Artist Impact Stories

Susana Arenas Pedroso

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Launched in May 2021 with the San Francisco Arts Commission and Grants for the Arts, and extended with additional funding from Start Small, the San Francisco Guaranteed Income Pilot for Artists (SF-GIPA) provides monthly unconditional payments of $1,000 to 130 San Francisco artists over a period of 18 months.

YBCA Sr. Manager of Artist Investments, Stephanie Imah, and Director of External Affairs, Aisa Villarosa, sat down with San Francisco artists and SF-GIPA participants to talk about how SF-GIPA impacted them, their loved ones, and their creative communities.

An internationally renowned, San Francisco-based choreographer in Afro-Cuban folkloric dance, Susana Arenas Pedroso claps to a booming inner rhythm, leading a studio of transfixed students. As the class follows her salsa suelta, or “loose salsa” performed without a partner, she glides over to one dancer who is a couple steps behind. Pop! Pop! Pop! She pulls them up to the tempo of her claps, guiding their movement with gentleness and ferocity: “Move like a warrior. Attack!” The student flies through the rest of class, as though Pedroso’s encouragement switched on a spark deep inside.

Uplifting her students is part of a larger practice that honors Pedroso’s Afro-Cuban roots. As one of 130 participants in the SF Guaranteed Income Pilot for Artists (SF-GIPA), Pedroso, a teaching artist and dancer, is dedicated to educating others on the history and strength of her people.

“My mission is to preserve the Afro-Cuban cultural arts. We dance, even when there is nothing in our bellies. We do it from the heart, in the face of it all.”

“In Cuba and in my family, dance is our heart and religion. The beat of the clave is our heartbeat,” she said of the clave, a percussion instrument featuring two cylindrical sticks, bridging the diasporic connections between African, Afro-Cuban, and Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. Pedroso describes her work as therapy, helping others visualize new perspectives and ease sadness. “This is the influence of our ancestors in Africa. We provide medicine through nature, spirituality, [and] music,” she said. “Dance is how we practice healing.”

For Pedroso, dancing can unlock the inner strength needed to fight on. “I have been fighting for Afro-Cuban folkloric art for over 22 years,” she said. With the COVID-19 pandemic, gigs have been canceled, classes are difficult to conduct outside, and fire season makes it worse.”

On top of this, Pedroso worries for loved ones in Cuba as they contend with social and political unrest, COVID-19, and police violence. Ongoing international and political tensions make things even more challenging. Pedroso must pay hefty processing fees to support her family overseas, with nearly half of what she sends to relatives going toward transaction costs between Cubanand U.S. banks.

Pedroso is using funds from SF-GIPA to help sustain her family in Cuba and to maintain her own housing, bills, and transportation. SF-GIPA’s monthly payments provide some breathing room, but Pedroso is troubled by the long road ahead, especially for fellow San Francisco artists grappling with rising costs and diminished economic opportunities.

“If it wasn’t for the passion and love that I have, I would have quit a long time ago,” she said. “We must believe in artists and fight to maintain the arts just as we do for jobs at Google or Twitter.”

Ultimately, Pedroso hopes that SF-GIPA increases collaboration between American arts organizations and government entities, just as she has witnessed other countries, including Cuba, institutionalize holistic support—both for artists and for the community spaces and venues that bring art and culture to the public. For Pedroso, this includes San Francisco’s Dance Mission Theater, “a school based in love and a place of family and community” where she instructs and performs.

As she has for decades, Pedroso will keep fighting for the artists and cultural leaders who, like her, lift up their loved ones, families, and neighborhoods. “We are in a crisis. My mission is to preserve the Afro-Cuban cultural arts. We dance, even when there is nothing in our bellies. We do it from the heart, in the face of it all.”

Learn more about Susana Pedroso and her practice here. More on the San Francisco Guaranteed Income Pilot for Artists (SF-GIPA), Powered by YBCA at

Lead image: Mission-based artist Susana Arenas Pedroso connects to her spirituality and activism for Afro-Cuban culture through dance. Photos of Susana Arenas Pedroso by LexMex Art.