In November 1999, artist Victor Ochoa curated his last exhibit at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park. Titled “Revolucion,” the show consisted of a series of photographs and texts probing whether unionization might quell the exploitation of Mexico's maquiladora workers. Ochoa, an artist-in-residence at the Centro since the 1970s and a co-creator of the Chicano Park murals, painted the title of the exhibit in bold red letters on a wall at the museum's entrance.
The exhibit lasted through the end of the month, at which point Ochoa says fellow Centro artist Viviana Enrique Acosta painted over the “R” in “Revolucion,” deftly softening-feminizing, Ochoa says-the politically charged word. Only in retrospect does Ochoa see the irony-the spirit of resistance and revolution that drove the Centro's first 30 years has been replaced by a kinder, gentler cultural center. And while Ochoa hasn't curated a show at the Centro since, Acosta, who directs the Ballet Folklorico dance program, is the Centro's only current artist in residence.
The Centro Cultural de la Raza occupies a massive, cylindrical, old water tank located on the margins of Balboa Park's museum cluster, at the intersection of Park Boulevard and Inspiration Way. To its left is the World Beat Center, also housed in a former water tank. That the park's representatives of black and Chicano culture are so far off the main museum drag is almost too blatant socio-political commentary to even dwell on it.
Back in the late 1960s, a group of Chicano artists took over the Ford Building and engaged in a tug-of-war with the City Council over whether the building would be best used as an aerospace museum or a Chicano cultural center. After a year of debate, the aerospace museum won and the artists were forced to find another space. They moved into the only nearby building they knew the city wouldn't have much need for-an abandoned 9,000 square-foot water tank, painted murals on the outside (Ochoa is responsible for most of them) and gave it a name-the cultural center for the people.
Throughout the '80s and '90s, the Centro grew to become one of the leading Chicano Cultural Arts Centers in the United States, an incubator for talented folks who went on to gain national recognition-Richard Lou, Valerie Aranda, Brent Beltran and Consuelo Manriquez (who run Calaca Press) and artist-activist Mario Torero. Ochoa said that at the height of the Centro, there were eight to 10 exhibitions a year, 20 to 30 performing arts events and a number of educational programs and workshops for students and the community. A brochure for the Centro's last full-scale fundraising exhibit and auction, Independencia, in fall of 1999 listed close to 60 participating local artists.
As it is now, many of the same artists who cultivated the Centro's reputation as a thriving hub for Chicano art think that what they had is now gone. Ironically, as this article was being researched and written, the Centro sat empty, its most recent exhibit cleared out a couple weeks before Thanksgiving, and the next exhibit, a ceramics collection, not expected to arrive until mid-February. The recent exhibit, a display of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) artifacts, featured the work of a local photographer Annie Lemoux, who describes her work and personal ideology as apolitical-a term none of the Centro's former artists would ever use to describe their artistic worldview.
Three years ago, new board members and a new executive director were brought in to pull the Centro out of the debt it had incurred under a previous directorship. At first the Centro's artists were excited by the prospects new leadership brought with it-increased funding, increased arts programming. But within six months tension began to build between the new leadership and the artists, the latter arguing that a core group of board members were ignoring the collective decision-making processes that had governed the Centro since its beginning. The new leadership countered that strong authority was needed to save the failing organization.
What's resulted is a protracted three-year boycott-turned-crusade by former Centro artists who demand nothing less than the resignation of the current Centro leadership. The artists, who operate under the moniker Save Our Centro Coalition (SOCC), have become the albatross around the necks of the Centro's current keepers who, by all appearances, would love to forgive, forget and move the Centro toward becoming the best Chicano cultural arts center in the United States. It's a goal that they readily admit requires certain things that would tend to rub a grassroots arts community the wrong way: corporate grants and sponsorship; alliances with local government; appeal to a wider, more conservative audience who might sometimes need to be spoon-fed cultural ideologies rather than confronted with them head on.
Ochoa, who has painstakingly maintained the Centro's archives since its inception but who has not set foot in the building since May 2000, sees what's going on in Balboa Park as part of a larger national trend-when arts funding becomes sparse, different sides have different ideas about how to keep the center moving. “It's something that's happening all over,” Ochoa said, “Chicano centros taken over by this mainstream, ‘Let's just get money and forget about the issues, forget about the mission statement and forget about the original concepts of the organization.'
“We have a very simple term,” he said. “It's ‘selling out.' All of your heritage, all of your precedence doesn't mean anything. It's whatever it takes to get your money.”
