December 12, 2003

A Deeper Issue at the Centro

By Raymond R. Beltrán

“People ask us, ‘Well, why don’t you go create your own cultural arts center?’,” says Victor Payán, member of the Save Our Centro Coalition (SOCC). “And the answer to that is: This was our cultural stage for thirty years, and outside the Centro, we’ve started other groups and organizations, and we’ve continued serving our cultural community … So I ask, if they wanted a cultural arts space, why didn’t they start their own?”

Save Our Centro Coalition member, Endy, creates dialogue with Centro Cultural de la Raza patrons last Friday evening to discuss the current Centro picket. Photo by Mariajulia Urias.

As the Centro Cultural de la Raza, begins to exhibit their partnership with new sponsors, artists that had formerly been part of the Centro’s once progressive activity continue to hold the picket line with no sign of laying the three-year issue down for one second, and their following continues to grow.

On Friday, December 5, SOCC members held strong to the picket line while the Centro and Farmers Insurance Group held a photography exhibition and contest, Farmers Insurance Young Americanos Youth Photography Competition. The event acts as a companion piece to Edward James Olmos’ Americanos photography exhibition held at the Centro, which Olmos declined to attend after hearing about the SOCC picket.

As parents walked up to the front of the Centro Cultural de la Raza to attend the Young Americanos exhibition, some began to berate picketers for demonstrating at a student’s event by taunting them as they passed. Some patrons, who seemed to be unaware of the current Centro picket, ignored the group of artists who were passing out leaflets, and a few Centro patrons discovered that there is a deeper issue surrounding the picket than just the Young Americanos exhibition.

The Centro Cultural de la Raza has been deep-rooted in the Mexican community since its birth in 1970. It had been the center for indigenous cultural expression and the stage for grass roots political stands for local artists such as muralists Victor Ochoa (Writer’s Block, Ojos de Dios Art Gallery), Sal Barajas (Motivational Designs, Red CalacArts Collective), Mario Torero (FUERZA, Casa de Perú), ousted board members like Valerie Aranda as well as activists like Jorge Mariscal (UCSD Chicano/a Arts Humanities Program, Project YANO) and members of the Chicano Park Steering Committee, amongst many others.

Previous investigative research surrounding the conflict indicates that the Centro’s structure and administration had begun to collapse with the lack of funding, and in 1999, the Centro board hired on a former administrator from the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, Nancy Rodriguez, in order to regain its order and organization. Having brought with her a city arts commissioner, Aida Mancillas (Art Produce Gallery), conflicts began in 2000 that remain unresolved between newcomers and the once established Centro board of directors.

According to the SOCC and due to a previous flooding at the Centro, there has been the loss of paintings belonging to former board members. Parts of historic murals, painted by Guillermo Aranda, that decorate the outside walls of the Centro have been blotted out with white paint to cover vandalism related to hate crimes. Their issues also include the lack of programming in the past three years, community members being locked out and reported to the police, as well as the complete disregard for the opinions presented by former Centro artists and community members, which is said to be one of the new undemocratic decision making processes that had been foreign to the Centro since its birth thirty years prior.

On May 4, 2000, SOCC members and the Centro administration had scheduled a meeting to discuss the issues. To their surprise, SOCC members stepped up to the Centro building only to be greeted by San Diego Police Department officers.

As a member of a local Danza Azteca troupe, Endy, an ousted Centro artist, had used the Centro to practice with dance partners, but during the Centro’s takeover in 2000, she arrived to the front doors to find out that she’d been locked out without any explanation whatsoever. “The next time we came to practice, the locks were changed,” says Endy. “We joined the SOCC [after] we made attempts, on many occasions, to create a dialogue. The boycott wasn’t called until it was necessary, and they’re taking the stance that most institutions take when they’re being contested, in terms of their authority … they just throw us off as radicals that are here to raise havoc and that [we] really don’t care about the children.”

SOCC members protested, on a more specific issue, guideline number three of the Young Americanos submission application, which indicates that “[p]hotos without negatives will be disqualified,” and “[p]hotos and negatives become the property of Farmers Insurance.”

As the exhibition was ending, fifteen-year-old photography winner, Maira, from San Diego High School walked out of the Centro satisfied that she had been one of the night’s winners in the contest, although, she admits that her parents didn’t agree with the guidelines resulting in Maira losing ownership of the negatives to Farmers Insurance. The picture that won her an award was of her sister and a friend, both reading a book. The two young women are both second-generation United States citizens of Mexican descent, and according to the photographer, Maira, the picture was supposed to represent the hope for a successful future.

“About the negatives, yes, my family did have problems with that because they were like, ‘You can’t enter those pictures, we’ll never get them back’,” says Maira. “And the [student]’s that didn’t win, they’re going to keep those negatives, but I guess you can’t do nothing about it.”

Farmers’ representative Luis Sahagún says that the negatives are needed in order to reproduce the photos without losing the definition and quality of award winning photos. He has plans to tour with the photos for a Young Americanos exhibition, which will be headed toward San Jose in the next couple of months. Sahagún also stated that Farmers Insurance has no plans to reproduce the student’s art for commercial purposes. On the other hand, as a 19-year photography teacher and an ousted Centro board member, Richard Lou advises that no photographer, or student of his, should ever hand over ownership of photo negatives, “because [photographers] lose control of the intent and the meanings of the images.” Lou is also the curator for the Latino Arts Network’s Hecho en Califas exhibit.

The Centro’s executive director, Nancy Rodriguez, declined to answer questions.

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