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Erica Alexia Ledesma and the art of narrative strategy for social and political change 

Through personal interviews, intergenerational research, and visual art, the Rogue Valley native is leading the Latinx community of Southern Oregon on a journey to challenge cultural stereotypes and change society.  

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Erica Ledesma's vision began with storytelling and placemaking, but grew out of necessity into a critical economic and cultural driver for the Latinx community in the Rogue Valley. Illustration courtesy of Coalición Fortaleza.
Erica Ledesma’s vision began with storytelling and creative placemaking, but grew out of necessity into a critical economic and cultural driver for the Latinx community in the Rogue Valley. Illustration courtesy of Coalición Fortaleza.

“Yeah, OK, I’ll do some storytelling.”  

With a smile, that was the first thing 31-year-old Erica Alexia Ledesma said to me once we had settled with coffee into a quiet conference room in the co-working space in downtown Medford where the organization Coalición Fortaleza rents space. I had asked her to tell me about herself, as a way to situate her work, which has ranged from visual artist to nonprofit founder and executive  director, to storytelling facilitator and wildfire relief advocate.  


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Ledesma continued her introduction by sharing that she had been born in Ashland and, except for her undergraduate years in Eugene at the University of Oregon, had lived in the eight miles between Talent and Medford her entire life. “I’m just really grateful for these lands,” she said. 

In a few words, Ledesma had encapsulated a lot of what she would talk about over the next hour: the importance of story and place in changing a community – and therefore, by extension, changing the world.  

Erica Alexia Ledesma, the cofounder and executive director of Coalición Fortaleza, a community non-profit for the Latinx community of the Rogue  Valley. Photo courtesy of Erica Ledesma.
Erica Alexia Ledesma, the cofounder and executive director of Coalición Fortaleza, a community non-profit for the Latinx community of the Rogue Valley. Photo courtesy of Erica Ledesma.

Ledesma is cofounder and executive director of Coalición Fortaleza, which translates as “Stronghold Coalition”, supporting economic liberation for the Latinx community of the Rogue Valley. The coalition grew out of place – specifically, the ashes of the 2020 Almeda Fire that scorched 3,000 acres around the I-5 corridor between Ashland and Medford; the Latinx community of the midpoint towns of Talent and Phoenix was disproportionately affected by the fire. One of the coalition’s programs is Project De La Raíz, also founded by Ledesma prior to 2020 and later brought under Coalición Fortaleza’s umbrella. De La Raíz translates as “From The Roots” and focuses on “gathering and sharing stories of the Latinx communities of Southern Oregon, as well as creative placemaking.”

A video introduction, in Spanish, to Coalición Fortaleza and their work connecting the culture, economy, and identity of the Latinx community in the Rogue Valley. Video courtesy of Coalición Fortaleza.

How Coalición Fortaleza and De La Raíz, each focused in their own way on place and story, came to be offers a crystallized example of the society-changing success that can happen when art and civics progress in tandem. Ledesma explained the importance of paying attention to both at once, particularly in a time of crisis: “How can you push the political if there is no social and cultural shift that’s happening at the same time?” She referenced an interview with bell hooks, author and activist, that had resonated with her. In the interview, hooks said that where the 1960s civil rights movement fell short in prioritizing political change to the exclusion of cultural progress. Regarding this oversight, what Ledesma called “not shifting the heart,” she  said, “We can easily have this law that creates more inclusion, but if [an old] sentiment is still in the hearts of people, you’re not going to get [change]. That’s why cultural work is so vital to the  movement, as much as the political.”  

Ledesma found her start in helping her Southern Oregon community from the outside, looking back in.  

Leaving home to find home 

Ledesma’s personal story and how she came to this work is important for understanding the  work itself. Ledesma identifies as Chicana; both her parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the 1980s. This was also the time when much of the Southern Oregon Latinx population began to permanently root in the area.  

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Ledesma, lower right, and members of the Coalición Fortaleza staff. Photo courtesy of Coalición Fortaleza.
Ledesma, lower right, and members of the Coalición Fortaleza staff. Photo courtesy of Coalición Fortaleza.

“Latinx” is a form of the umbrella term “Latino/a” that resists the gender binary by ending in an  “x” instead of the Spanish-language feminine “a” or the masculine “o.” Like any broad description, it can fall short of accurately describing all its possible members. For example, because “Latinx” focuses on Latin America origin or heritage, many, but not all, members of Central and South American and Caribbean communities, it “invisibilizes,” Ledesma said, specific ethnic and racial groups, especially Indigenous and African ones.  

