July 14, 2000

Living as a neo-Hispano-Americano, work helps Lopez rediscover his heritage

By Michael Hurley

Court yard of the old elementary school that is being renovated into the Literary Arts Center

On October 21 Danny Lopez will have accomplished two things. First, he will see his work as a project manager at the National Hispanic Cultural Center come to fruition. On that day the Center will open to the public for the first time. Located in Albuquerque, NM, the National Hispanic Cultural Center will be a worldclass research, art exhibition and performing arts Center. After 17 years in the planning, the Center will be dedicated to the enhancement, preservation and promotion of contemporary and traditional Hispanic arts and culture. Second, 26 year-old Danny Lopez will have achieved a sense of his Hispanic heritage that he pursued only as an adult.

As a child, Danny Lopez thought he wanted to be an accountant or a professional basketball player. As a student at Vaughn High School in northern New Mexico his aspirations remained the same. By the time he graduated he gave up the idea of basketball and decided on a career in business. Danny enrolled at New Mexico State University to study business administration. He was on his way to a secure future.

Like many U.S. Hispanics of his generation, Danny learned that he was expected to assimilate, to become part of the great melting pot of America. He recalls, "Though my father was fluent in Spanish, we were not taught Spanish as a first language. I feel I lost the cultural link right there. I remember how difficult it was communicating with my grandmother who did not speak English. I did not learn much about my roots, the culture or the history of Hispanic peoples. I was for all intents and purposes a neo-Hispano-American living in New Mexico in a culture neither Hispanic nor American."

That was all to change.

In 1997 Danny Lopez graduated from college. But was he ready for the business world? He made a life choice at this point. By August of 1997 he found himself in Nicaragua serving in the Peace Corps.

Two years later, Danny had learned more from the people of Nicaragua than he had taught them. Daily contact with the language, culture and rituals and rhythms of life changed the way he thought. Was some genetic memory stirred? Maybe!

Upon completion of his Peace Corps service, Danny returned home to New Mexico a different person. He was now personally challenged to discover his heritage but did not know where to begin. Danny recounts, "After only two weeks of searching for work, a relative told me about the National Hispanic Cultural Center. I applied for a job. I was hired as a contract employee for eight months helping the executive director coordinate activities.

"Soon I saw the opportunity the Center would offer people like me. It has the potential to unite and re-educate and to help people learn about the Hispanic culture. A lot of people my age have lost the link to the past because of the language barrier. I have been able to re-establish that link and relate at levels I could not before. I see the Center as a way for people of my generation to forge into the future and yet learn many things about their heritage and culture that they may not have learned in the past."

In September of 1999 he was offered a job as a program manager on staff. Soon he found himself working long hours. "It takes up the majority of my life right now. It was difficult at first but now as we are getting close to the opening, I can see the impact the Center will have. I am willing to sacrifice to see the benefit", says Lopez. What is Lopez going to get out of having been involved with this project? He claims, "Just the sense of completion. That is what I seek whenever I embark on any endeavor."

Even with long workdays, Danny finds time to pursue what he calls relaxation. He runs, bikes and swims. Danny says he is real big on "the exercise thing." Danny competes in bike racing, track meets and marathons. Several times a month, on weekends he competes. He especially likes competing in Duathlons and road races in New Mexico and California. He is definitely competitive, by nature. He enjoys competing in tours for various charities. "I like doing benefits that raise money," he says. He has even won a couple.

What drives Danny Lopez? He says because he came from a small town of about 800 people he feels he has something to prove. "I have always wanted to prove that someone from a small town could hold his own with people from a bigger town. At times I have been afraid but that has not stopped me. I have learned with experience and competition that I can compete with people from bigger towns, cities and states."

And so, on October 21 Danny Lopez will look around the National Hispanic Cultural Center and see a Visual Arts Complex with three art galleries and an auditorium. He will know that he has had a small hand in plans that will allow collecting, documenting and preserving works of local, national and international Hispanic/Latino artists. He will have a sense of pride in the fact that the Center's programs will teach visitors and students about Hispanic art and culture.

He knows that visitors will be impressed by the technologically advanced Research and Literary Arts Center housed in a restored and remodeled Works Progress Administration (WPA) structure where many New Mexicans were once educated (River-view Elementary School). Perhaps he will have an opportunity to show visitors this part of the Center that comprises a research library; a genealogy research program; a photo and manuscript archive; an oral history program and a publications unit.

What does the future hold for a young New Mexican in a volatile economy?

Danny says " I have a lot of friends my age that graduated with me. They are now living in other states making twice the money I make and work less. I look at my time here as a sacrifice I am willing to make because I see this experience far more valuable than money. Plus, I am near my family and that also has value that cannot be measured in dollars. After being away from New Mexico for two years, I saw the value of giving back to the community where I grew up and gave so much to me."

The National Hispanic Cultural Center will open to the public on October 21. It is located at 4th and Bridge Boulevard in Albuquerque. For more information and directions call 505-246-2261.

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