September 10, 2004

Centro Cultural de la Raza Speaks Out!

(Editors Note: On July 30, 2004 on the pages of La Prensa, David Avalos addressed the issue of the future of Chicano Art in San Diego, the Centro Cultural de la Raza, and the ongoing boycott by the Save Our Centro Coalition (SOCC). Subsequently the SOCC published (August 13th) their positions and reasoning for their boycott. In this edition of La Prensa San Diego, the Centro continues the dialogue and responds to both Avalos and the SOCC. It is the editor’s hope that this dialogue moves from the pages La Prensa, and into meetings with the community and the principals and is just the beginning of greater things to come for all concerned.

This commentary was submitted by Aida Mancillas, President of the Centro Cultural de la Raza.)

The current Board of Trustees of the Centro Cultural de la Raza would like to respond to David Avalos’ article of July 30 from our point of view with the hope that it will engender dialogue.  We sincerely appreciate Mr. Avalos’ perspective and insight into art and community issues and applaud La Prensa for encouraging all of us to rethink how we can work together for the betterment of the entire community.

The Centro was deeply disappointed that the Chicano Visions panel was cancelled.  This program was to have been co-sponsored by the Centro and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD).  We would have welcomed a lively, even difficult, discussion about the state of Latino art in San Diego, as well as elsewhere.  We, too, hope that the MCASD continues to support Chicana/o and Latina/o art locally.

Our disappointment, however, stems from the fact that the Save Our Centro Coalition (SOCC) appears to be intent on denying the San Diego community certain resources and opportunities offered by the Centro. In essence, the pressure brought to bear upon artists, academics and community members to not participate with the Centro is asking the San Diego community to ‘pick a side’ and to not take advantage of the many resources the Centro offers (some of the new mechanical resources include a lighting grid, sound system, projection capabilities, and digital storytelling capabilities).  This is a significant loss to the Latina/o artists in the region.

We believe that individuals are entitled to express their opinions, even (especially) those with which we are not in complete agreement. We do, however, question the merit of pitting the community against itself when we should work to maximize our limited resources.

The Centro administration, up to now, has chosen not to respond to some of the untruths stated by the SOCC, in part because we didn’t want to add to an atmosphere that encourages division.  However, in light of the repetition of these misrepresentations by the SOCC in their recent letter to the editorial staff at La Prensa we offer the following corrections:

1. The Centro did not purge, lock out, or stop exhibitions by artists. In 1998, finding that the Centro was about to be closed forever, a board of trustees made up of community stakeholders was selected that would make every attempt to bring the organization back to a state of financial and structural health. At that time the Centro had significant debt, had been barred from national, state and local funding for noncompliance of its contracts, and stood liable for failing in its status with the IRS. These were, indeed, potential life threatening blows to the organization.

The board looked at the Centro from top to bottom and outlined the measures that would need to be in place. A plan was drawn up, policies put in place, and a timeline for reaching our goals was established. This timeline was temporaily stalled when the Centro suffered two major sewage spills (caused by a backup in the city’s infrastructure) that effectively closed the space for nearly 18 months. In that time no one could work or exhibit in that space as damage was assessed, repaired, paid for, and certified. It is simply untrue that the Centro kept artists out of the space.

Closure like this can irreparably harm the funding of any organization, but with leadership from the board and staff funders did come through even in this darkened period. The resultant new infrastructure at the Centro, paid for and supported by the city of San Diego, foundations and individual donors, makes it an exciting and significant venue for exhibitions, performances, educational workshops, teacher training and community events.

In its efforts the board and staff have always held to the vision that the rebuilding of the Centro was to benefit the arts and artists, all artists; those starting their practice and those with long careers. Our programming bears this out. The stability and well-being of the Centro has been established to guarantee that talent, research, and training in both new and old media is encouraged and rewarded.

2. The Centro did not refuse entrance to striking Marriott workers. Members of the board and staff are committed to the work for social justice and decent pay for all working people. We show our commitment by supporting labor causes in many arenas. Members of our board are actively involved in these issues and lobby for justice locally and in Sacramento. When it was discovered by one of the board members that Mexicana Marriot workers might be looking for a place to meet, a Centro board member asked them directly if they were interested in using the space. At that time, for other reasons, they had decided on another meeting site. The Centro was prepared to accommodate this activity because it was something we could do under the laws governing our non-profit status, but, more importantly, because we believe in the pursuit of justice for workers and women. It is simply untrue that we refused entrance to these workers. Indeed, some members of the board were actively involved in this very labor issue.

