November 9, 2007

Stephanie De La Torre: New Leadership and New Direction for The Centro

By Michael Klam

Stephanie De La Torre, the new Executive Director of the Centro Cultural de la Raza, is counting on a little help from her friends.

Stephanie de la Torre will try to lead The Centro Cultural de la Raza into new, more inclusive paths.

In what seems to be a new era of common vision, the Centro’s promise lies in its stakeholders. They will have to get along with each other and remain accountable to one another through a system of community-created checks and balances.

“The Centro belongs to all of us,” said De La Torre, “and staff and the community are working together towards the same mission of rebuilding and bringing the Centro back up and running.”

De La Torre began her new position at a crucial time. This year, a seven-year boycott of the Centro by artists and activists ended. With the support of a team from the National Conflict Resolution Center, Save Our Centro Coalition (SOCC) members and the Centro board produced a resolution agreement that re-established the institution’s Arts Advisory Committee and Community Advisory Council.

De La Torre will work directly with the Arts Advisory Committee to advance programming. “I have a really broad network of artists and elders who have been involved with the Centro over the last 37 years,” De La Torre said.

“There’s a past that exists,” she explained, “but I think everybody is on the same page to bring the Centro forward. This is an exercise for all of us in healing. You can’t make everybody happy, but ultimately, it’s about what’s best for the community,” she said.

The resolution also instituted new policies to encourage community participation by directly confronting conflicts of interest and keeping the Centro’s practices open and transparent.

“We do have to be honest,” said SOCC/Centro Transition Team member Victor Payan, “There was a tremendous amount of dysfunction before, art was being destroyed and the community was being slandered.”

Payan expressed concern about the use of space and the placement of some artwork, including expensive panels, fine artwork that’s currently being used as a wall that leads to the Centro bathrooms.

Muralist, teacher and historian, Victor Ochoa, who filed a lawsuit in 2005 in an attempt to retrieve $100,000 in missing artwork from the Centro, welcomes the prospects for a better future under De La Torre’s direction, albeit with some skepticism.

“At one time, I remember actually saying that the Centro was my child,” he said. “A lot of times people couldn’t understand that. I’m not sure that anything’s changed. The seven years of the boycott were strange. It was like my child went a different direction.”

Ochoa said the best-case scenario would be to regain some of the things that were lost. “Our reputation, to begin with — we’ve lost it with our community.”

While groups were strong enough to keep on working as individuals, independent from the Centro, “We now need to work more as a group,” Ochoa said.

“And we’re burned out with boycotts,” he conceded.

“The Centro has a specific mission to reach out to the community,” explained Payan. “We worked hard to build in a process that would be fair and provide people with a sense that there is accountability.”

Fellow transition team member, Sandra Peña-Sarmiento, agreed that now that the systems are in place, “It doesn’t depend on any one person,” she said. “It’s not vulnerable in that way anymore. It fosters and encourages community involvement, and it’s not up to one person to destroy.”

Peña-Sarmiento believes that De La Torre “has the needle and the thread to tie all the discordant threads together now.”

David Avalos, Chicano professor in the Visual and Performing Arts Department at California State University San Marcos and former employee of the Centro for 10 years, agreed. “Stephanie is someone who has impressed me with the work that she has done at Voz Alta,” he said. De La Torre was co-founder and former director of the gallery and performance space. “I attended one of the Bill Caballero Latin Jazz Jams on Thursday night, and it was just a great evening, man, just a simple pleasure listening to these musicians sparring with each other polyr-hythmically,” he said.

Avalos explained that with her contacts at Voz Alta, De La Torre is in a position to play a role in what could be a “harmonious and mutually beneficial relationship with the Centro.” With her connections and long-standing reputation in the community, “There’s a very real prospect,” he said.

De La Torre, who also worked at the University of California San Diego and said that her tech background has given her ideas to streamline things at the Centro, calls Voz Alta her baby. She spent the past four years working with others to develop programming that ranged from writing workshops with renowned poet Willie Perdomo to computer-generated electronica music to spoken word poetry slam events. She did research, secured and managed funding, and worked with artists, volunteers and community members. She will continue to work with Voz Alta in an advisory capacity.

The Voz Alta Project recently lost its space on Broadway in East Village due to eminent domain. The building was sold and will be demolished.

When De La Torre left, a new board of young artists and musicians took over. The current board has the difficult task of finding a new home for the project in San Diego where gentrification and high rent make life difficult for small arts organizations.

But that might be the least of their worries, according to some. “They’ll never get in a space,” said former board member Cecil Hayduke, who stepped down for what he called incessant “shit-talking” and double standards. Voz Alta has not been free of controversy, and there have been disruptions of the board on a couple of occasions, including the walkout of eight board members in 2004.

Hayduke also said there was some misuse of funds during De La Torre’s tenure and that alcohol and drug use, from marijuana to cocaine, was common. In a poem describing why he left Voz Alta, which he recently performed at a popular local reading, Hayduke chanted, “Board Meeting – BONG HITS!” four times in repetition.

De La Torre said Hayduke had his own issues to contend with and made no apologies for artists, especially musicians, living the “lifestyle of artists,” and she chalked it up to being a natural part of one’s experience in that community.

In her new position at the Centro, De La Torre has the full confidence and support of the board, including two-year member of the board of trustees and arts advisory committee chair Christina Perez de Lock.

“Stephanie understands how to do a lot with a little, and she is courageous enough to do that and to say, ‘Hey, we need help and we need to do this together,’” she said.

The hiring process was a difficult one. The board started out with 30 candidates chosen from a national search, narrowed it down to 10 interviews, then called back a final three. “We had a great pool to choose from, and we needed to pick the right person,” said Perez de Lock.

Avalos agreed that De La Torre was the qualified person for the job, “someone who has had the benefit of collaboration with local artists, with Chicanos and non-Chicanos.”

And Avalos does not look back in judgment, but forward in hope.

It’s human nature for people to quarrel with each other, Avalos said. “I think that as human beings, we have to ask ourselves — is there something bigger than me and my ego? Can I find it? Can I share goals with it? Can I find common goals? Can I do the very difficult work of making things happen based on compassion, based on coordination versus chaos?” he said.

“The challenge for any organization is: What are you willing to do to make it work?”

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