In the mountains and hills of Southern Oregon, Ledesma’s father saw the landscape of his native  Zacatecas in north-central Mexico and he became a tree planter. Her mother, along with many others from her mother’s home state of Nayarit, which borders the Pacific Ocean, was a farmworker in Ron Meyer’s pear orchards, a major Rogue Valley producer from 1910 to 2022. “They contributed to one of the state’s largest economies,” Ledesma said.  

Coalición Fortaleza is as much about the arts and culture of the Latinx community, as in this dancer at El Mercadito, as it as about economic development and empowerment. Photo courtesy of Coalición Fortaleza.
Coalición Fortaleza is as much about celebrating the arts and culture of the Latinx community, as in this dancer at El Mercadito, as it as about supporting economic development and empowerment. Photo courtesy of Coalición Fortaleza.

Ledesma was “immersed,” she said, in her culture and community both at home and at school. While the community’s parents were at work, one elder cared for all the children, a grandmotherly figure because of the amount of time she spent with them and because she  herself was from Nayarit. Ledesma attended the Phoenix-Talent School District Two-Way Bilingual Immersion program: by sharing classrooms with bilingual instruction, both English and Spanish speakers became fluent in each others’ languages. The program started around the time Ledesma was born and remains one of the longest-running programs of its kind in the region.

Even while surrounded by her ethnic, cultural, and linguistic heritage, Ledesma said that, as a child and teenager, there was still a strong narrative for Latino students to assimilate into the dominant – white, English-language – culture of Southern Oregon. It wasn’t until she studied Ethnic Studies and anthropology at the University of Oregon with Lynn Stephen, a nationally recognized scholar of Latinx and Indigenous studies, that she “had a homecoming.” She had to leave her community to really understand its depth and breadth and to consider her role in it.  

Cultural heritage and shared traditions are central to the community building mission of Coalición Fortaleza. Photo by Gabriel Ramirez.
Cultural heritage, storytelling, and shared traditions are central to the community building mission of Coalición Fortaleza. Photo by Gabriel Ramirez.

Her studies taught her to positively examine her own experience and community. Her education also taught her that, ultimately, she knew more than she’d realized. There was only one paragraph on Jackson County in her assigned reading on Latinx people in Oregon, and she remembered thinking, “Whoa, is that everything that there is about us?” Having lived in a tight-knit community that  remained woven with its past, she had experienced a vaster truth. “There are so many stories that live within our community. There are so many elders that are carrying these rich stories. We need to pass those down before they’re lost.”

As much as she wanted to capture the stories of elders, she wanted to teach the youth in her community  – “I wanted them to learn what I’d learned,” and not trust in a college experience to do so in their future. Those who do go on  to higher education do not necessarily find themselves in the classes Ledesma chose, and too often, she said, instead of shining a light, “the educational system kind of suppresses that side of us, the cultural expression that we have.” She returned home to Southern Oregon shortly after graduation with a clear plan: “I want to start our own storytelling project.” 

The narrative strategy

In 2018, Ledesma launched Noche de Cuentos (Night of Stories) with a group of friends. This  was her first attempt to “start creative placemaking so we can share and uplift the  stories that we want to tell in community.” Over food, along with musical performances, conversation, and  just pure joyful fun, people gather to tell stories around a theme. To help people prepare their story and feel comfortable presenting before an audience, Ledesma and the other organizers offer guidance in storytelling elements such as theme, arc, and character. Though Covid disrupted these larger gatherings, smaller story circles continued. The first in-person Noche de Cuentos since 2019 was held in May 2023.  

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A flyer for Noche de Cuentos (Night of Stories), the storytelling event to share stories of the Latinx communities of the Rogue Valley. Artwork and flyer by Erica Ledesma.
A flyer for Noche de Cuentos (Night of Stories), the storytelling event to share stories of the Latinx communities of the Rogue Valley. Artwork and flyer by Erica Ledesma.

Though “merging communities” across languages and cultures is necessary, for now Noche de Cuentos is intentionally only in Spanish. “I think it’s OK for us to have our own spaces,” Ledesma explained. “Because we’ve never had our own spaces, it’s really important for us  to have it first, because there’s a lot of things that we’re decolonizing within our own  community, a lot of taboos that are so embedded in our culture. How can we have events that  serve us, for our own personal healing as a community?”

