Our Favorite Public Programs of 2023

It Was a Year of Hard-Hitting Conversations, a Traveling Public Square, and Even a Dance Party

Our Favorite Essays of 2023 | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Illustration by Be Boggs.


It’s Zócalo’s 20th birthday, and we hit the two decade milestone running—we hosted 21 events in 2023 to fulfill our mission of connecting people to ideas and to each other.

At our homebase at the ASU California Center in downtown Los Angeles, we discussed some of the biggest issues of the day—from artificial intelligence to surveillance. We enjoyed a special homecoming, hosting our first-ever event steps away from our namesake: Mexico City’s Plaza de la Constitución, otherwise known as the Zócalo, one of the largest public squares in the world. We traversed California, from Sacramento to Riverside, to discuss the needs of workers in low-wage sectors of the state’s economy. We traveled to Jackson, Mississippi, and to Memphis, Tennessee, to consider how sins of the past shape the present, and what might move us forward. We even threw a dance party—shout out to all 700 of you who boogied with us at the Port of L.A. on a Sunday afternoon!

Picking our favorite public programs each year is never easy, but these seven events reflect the variety of our work—and most importantly, kept us talking long after the discussions wrapped. Whether you came in person or watched virtually, you’re what makes our public square so robust. Thanks for being part of Zócalo, and we look forward to continuing the conversation next year.

Do We Need More Food Fights?

This emotional conversation and cooking demonstration brought together photographer Zahara Gómez Lucini, who compiled a cookbook that collects recipes from the families of desaparecidos—the tens of thousands of people who have gone missing in Mexico—and Maite Gomez-Rejón, a culinary historian and co-host of the “Hungry for History” podcast. Livestreamed and in person from LA Cocina de Gloria Molina’s demonstration kitchen in downtown L.A., the women prepared special guest Blanca Soto’s pozole from the cookbook and spoke about the power of a meal. Cooking does not just satisfy our hunger, they noted, but can also unite us, and in this case reunite us, with those who are no longer here. The special event, presented in partnership with LA Cocina de Gloria Molina and California Humanities, was part of our birthday series “What Connects Us?

The 2023 Zócalo Book Prize: How Does a Community Save Itself? With Michelle Wilde Anderson

For 13 years, Zócalo has honored the author of the best nonfiction book that explores community and social connection, inviting them to visit us to collect their prize—$10,000 and a nifty Zócalo Rubik’s Cube—and deliver a lecture. In June, this year’s honoree Michelle Wilde Anderson arrived at a packed house at the ASU California Center and shared stories of hope from The Fight to Save the Town: Reimagining Discarded America, her book looking at the communities of Stockton, California; Josephine County, Oregon; Detroit, Michigan; and Lawrence, Massachusetts. “We have to invest in people where they live,” she told the evening’s moderator, Alberto Retana, president and CEO of South L.A.’s Community Coalition. The program also featured poet Paige Buffington, who joined us virtually to read her 2023 Zócalo Poetry Prize-winning submission, “From 20 Miles Outside of Gallup, Holbrook, Winslow, Farmington, or Albuquerque.” And, because this kicked off Zócalo’s 20th birthday celebration, the night ended with cake.

What Does Boxing Owe Its Champions?

The gloves were off at the ring (okay, the ASU California Center) as panelists—professional boxer and actress Kali “KO” Mequinonoag Reis, former middleweight champ Sergio “the Latin Snake” Mora, California State Athletic Commission executive director Andy Foster, and sport and ethnic studies scholar Rudy Mondragón—shared candid perspectives on the state of their sport. The discussion, presented in partnership with UCLA College, Division of Social Sciences and ASU Global Sport Institute, called for more protections for athletes and left the audience with a major question: What will be left of professional boxing if it does not do more to protect its athletes’ physical and financial well-being?

What Is a Good Job Now? For Fairness in the Workplace

What better way to get the attention of California politicians than by convening a conversation right on the Capitol steps in Sacramento? As part of the Zócalo Public Square series supported by The James Irvine Foundation, “What Is a Good Job Now?,” we brought together California State Senator Maria Elena Durazo, founding member of Inland Empire Amazon Workers United Sara Fee, and California Labor Commissioner assistant chief Daniel Yu for a memorable conversation on wage theft, unpaid overtime, dangerous working conditions, discrimination, and rising employer retaliation, moderated by our own Joe Mathews.

What Is the Value of Art?

Nobody called the fire department on us, but so many people showed up for this powerhouse night of arts and culture that we had to open a separate screening room. In anticipation of the international art fair Frieze Los Angeles, we curated a conversation on the state of the art world, inviting LAXART director Hamza Walker, artist and activist Andrea Bowers, writer and curator Helen Molesworth, and artist, cultural organizer, and co-founder of Meztli Projects Joel Garcia to break down some of artists’ greatest aesthetic, moral, and financial challenges, as well as their biggest opportunities for social change and community building.

How Does a Community Move With Music? A Diaspora Dance Party

We came. We shared our songs and stories of L.A. And we danced. We danced a lot. Zócalo’s first-ever dance party (another birthday series event), held at the Wilmington Waterfront Park at the Port of Los Angeles, was a smashing success. Los Angeles Times columnist Gustavo Arellano, the inaugural contributor to our ongoing “Diaspora Jukebox” playlist series, emceed. KCRW DJ Raul Campos and local Wilmington DJ Mario “Dred” Lopez kept the music flowing. Curation from Levitt Pavilion and performances by Pacifico Dance Company and Korean Classical Music and Dance Company wowed the crowd. If you needed a break from the dancing, we had food vendors, an art activation by LA Commons, and a pop-up Wilmington Art Walk at the ready. And glow sticks. So many glow sticks.

How Do We Hear America? A Special Evening of Music by Pulitzer Prize-Winning Composer Raven Chacon

We thought our final program of 2023 was pretty special, and you did, too: Zócalo’s audience voted “How Do We Hear America?” as the fan favorite event of the year. This night of music, co-presented with L.A.-based music collective wasteLAnd, ASU Gammage, and GRoW Annenberg, brought us together at the ASU California Center to watch and listen as the ensemble brought a selection of composer and musician Raven Chacon’s works to life. With our senses activated by the music and our bellies warm with tamales from Mama’s Tamales, and Tacos, Too, we think we ended the year on a high note.


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