend to other people—“to also have that option of transforming their life positively.”

In 1999, Eliana with other artists and activists in New York pursued this goal and founded Art for Change, a community based non profit whose vision is to use art as a tool for a more just and fair world. They believe that art is a major component in building communities and they use it to bring people together, people who might not otherwise congregate in the same space. One of the big issues they address is the accessibility of art. “Art is still not something that reaches out to everybody even though art is something that obviously belongs to everybody.” A couple of years ago, Art for Change got a home of its own at Carlitos Café y Galeriá, cozy bar and neighborhood joint in Spanish Harlem.

Just a few blocks east of museum mile, Carlitos Café provides an exhibition space as well as a unique forum for artistic exchange. Some nights you’ll enjoy live music. On Monday nights you might catch socially and politically conscious films on women’s issues, the environment, globalization, or democracy. Café Con Leche, a neighborhood women’s discussion group congregates on Tuesday evenings. Wednesday is a great night to practice Spanish with other language learners and experienced native speakers. And on Tuesday nights, just like at Eliana’s grandparents’ home, Carlitos hosts an open mic project where you can watch or perform anything from rap to opera, belly dancing to comedy, in a very warm and welcoming environment. A strong sense of community is evident in all their programs. “It’s like Cheers, everyone knows your name,” remarks Eliana.

Art for Change is a grassroots and volunteer based organization and they train community members in organizing events and exhibitions and doing outreach. The power of human contact has been very effective in getting the community involved in the arts. There is a large participation in the educational programs that usually accompany the art exhibition. April’s exhibit featured photography by Olivia Portillo Galicia capturing Aztec dancing that had survived centuries of conquest and was accompanied by artist dialogues and dance performances. A majority of their programs are for the immigrant community of East Harlem. According to Eliana, “It’s important to maintain traditions and art is a big part of that.”

The programs Art for Change offers are overwhelming and impressive and Carlitos Café constantly bustles with warmth and energy. More is on the way. Future projects include the development of an anti-violence video to use as an advocacy tool. Eliana hopes to get more artists involved in projects with youth and skills development and possibly also working with small local businesses in the area. When asked what she is most proud of, Eliana replied, “It’s really difficult for most cultural art institutions to really have a community interact. But here we have been able to do that.” She’s also inspired by the volunteers and “knowing that a lot of people are interested in being part of a changed world”

Carlitos Café y Galeriá is located at 1701 Lexington Avenue between 106th and 107th Streets. For more information and to get involved, contact (212) 348-7044 or


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