September 10, 2004


Another Perspective on the State of Chicano Arts and the Centro

By Adrián Arancibia

I came to San Diego twenty years ago. My family settled on the border of National City and Bonita. We have straddled Sweetwater road for over the past two decades and we have all become active members of the Chican@/Latin@ community here.

I became involved in the local Chicano/Latino arts scene ten years ago. It was with this scene, that my heart lay and I dedicated myself to working with the Taco Shop Poets. I was a founding member along with Adolfo Guzman Lopez and Miguel Angel Soria. Through our collective efforts, the group has grown and we now approach the ten-year mark of poetry and performance in San Diego and beyond. We have traveled to and performed in cultural centers and taco shops in New York, San Francisco and Chicago. We have been featured in the HBO documentary Americanos, and are currently spotlighted in the Chican@/Latin@ arts documentary Visiones scheduled for PBS broadcast this October.

After reading the response from Victor Payan, (published August 13, 2004), what I found most disconcerting is the Save Our Centro Committee’s notion of nostalgia and the contradictions in their statements. Members of the SOCC and former members of the Centro Cultural de la Raza like to take credit for the founding of the Taco Shop Poets. Actually, the idea of developing our own instant cultural spaces in local eateries in San Diego and Tijuana led us to our name. Because we lacked an established cultural space to perform our poetry, we decided to use taco shops as appropriate cultural spaces where anyone, including us poets, was accepted and expected to arrive in search “of the perfect carne asada burrito”.

Nostalgia, or the longing for a perceived past, affects all of us. It permits us to make claims that we cannot assert as true. For example the SOCC letter speaks of a Centro that was all-inclusive and open to all. Unfortunately, that was not the case. I can point to several instances where prominent artists attacked younger artists not only for their different identities but even for their dress. I can remember vividly, one muralist approaching Tomás Riley who was dressed as a young b-boy (or like many of us who were into hip-hop culture) and telling him that when he was growing up, “only white boys wore baseball caps”. Yet more importantly, I can point to an organization that for years functioned in the red. And for this reason was not able to produce the events deserving of a thirty-year anniversary. Yet these facts are not discussed in the nostalgia-tinted versions provided to us by Payan.

Questioning the historical facts.

After seven years of existence, the Taco Shop Poets along with Calaca Press and other community members decided to build a space for emerging artists in the region. We decided to build the space precisely because of the Centro/SOCC debacle. We understood that the problems were so ingrained and the sides were so far apart, there would be no resolution. Remember these were two “sides so unwilling to listen, compromise, and commit to positive change” that they could not come to a common ground for negotiation.

Now, this task of building a cultural organization from the roots on up has been so difficult, that many who participated in the project are not with us today. For example, board members have moved on, leaving the organization for personal reasons.  For instance, members of Calaca Press decided to resign from the board of directors. Voz Alta still hopes to work with them in the future. We believe though, that the vision has not strayed much as four of the original six board members continue to keep the doors open for emerging artists desperately in need of places to have their paintings, photography, poetry and music presented to audiences. The hard work of current and past board members has allowed us to carve out an existence of three years. Board members often make individual donations in order to assure the economic solvency of the organization.

Our solution to the Centro/Save Our Centro stalemate has been to ignore it while bringing art and culture to Voz Alta’s growing audience.

Calling on the community

My question is, if Save Our Centro Coalition wants the Centro back this bad, why haven’t the professionals, the artists, and the activists worked to gain and secure their own space. Why can’t they develop a Centro Comunitario that services their own agendas? If, as Victor Payan claims, the SOCC hosts events in the community for the community and they are so successful, why hasn’t the community come together to develop a permanent space for exiled Centro Cultural artists and activists?

Another point difficult to reconcile from the group’s letter is the Chicano Visions/Chicano Now show. SOCC called for a boycott of the panel. Their rationale for the boycott is stated at the end of their response, they claim, “the community needs a Centro Cultural de la Raza that serves the needs of the community, not corporations, funders or cultural tourists.” This line struck me because in both in the past and today, organizations are always in a position of balancing their responsibilities to artists, to community audiences, as well as to private and government funders. Further, some of the members and groups listed on the SOCC website (including Payan and Vasquez) worked for the Chicano Visions/Chicano Now exhibition and street faire. This is a show put together by the Clear Channel Corporation who has championed both the Iraq war and President Bush. Secondly, and in reference to cultural tourism, this show is precisely about cultural tourism. From the mock kitchen with refried beans in the cupboards with Culture Clash explaining to people who we are, to the Migra Mouse picture taking, the leaders of SOCC participated and helped organize a corporately sponsored cultural tourism event sponsored by a non Chicana/o organization, the MCA San Diego.

Which brings us to the point that Avalos makes in the original commentary calling for an end to the boycott and the stalemate. The Chicana/o community got left out by the Museum of Contemporary Art. A major art show comes into town, and here we are scrambling for the migas, the crumbs. We can’t even collectively put our melones [heads] together to get what we feel is important. Established art critics like Bob Pincus have even gone as far as decrying the lack of attention paid to Chicano Park. Yet your response to Avalos’ article, doesn’t seem even seem to address this point. And again, the point is that we are not working together in a productive way on behalf of our communities as in the past. Instead, the response seems to point the finger at the Centro again. It is a mere repetition of the same four-year-old rhetoric and a weakly presented call to maintain the boycott’s role in our community’s failure.

We must be prepared to offer the community something new: dialogue. Without dialogue, the San Diego Chican@/Latin@ community will continue to suffer from the same problems it’s faced for the past twenty years. When will this boycott/stalemate end? We cannot allow nostalgia to color our memories of the past as perfect. Like all community centers, the Centro both past and present, has had its critics, its problems and its contradictions.

What is the vision?/What are your solutions?

For the above reasons, the board members of Voz Alta have agreed to offer their space as a possible venue for conflict mediation/resolution between the Centro Cultural de la Raza and the Save Our Centro Committee. Both groups need to come to the table and negotiate in good faith. It is the hope of Voz Alta’s board that other community members/groups make the effort to provide the two bickering groups with a mediator to resolve this conflict.

As strange as this may sound, I’m reminded of the lyrics of a Beck song, “lost cause”. He writes, “I’m tired of fighting. I’m tired of fighting, fighting for a lost cause”. More and more, the boycott proposed by the respondents to Mr. Avalos appears to be a lost cause. As I’ve come to learn as an organizer and administrator at Voz Alta, who wins when we fight each other? No one. Who loses? All of us.

Adrián Arancibia of the Voz Alta Project, is Vice President of Board of Directors

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