3. The Centro did not use the police against the community. In 1999, as the Centro board and staff were trying to save the organization from closure, some of them began receiving personal threats, or found themselves in public or workplace settings in which they faced direct intimidation. In the face of these tactics the board and staff deliberately chose not to pursue any actions that would further divide the community, even at the expense of their own comfort. However, in the incident to which the SOCC uses as their rallying point, a board member-a single mother with a small child- received a death threat at her home. This was a situation that the entire board, which is responsible and liable for the safety and well-being of its staff, volunteers, students and its members, could not ignore. We took the appropriate steps and asked for assistance in making sure that all present on the date in question were safe, including those who participated in the actions of the day. We regret both the circumstances that necessitated the action, and the action itself.  However, it would have been irresponsible and unconscionable not to act in the face of this threat to someone’s individual safety. No one deserves to be threatened with harm, especially women and their families.

4. The Centro is very much a grassroots organization. The changing nature of support for the arts (federally, statewide and locally) means that corporate and government support are needed by all organizations and festivals if they are to exist and flourish. This is true for the Centro and all the other organizations that form the Latino Arts Network (of which the Centro is a member), or the local neighborhood festivals and small venues that are part of the fabric of the San Diego border region. Our corporate, foundation and individual funders also fund many of the activities, festivals, academic programs, and organizations who list SOCC members as participants, staff, board members, or organizers.

The Centro board and staff are committed to working in an atmosphere of inclusivenes and in the spirit of grass roots activism in which all our members have participated. We will continue to work tirelessly to advocate for all Latino arts, social service, and educational organizations, and we welcome the emergence of new organizations and venues serving the Latina/o community. This region is well served by many voices that can program for the complex needs and audiences of the border.

If we can help an agency or organization fulfill its needs as it furthers our mission, we do it without reservation. To that end we have partnered with or supported the activities of nearly every Latina/o organization as well as a host of other arts or social service agencies. A partial list includes Barrio Logan College Institute, Chicano Federation, the GLBT Center and the Hillcrest Youth Center, San Diego MANA, La Raza Lawyers, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, UCSD’s Department of Pediatrics, USD’s Multiculteral Student Center, the Bravo Foundation, the Centro Cultural de Tijuana, Casa de Mexico, the Girl Scouts, The Smithsonian, the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, the Latino/a Indigenous Peoples Coalition, the Latino Arts Network and many many local schools and colleges.

We hope this letter gives community members information that will help them resolve for themselves the questions raised by events taking place over the past five years. Certainly the Centro is not immune to criticism. Honest criticism helps us understand the work we must do to improve our governance structure, our relationship with our audiences, our teaching success, and our programming. We hope that all stakeholders help us stay on course with our mission and strategic plan. Any missteps we may have taken we deeply apologize for.

We have many exciting programs and performances to offer. Arts programming at Centro over the past few years has included 20 different exhibitions, a multitude of performances, arts education classes, tours and workshops for over 150,000 local San Diego residents, including hundreds, even thousands of members of the Chicano/a and Latino/a community, as well as tourists.

In the past year we have brought indigenous “son” musicians from Mexico to play songs not generally heard by San Diego audiences. We have continued to expand our Dia de los Muertos activities and this year will feature altares that remember the victims of fire, the loss of Councilman Charles Lewis, the deaths of many gay/lesbian/transgendered/bi youth, feminist writer Gloria Anzaldua. We have an arts mercado. We have established a legacy project to memorialize the work of long time artists of this region. We have encouraged and nurtured theater artists with one-person shows and other performers with open mic opportunities. We completed digital storytelling workshops with established media artists and community organizers from M.I.T. We had ongoing performances and workshops on the regional dances of Mexico. We continue with classes in ballet folklorico and danza, working with schools and organizations. We had several outstanding exhibitions, including ones sponsored by the Smithsonian and Self Help Graphics. And lastly, although this is just a partial list of our activities, we hope to build on our efforts to give direct scholarships to youth. In this programming year we gave over $10,000 to young photographers in a partnership with Farmers Insurance.

These are but a few of the many resources available to the community at the Centro Cultural de la Raza. We have worked hard to provide a safe and rich environment for our people. In the spirit of peace we once again repeat our promise that all are welcome, and all are valued.

Board of Trustees and Staff
Centro Cultural de la Raza

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