Current Centro Executive Director Nancy Rodriguez dismisses the ongoing debate over the Centro as a past she'd rather forget-the conflict, she believes, is sustained by one person, 34-year-old Victor Payan, a poet, journalist, former member of the Centro's now-disbanded Visual Arts Advisory Board and current ringleader of SOCC. To Rodriguez, Payan seems more a prodigal son than an enemy, who'd be welcomed back if only he sought forgiveness. Payan, on the other hand, says he'd like nothing more than to see Rodriguez resign.
At last month's December Nights holiday event at Balboa Park, Payan and Ochoa stood outside the Centro, conducting an informational picket while Rodriguez and a handful of volunteers served tamales and hot chocolate to park-goers 50 yards away. Inside, Ballet Folklorico, the Centro's prominent resident arts group, performed for a sparse crowd that had the motivation to wander over to that corner of the park (a problem, Rodriguez says, that will be solved as plans for the future Park-to-Bay link drive put it running directly past the Centro).
“Enron Cultural de la Raza,” the flyer Payan and Ochoa handed out declared before launching into a brief history of the Centro conflict. “In 1999, newcomers to the Centro administration began systematically harassing and purging male and female artists, activists, educators and social-justice workers from the Centro. In 2000, on the eve of the Centro's 30th anniversary, the Board ceased visual arts programming and shut off attempts at dialogue by reporting critics to the police.
“Since then,” the flyer continued, “the doors of the Centro have been closed to the Chicano/Chicana cultural community....”
Rodriguez's right-hand person is Aida Mancillas, an attractive, ambitious woman who's currently the president of the Centro's Board of Directors and who's been active with the Centro for more than a decade. Mancillas is also a city arts commissioner and runs the Art Produce Gallery in North Park. She says she can't understand how a group of boycotting artists could claim that they've been locked out of the Centro.
“The doors to the Centro, as I've told people on a number of occasions, are always open,” she pointed out more than once during an interview with CityBeat. “Victor [Payan] characterizes it as people have been thrown out.”
Indeed, in talking to Rodriguez and Mancillas, their talk of their restructuring of the Centro three years ago seems more a massive, necessary house-cleaning than an ousting-first clear everything out and then slowly bring things back in, one by one and in an orderly fashion. Some artists decided to stay and others decided that the new scene wasn't for them and chose to leave amicably, Mancillas said.
But bring this point up with Payan and it's clear that to him and the rest of the SOCC (which, he points out, includes far more than the dozen or so individuals that Rodriguez and Mancillas claim), the ousting is more in theory than an actual physical removal-though, Payan notes, some artists, including Ochoa, had much of their work removed, even confiscated against their will, making it hard for them to want to stay on with the organization.
(Rodriguez's explanation for this is that during the massive house-cleaning, things were so disorganized that some pieces of art might have been thrown out on accident.)
“It was a colonial lie,” Payan said of the new board's treatment of the artists. “We're coming to your home, throwing you out and inviting you back in as guests under our rules.... The Centro was broke, but not broken, when they came in. Now it's broken. The gallery's gone, the programming's gone-they've alienated an entire community.
“What made the Centro special,” he continued, “is that it wasn't like other places. It created the possibility for direct action, direct participation. This was our home; we were internal to the organization, we were functioning. They turned it from something where everybody brings something to the table to, as [local artist] Perry [Vasquez] says, ‘Centro Cultural del Taco,'” Payan says, referring to Vasquez's digitized image merging the Centro with the fast food joint, playing upon what he saw as the corporatization of the Centro (his piece can be seen at: www.apollo13art.com).
The way the Centro got to where it is today goes something like this: In mid-1999, the city, concerned about the Centro's growing debt, put the institution on probation and threatened to pull its lease (though Ochoa claims that the latter action was nothing new). The National Endowment for the Arts had already pulled funding, claiming Centro administrators had failed to file necessary follow-up reports for grant money. As one former Centro artist said of the previous board, “They were spending more than they were making.”
To get the place in order, in June of 1999 the Centro's Board of Trustees hired Nancy Rodriguez, a former administrator at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio.
From this point, SOCC members claim a group of board members began meeting privately and making decisions without the input of all board members, an action that was in direct violation of the Centro's rules of governance. The board majority elected to disband two arts advisory boards, and Mancillas put a halt to visual arts programming. Next there was talk of turning the Centro into a charter school.
The main point of contention, however, is that all artists and board members were asked to sign an “Affirmation of Conduct Values”-or, what Payan refers to as a “Loyalty Oath,” which dictated how the Centro's artists should conduct themselves. Most of the artists and some board members refused to sign the document, arguing that it was put together without community input and that it implied that they needed to clean up their act. Carmen Kalo, who performed with Danza Azteca at the time, said many of the artists felt that signing the document would be the same as admitting that there were behavioral problems in the artist community.
