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Rites of Passage—A Community Exhibit

Imagine if you were handed the keys to a museum and told you could plan an exhibit. What would it be? How would you fill it?

And, how exciting to be faced with that challenge?

Well, the Center for Community & Cultural Arts (CCCA) offered that opportunity to its community. Located at the Joe & Vi Jacobs Center in Southeast San Diego, the undertaking began two years ago, when CCCA convened a Learning Partnership, comprised of approximately 30 residents and artists, and gathered their input.

The Learning Partnership came together to develop the idea for the Center’s first major exhibit. A lot of thought, exchange of viewpoints, and lively conversation took place, resulting in an exhibit that is as captivating as it is creative. Add to that, the expertise provided by some of San Diego’s finest museums, including The Mingei International Museum, the San Diego Museum of Art, and the San Diego Museum of Man, and you have a display that is worthy of being showcased in any reputable museum around the world.

Photo credit: Joe & Vi Jacobs Center

A Chamorro coconut grater from Laos. On display at the "Rites of Passage: Our Journeys Through Life" exhibit.

Thus was born, “Rites of Passage: Our Journeys Through Life,” an exhibit that was originally slated to end in January, and is now being extended to March. It is a fascinating, multicultural look at the way we live and the way we celebrate and honor the passages of our lives, from cradle to grave. Nearly every piece in the exhibit is on loan from a resident, and reflects the diverse cultures and countries of origin of many who call San Diego home.

Each piece tells a story of tradition and passages, capturing milestones important to the culture. Like the Somali infant bracelet that connects mother and child and helps ward off evil spirits. Or the debut gown a Filipino girl wears when she turns 18. The alms bowl and fan that many young Lao men use as novice monks, before entering marriage, and a Chamorro coconut grater that is given to a boy so that he can start contributing to family meals. There’s even a Lincoln High School yearbook, which was brought in by an alumnus from its first graduating class. Class of 1955.

Photo credit: Joe & Vi Jacobs Center

The debut gown for girls in the Philippines. On display at the "Rites of Passage: Our Journeys Through Life" exhibit.

Also, on display is a Ketubah Jewish contract, which belongs to the CCCA directorial fellow, Beth Marino. Marino, who is charged with running the center, is proud of her contribution, a symbol of her own marriage. She feels passionate about the work she does, and is pleased knowing the exhibit is bringing together the residents with the museums of Balboa Park.

“The idea behind this project was to build a two-way bridge between the museums and our community,” explains Marino. “We had asked our residents why they don’t go to the museums. The answer we kept hearing was that they’re boring. That the themes of the exhibits didn’t speak to them.”

Marino says that during the meetings, the CCCA discovered that what residents really wanted was to have a voice and improve the perception of their community. They have achieved this through the “Rites of Passage” exhibit. In the first two months alone, the CCCA has seen approximately 1,600 visitors come to the museum.

What makes “Rites of Passage” perhaps even more invaluable is that it’s not afraid to touch on controversial life passages, such as female circumcision and gang initiation. The exhibit features artifacts, as well as videos of residents candidly addressing topics considered sensitive for its community, including a gay man who shares his story of coming out to his family.

When touring the exhibit, which is divided into four life stages—birth and youth, coming of age, identity and status, and death and beyond—one can’t help but feel that there’s something else afoot here. For, while “Rites of Passage” may be bridging a path to the world of museum-going, it is doing something even greater.

In the process, it is offering us a glimpse into the lives of our neighbors, and helping to build a better understanding of who we are.

“The Rites of Passage: Our Journeys Through Life” exhibit is at the Joe & Vi Jacobs Center through mid-March, at which time it will travel to the Museum of Man in Balboa Park for a six-month show. Admission at the center is free, but exhibit hours are limited. For more information visit the CCCA website.

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