Ledesma said that many things – imperialism, imposed religion, immigration under duress, etc. – have created or exacerbated deep-seated bias within the community itself, leading to homophobia, internal racism against Indigenous and African members of the Latinx community, and the sometimes self-destructive  attempt to assimilate into the dominant culture while being treated by that culture as second class citizens.  

Participants in a recent Noche de Cuentos storytelling event. Photo by Luis Alvarado.
Participants in a recent Noche de Cuentos storytelling event. Photo by Luis Alvarado.

The “in-betweeness” of being connected to an ancestral homeland while also being from the States is a place long considered difficult to navigate – and certainly one that deserves  consideration as people work to improve their community. Ledesma referenced scholar Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera as a seminal work for many because of the way it captured the unique culture that develops among those living along a literal or figurative border. But it’s been nearly 40 years since that book was published, and Ledesma considers us at a different point of understanding. “We’re not from here or there, but that sometimes can negate responsibility. We have to claim our place here.” She’s doing it on  the land of the Shasta, Tekelma, and Athabaskan people, but “the ancestors chose us to be here – what’s my responsibility to these lands, my people, to my community?” Ledesma sees Noche de Cuentos as one way forward through all that. “How can we use these spaces to tap a  narrative strategy to shift people’s mindset around these issues?” 

Directed by community 

When Oregon experienced one of its worst wildfire seasons ever, just three years after Noche de Cuentos formed, Ledesma had the opportunity to put these thoughts into action.   

Ledesma had been growing her storytelling work. From Noche de Cuentos sprung De La Raíz, a  story gathering and archiving program, an expansion on the one-night storytelling event. It was  funded by an Oregon Community Foundation grant as a program of The Hearth, a nonprofit organization based in Southern Oregon that uses “transformational storytelling” as a means “to heal,  connect, enrich, and mobilize communities.” 

The Almeda fire devastated the manufactured home parks, home to predominantly Latinx communities, located between Ashland and Medford. Photo courtesy of Coalición Fortaleza.

Then, in a matter of hours on September 8, 2020, the Almeda Fire destroyed more than 2,600 homes between Ashland and Medford, among other smaller, but still destructive fires in the area. Over 15 manufactured home parks, many of which were predominantly Latinx communities, including Talent Mobile Estates and Summit Gardens, were destroyed, Ledesma said. Suddenly, everyone was engaged in relief work and mutual aid. Instead of gathering community members to hear their stories, Ledesma was attending town halls and community gatherings about immediate needs. At one of those community gatherings, an elder stood and asked the community in the room if they could buy their neighborhood and rebuild it, wholly as their own.  

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Community engagement was central to the rebuilding process after the Almeda fire. Photo courtesy of Coalición Fortaleza.
Community engagement was central to the rebuilding process after the Almeda fire. Photo courtesy of Coalición Fortaleza.

Ledesma cofounded Coalición Fortaleza, initially a purely volunteer organization, to help address this vision. The Hearth recognized the need for Ledesma and others to pivot from focusing exclusively on storytelling to community rebuilding and supported her work. The board of another organization, My Valley, My Home, determined that while this kind of work was part of its mission, as an outsider group from Ashland, its place was not in leading the work. Ledesma and her colleagues were able to, easier than creating a nonprofit from scratch, repurpose the gifted My Valley, My Home into Coalición Fortaleza.  

A community engagement session held by Coalición Fortaleza and CASA of Oregon. Photo courtesy of Coalición Fortaleza.
A community engagement session held by Coalición Fortaleza and CASA of Oregon. Photo courtesy of Coalición Fortaleza.

Working with CASA of Oregon as the nonprofit developer, they were able to successfully purchase Talent Mobile Estates back, in part with funding from Oregon Housing and Community Services. It’s been three years of meetings, advocacy, contracts, and fundraising, and Talent Mobile Estates is about to become the first community-owned manufactured home park in the Rogue Valley, the 23rd in Oregon. The community has had a hand in every decision, including architecture and design, as well as building communal spaces, gardens, and a cultural center on-site. “We want the community to guide this, to guide us, and then we’re leading with what they have to say and trusting that, and it’s just been a beautiful process,” Ledesma said. 