Mancillas explained that what Payan called a “Loyalty Oath” was actually a contract between the Centro and the artists who wished to continue working and exhibiting there. “All other nonprofit institutions in the park have similar documents,” she said. “We require that our contractors conduct themselves in a manner that supports a safe, healthy and nondiscriminatory Centro.” What this constitutes, Mancillas explained, are logical tenants of any organization seeking to promote a professional and collegial work environment: respect for self and others.
The contract also said that whatever work was created at the Centro stayed at the Centro.
Artist Perry Vasquez who worked as an assistant curator in the early '90s and who now co-owns the ICE gallery in North Park said that sort of control over artists was unprecedented in the history of the Centro. “To remove that component [of ownership of one's work] was to remove something central to the spirit and mission of the Centro.” Vasquez said that obligation frightened many artists who had been used to having complete freedom and control over their work.
Rodriguez and Mancillas counter that the contract was in the best interest of the artists and was the first step in truly legitimizing the place. “Programs of any 501C3 [nonprofit organization] are the property of that organization-that's how it works,” Mancillas said. “But within that framework we'll raise funds for stipends, you can have office space, whatever.” She and Rodriguez say they wanted Centro artists, who had previously worked for free, to get paid for the work they created at the Centro, even eventually receive health benefits.
“We were willing to raise the funds to do whatever we had to do to keep [arts programming] in place,” Mancillas added. “The bottom line is that as we went through a process of helping people to think about their relationship with the Centro.... I think one of the things that is curious for me is how that process that was so carefully done was then used by people to say, ‘You threw people out.' Well actually, no. We offered people a choice to do [stay] or [move on] at a time when the Centro couldn't really afford to sustain anything.”
Most of the artists refused to sign the contract. No signature meant no participation with the Centro. Some chose to leave entirely and in late May of 2000, as former board member Jorge Mariscal put it, “things totally fell apart.”
“We had a five-hour meeting and everything was peaceful,” explained Payan. “We had organized another meeting and when we came back for that other meeting, we were told that the board called the police and said we were armed, that there had been bomb threats and that we had held them hostage. This was news to us.”
Mariscal, a professor of Chicano studies at UCSD who had resigned from the Centro board of directors two months prior to the May 2000 meeting, claiming a complete breakdown of the democratic process, said the hostage allegation spawned out of impassioned community members' attempts to reclaim a space they believed was rightfully theirs. “The debate got very heated,” he recalled, “and Nancy [Rodriguez] stood up and said ‘This meeting is over. We don't want to talk anymore.' Someone from the community stood up and said, ‘This space belongs to us and you can't tell us to leave.' At that point she made the charge that they were being held hostage.”
As for the allegations about guns and bombs, Mariscal finds that ridiculous-“no one had guns,” he said.
“Sure, we had close to 150 people show up to protest,” says Ochoa, “that's why they had 15 squad cars and over 45 cops there. It is, I guess, threatening because they really didn't have anyone to support their side.”
The artists claim Rodriguez and the board stepped over the line by calling the police-thereby essentially criminalizing their own community. That second meeting that was scheduled to happen never took place. Payan says that police have been present at all SOCC pickets since then, even though there have been no incidents of violence.
But Rodriguez said that in the early days of the conflict, she received threatening phone calls where there'd be machine gun fire in the background. She also said that the girls coming to the Centro for Ballet Folklorico lessons would be taunted as they entered the building. “People would hang out in front of the Centro,” Rodriguez said, “and tell our little girls, ‘If you go in there, you'll turn lesbian.'”
Rodriguez, Mancillas and Viviana Enrique Acosta, the director of Ballet Folklorico, are all openly lesbian. SOCC members insist that neither sexuality nor gender play a role in their negative feelings towards the Centro's current leadership, but given Mexican culture's slow acceptance of both homosexuality and women in leadership roles, the three women wonder to what extent their sexuality factors into some community members' attitudes.
But differences between past and present still lurk in the Centro's space. The Centro's famed murals, painted both inside and outside the building are strikingly bold, in some places war-like, even violent, intended to symbolize the historical struggles of the Mexican people. Inside, though, the freshly painted walls are a bright pink, the floors clean white.
Perhaps SOCC's strongest argument against the Centro is its current lack of programming-a reality that becomes even more striking considering the sheer volume of work created there in the past. The University of California, Santa Barbara's California and Ethnic Multicultural Archives (CEMA) is in the process of cataloging a collection of artwork from the Centro, a catalog that currently contains 738 pieces, although most of the pieces were created prior to 1990.
The Centro's past was undeniably a mix of high and low-fine arts and street-level art, innovation and traditionalism.
