June 10, 2005

Centro Cultural de la Raza: A New Beginning

By Michael Klam

Chicano muralist Victor Ochoa stands in the doorway of his studio next to Golden Hill Park, directly in the flight path. The Centro Cultural de La Raza lies to the west, between the studio and Lindbergh Field. A pilot once told the artist that he used Ochoa’s Centro mural of Geronimo as a marker to guide his way to the landing strip. Ochoa looks toward the Centro and remembers a time when the doors were open every day. He is cautiously optimistic about a future in which the Chicano arts community will once again fully participate in the development of programming at the cultural center.

Victor Ochoa in his studio.

“To me the Centro was the base of operations for so many different artists, so many different groups,” says Ochoa, a former artist-in-residence who supported the Centro for 30 years. “I think for the last five years we’ve been working outside our home.”

In 2000, a new board and administrative manager initiated sweeping reforms in response to financial difficulties. The changes outraged many in the community. According to the Save Our Centro Coalition (SOCC), a Chicano group leading a five-year boycott of the Centro, “these changes included confiscating and destroying artwork, dissolving a community advisory committee, hiring a director without a national search and forcing a Latina activist off the board for defending the rights of artists.”

Since the initial reorganization that shook up the community, the Centro’s board has changed. The new board of trustees includes business and community leaders, lawyers and activists. And there are now signs that the SOCC and the Centro, which have had a contentious relationship since the organizational shift, are opening dialogue and negotiations. The SOCC presented a plan to the new Centro board for resolving the community boycott. Representatives of both parties met Tuesday, June 7 to discuss logistics for an upcoming public meeting.

“This is a very high priority for us,” says new board member, Juan Zuniga. “The board is very interested in finding creative ways to work with local artists.”

Centro representative and lawyer Colin Hampson says that last year the Centro approached SOCC to seeking to establish dialogue, which resulted in a meeting in April between representatives of SOCC and the Centro board. “In an editorial and an article written by David Avalos, La Prensa supported such an effort last summer. The Centro is hopeful that we can engage SOCC in productive dialogue to discuss such issues and has communicated its desire to do so to SOCC,” says Hampson.

This dialogue also comes at a time when Ochoa, the muralist, is suing the Centro to retrieve artwork that was created, installed and stored during his tenure. His complaint includes a list of artwork valued at $100,000, including a $10,000 portable mural. Ochoa’s lawyer, Frank Gormlie, says that his client sued to get the Centro’s attention. “He has been prevented from being in certain shows because the Centro has his stuff,” says Gormlie, who claims that Ochoa has been “victimized by the five-year schism.” Still, Gormlie states that they are looking for “an amiable resolution.”

David Avalos, Chicano and Cal State San Marcos Visual Arts Professor who worked at the Centro as a volunteer beginning in 1975 and as a paid staff member and artist-in-residence from 1978 to 1987. He says part of the problem is that the Centro never had a clearly articulated policy regarding the artworks under its protection. Such a policy would have ensured careful lists of works on exhibition, in storage, on loan and in transit. “In other words, Victor Ochoa’s various artworks would have appeared on these various lists and been identified as his property,” says Avalos. “This is a problem for small, underfunded arts organizations. The major museums have staffs whose only job is to record and monitor every work in their possession, whet-her the institution owns it or not. The Centro never had such a staff position.”

He is also cautiously optimistic. Avalos believes that the current leadership is willing to do the “right thing.” The board members are responsible for the Centro’s operation, and because many of them are new to the Centro, they want to move carefully and deliberately, he said. “They are making efforts to become aware of the history of the organization and its operating procedures, including the handling of artworks.” Avalos is also committed to assisting Ochoa in any way he can.

The Centro’s Hampson would not comment on the Ochoa case because litigation is pending. However, regarding issues with local artists, he did say, “The board of the Centro is looking forward to moving beyond this discord and turning all of its focus on the needs of the Centro. To the extent that a productive dialogue will facilitate this objective, we have always been willing to come to the table with SOCC.”

Save Our Centro member Endy Bernal says, “After five years of requesting dialogue from the Centro, the SOCC is glad to finally make progress in resolving the boycott.”

Hampson says of the new leadership: “This is a hard working and accomplished board. This board knows how to work together and get things done. We can expect a lot of activity and creativity from the Centro over the next few years.”

All parties regard the changes in the board as an opportunity for a new start. Nancy Rodriguez is stepping down as executive director and the board is in the process of evaluating candidates from all over California. Victor Payan of the SOCC wants to be sure that the board does a national search for a new director and accepts community input.

Meanwhile, the boycott remains in effect “pending positive resolution of the negotiations,” according to an SOCC press release. Artist Lalo Alcaraz recently requested that one of his artworks be removed from the Centro. In an e-mail to the Centro, he wrote, “I am a participant in the boycott against the Centro Cultural de la Raza and have vowed not to perform or present artwork in that venue until significant issues regarding the administration’s stance against Chicano artists are resolved.”

The SOCC and the Centro agree that there is work to be done, and both sides are enthusiastic about the possibilities for a new beginning and a better future for the whole community.

For his part, Ochoa – aside from wanting to get his artwork back – hopes that his lawsuit stimulates awareness. He is planning a “legal case” fundraiser on Saturday, June 25 at 2 p.m. at Hot Monkey Love Café. The event will include spoken word poetry and music.

The cultural center’s mission is to create, promote and preserve Mexicana/o, Chicana/o, and indigenous art and culture. Ochoa, as a muralist, also feels a responsibility to be an historian and documentarian. “When we do a mural, we have the responsibility not just to ourselves as individuals but also to the community,” he says.

In that sense, all the parties involved want the same result: preservation of Chicano history and culture through art and the restoration of community involvement in the Centro.

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