Arte Américas Casa de la Cultura has proven it is the little center that could thrive in downtown when a bigger, better-funded museum across the street (founded three years earlier) succumbed seven years ago.
The Latino cultural arts center has gone through growing pains, but remains a vibrant home for artists, musicians, poets, writers, cultural celebrations and more.
“We have much to celebrate today,” Arte Américas board chair Vivian Velasco Paz told about 300 people who showed up last Saturday (Sept. 30) to help the center celebrate its 30th anniversary. “As we look to the future, we want to honor the past.”
That past – which began in a cozy, street-front office a few doors from the Warnors Theatre – has evolved into a place that has hosted major exhibits like portraits from Edward James Olmos’ ‘Americanos’ book to concerts with the likes of Lila Downs, Little Joe, Flaco Jiménez, and, Dr. Loco.
It has celebrated the exquisitely made rebozos (shawls) from San Luis Potosí; savored the dozens of types of mole; hosted a tribute to Chicano art; showcased music ranging from mariachi to the harder-edged sounds of Metalachi; held workshops on how to make sugar skulls and other items for Day of the Dead; exhibited artwork from local artists as well as those from around the world; held forums for authors, poets and historians; and, hosted a Hollywood executive (movie producer/Maya Cinemas owner Moctesuma Esparza) and U.S. Poet Laureate (the Valley’s own Juan Felipe Herrera).
Plaza Paz has been converted into a Friday night musical showcase from May to September.
We are celebrating because of this community and because of the people that love Arte Américas.
And, it has resurrected Día de los Muertos into a community-wide celebration that will be expanded to two days this year.
The center moved into an old bank building on the corner of Van Ness and Calaveras in 1995. Two days later, it purchased adjacent land that would eventually become Plaza Paz.
Major donors – author Gary Soto (for purchase of the plaza property); then-Assemblymember Sarah Reyes (acquiring $250,000 in state funds to build the plaza); businessman Fred Ruiz and his wife, Mitzy (who donated $100,000 over the next five years, in addition to previous donations); the late Judge Armando Rodríguez and his wife Betty (who helped with the center’s mortgage payments during the Great Recession); Deloria Greg Martin (whose funding helped build the pergola, kiosko, restrooms and kitchen for the plaza); and others like the Mitchell Trust and the California Cultural and Historical Endowment – have provided much-needed funding.
Earlier this year, Dr. Carlos Paz and his wife, Vivian, pledged $100,000 to the plaza, which was named after them.
However, the center’s chief curator and executive director Frank Delgado (the center’s only paid staff member) and others vouch the importance of volunteers to keep the center alive and thriving.
“We are celebrating because of this community and because of the people that love Arte Américas,” said Delgado at Saturday’s celebration.
Vivian Paz admits the center “wouldn’t be Arte Américas without the volunteers.
“We are the beneficiaries of all the hard work you have put in,” said Paz. “There are so many arts institutions in the Valley who have not made it.”
Last year, volunteers logged 10,105 hours. That would have amounted to five full-time staff members.
Many of those volunteers have been with Arte Américas since its inception.
Center honors Reyes, Cisneros
At the anniversary celebration, the inaugural recipients of the Judge Armando O. Rodríguez Legacy Awards were announced. Former Assemblymember Sarah Reyes and former Fresno State administrator Angie Cisneros were recognized.
Reyes, director of communications for Healthy Communities at The California Endowment, began as a news reporter/anchor for KSEE Channel 24 in Fresno and KCRA TV in Sacramento.
She previously worked for the State Center Community College District.
“Arte Américas is a place that is an honor for all of us,” said Reyes, who recalled that many cities in the state did not have a Latino cultural arts center in the 1990s when she went to fellow state lawmakers to ask for a grant to help with the plaza.
“Not in Los Ángeles, not in San José, not in Sacramento,” she said. “There was pride to say we had one in Fresno.”
Reyes then turned to being political.
“We have to give a shout-out to the mayor in Puerto Rico who stands up to bullying,” said Reyes, referring to President Donald J. Trump’s tweets against San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. “We need to stand up arm in arm. Attacking those in the Latino community is wrong.
“Our community is strong and we’ll get through this strong.”
Cisneros, who was born in Arizona but grew up in Fresno, began working at Fresno State in the La Raza Studies Program. She earned a bachelor’s in public administration and a master’s in social work & social planning at Fresno State.
She was a founding member of the League of Mexican American Women. She retired from Fresno State in 2002.
“I’ve had my share of awards and recognition, but this one is great,” said Cisneros, a frequent golfing partner with the judge, who died earlier this year. “He was a mentor and a person I could depend on for support.”
Cisneros recalled being intimidated the first time she met Rodríguez in the 1970s when he was a lawyer and a main officer of the Mexican American Political Association. She later came to admire him when he would get news of potential program cuts that affected Latino students at Fresno State and he would make some calls.
“He energized me to get involved in a lot of activities,” said Cisneros. “I do miss him.”