Payan offered the April-June schedule from 1993 as an example of the richness of the former Centro. Eighteen events were crammed into two months' time-some free, others with an admission fee of $8 or $10. Offerings ranged from a lecture on immigrant rights, sponsored by the American Friends Society, to a lecture and demonstration of Oaxaca folk art to an aerosol art competition by students from Union del Barrio Youth Group. “The winner will be commissioned to do a mural for the Centro's permanent collection,” the event blurb reads. “There will be a display of low-rider cars, silk screen t-shirts and live rap music.”
Ochoa, who refuses to step foot inside the Centro, asked what the floors looked like. “I heard they were all white,” he said. Back when he was artist-in-residence, “we had designs of different colors on the floor, like Navajo sand paintings, and we changed colors for different exhibits. We'd tweak out the whole gallery, turn it upside down and do different things. We weren't the formal mainstream gallery where everything has to be hung at eye-view level. We would put in sounds, change walls, we'd have mazes in there.
“For one exhibit,” he said, “Casa de Cambio (House of Change), we set up chambers. It was a fantastic experience. For any space in San Diego, there was nothing that could match it.”
“One of the main questions we think still has to be answered,” says Payan, “is how do you call yourself a cultural arts organization if you don't have any artists, you don't have any culture, all you have is organization?”
He accuses the current Centro leadership of falling into the trap of cultural tourism-presenting a watered-down version of a culture in order to appeal to a wider audience.
“Their notion of Latino culture,” he said, “is very much stuck in the early '80s. Ballet Folklorico Dance lets everyone look pretty, but that's not our reality. We are a multifaceted, hugely creative, tech-savvy culture that has synthesized all these things around us.... The Centro is the place where these things should be happening.”
Rodriguez and Mancillas have moved forward, some might say with blinders on, to occlude SOCC's push to discredit them. In talking about the Centro, they much prefer to focus on goals and possibilities. “That's old news,” Rodriguez says when she first found out CityBeat had talked to Payan.
The new Centro leadership has been able to secure grants from major corporations like Washington Mutual and Hewlitt Packard, and Mancillas has her eye on Chicago's Mexican Fine Arts Museum-which was able to raise $7 million for improvements-as both a model and something she'd like to one day surpass in size and prestige. Mancillas, says Mariscal, is the brains behind the organization.
However, the Centro's foray into the 21st century has been a shaky one. On May 3,2002, someone spray-painted racial slurs on the Centro's outside murals, prompting the city to invest $10,000 for a security system. And in the first two months of 2001, a massive sewage spill forced the Centro to close its doors for almost a year. The off time gave them a chance to put together a strategic plan and negotiate with the city to get funding that Rodriguez said will allow them to slowly bring the level of programming back to what it was in the '80s and '90s. In 2004, she expects to have the funds to bring in a salaried, full-time program director versed in a wide range of Chicano visual and performing arts.
Both Mancillas and Rodriguez are quick to refute any suggestion that they are leaning towards less-politicized programming. Rodriguez pointed to the Dia de los Muertos exhibit as challenging western notions of death, and both she and Mancillas spoke highly of Alma Lopez, the L.A.-based artist who's been scrutinized for her brilliant, yet irreverent representations of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“I think you have to be very careful in these discussions,” said Mancillas, “about how the Centro's been de-politicized and [how] there's no place for [that type of art]. It would be foolish of us to say that as a presenting organization that we would only represent this that or the other.”
In talking to Rodriguez it's clear that she has a sincere admiration for the Centro's past, something she says she's striving to preserve, but with a necessary pragmatism-trying to be all things to all people can stretch resources thin. “I feel like the Centro is again in a position like it was in the '70s.... We're saying, OK we have a space and we have a voice, but we also need the infrastructure and the sustainability to be able to share our culture.”
As for Payan and the former Centro artists, they say they are owed that second May 2000 community meeting that never happened. Until then, they aren't about to give up their efforts.
“To me, [the Centro's] almost like a child,” said Ochoa. “If you're a founder of something, it's like your child in a certain way and if it goes wrong, you feel responsible, and I feel that all of our history is going to be revised; it's not going to be respected. I can be at a point of tears every time I think of it. There were thousands of lives, thousands of people who participated. It's just a shame.”
Mancillas says she's given a lot of thought about what drives Payan, Ochoa and others to continue their protest against Centro leadership. “I think it's fear in some way that what you've done is being discounted, or because change is occurring, somehow what you did in the past is not important.
“But the thing is, it's all important-every contribution, even by the people who ran this thing into the ground because, for the most part, even those people had the best interests of the organization at heart. People are always welcome; you will always be welcome if you come here.
“I can't make you come back, but if you do, you will always be welcome.”