Ledesma (front) captures staff from Coalición Fortaleza, CASA of Oregon, and Salazar Architect, Inc.  after the successful Talent Mobile Estates community engagement efforts. Photo by Erica Ledesma.
Ledesma (front) captures staff from Coalición Fortaleza, CASA of Oregon, and Salazar Architect, Inc. as they celebrate the successful Talent Mobile Estates community engagement efforts. Photo by Erica Ledesma.

Imagining something better  

In some regards, creativity is now a part of Ledesma’s community work in a different way. It has become a key component of community rebuilding, such as in the 2021 hyperlocal research study done on the effects of the Almeda Fire on Latinx neighborhoods. Ledesma said the study was the “first holistic research that has been done with the Latino community in Southern Oregon – it’s storytelling, it’s data.”  

Creativity also provides a way to respond to a current crisis. For example, on the fire’s one-year  anniversary, the Almeda Commemoration Walk encouraged folks to walk a four-station spiral inspired by environmental activist and Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy’s work on grief through feeling gratitude, honoring pain, seeing with new eyes, moving forward – it was,  Ledesma said, “creative placemaking for people to be able to process their grief.”    

Signage installed for the Alameda Commemoration Walk in 2021, one year after the devastating fire. Photo courtesy of Coalición Fortaleza.
Signage installed for the Almeda Commemoration Walk in 2021, one year after the devastating fire. Photos courtesy of Coalición Fortaleza.

And the community is using creativity to document the community’s forward strides. This September, Coalición Fortaleza hosted El Mercadito, an open-air market in downtown Talent that drew 25 vendors and shoppers from as far away as Klamath Falls. As part of the Coalición Fortaleza, De La Raíz interviewed the business owner vendors about their work. Businesses are coming back to life, and “if you’re able to rebuild your business, you’re able to rebuild your lives,” Ledesma said. All of this falls under the work of the coalition’s cultural leadership organizer, because the work is about culture as much as it is about economics. “We’re doing so much amazing work,” Ledesma said, “so how can we use story as a way to change the narrative and tell the story of the work that we’re unfolding in our own community?”

A family sells their handcrafted bouquets at El Mercadito, an open-air market that is as much about Latinx culture as as it is about spurring economic support for small businesses. Photo by Diana Ramos.

Doing the remembering work 

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In December 2020, De La Raíz and The Hearth hosted a small storytelling event called The Things That Do Not Burn. The elder who would first ask about the community buying and rebuilding their burned neighborhood told his story – of all that he’d built over decades in Southern Oregon and then all that he’d lost in the Almeda Fire. “We never see men cry in our culture,” Ledesma said, “and I remember another elder said, ‘The fact that you got a grown-ass man to cry…that’s beautiful and impactful.’”  

Celines Garcia (l), Coalición Fortaleza's Community Wealth Building Organizer, and Erica Ledesma spoke on the impact of Covid and the Almeda fire, combined with housing and climate injustice within migrant communities, at Southern Oregon University's 2023 Climate Justice Conference. Photo by Diana Ramos.
Celines Garcia (l), Coalición Fortaleza’s Community Wealth Building Organizer, and Erica Ledesma spoke on the impact of Covid and the Almeda fire, combined with housing and climate injustice within migrant communities, at Southern Oregon University’s 2023 Climate Justice Conference. Photo by Diana Ramos.

The storyteller later died from Covid, but his story “re-lives in our mission and our work that  we’re doing,” Ledesma said. “Imagine if we never interviewed him.” She said she also thinks of his grandchildren, and future great-grandchildren and so on, who will be able to know him through his recordings. “When you learn about who you are and where you come from, no one can take that away from you, and it really gives you that agency to step into your voice, to step into your power. When you know who you are, you know where you’re going,” Ledesma said. “That’s the importance of story.”

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Kristin Thiel is a Portland-based writer and editor. She has written book reviews and album liner notes, has documented composer-filmmaker collaborations, and appreciates that writing for Oregon ArtsWatch allows her to continue exploring a variety of arts topics. She is coeditor of and contributor to Fire & Water: Stories from the Anthropocene, an anthology of short stories published by Black Lawrence Press in 2021. She has lived in seven different Portland neighborhoods and explores Oregon through backpacking and road-tripping, wine and beer tasting, show and gallery visiting, running and hiking--some of those, sometimes, with her cat on a leash by her side. 
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