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New Group Hopes to Celebrate Diversity of Latino Culture : Ethnicity: Mexican-Americans still constitute the majority, but the soon-to-open Casa de Cultura has a much broader scope.


LONG BEACH — Over a lunch of hamburgers and Salvadoran pupusas, three Mexican-American businessmen made plans for a Mexican Independence Day unlike any other seen here. It would be more traditional, would include a simulcast with Mexico City so that Mexicans and Mexican-Americans could join in el grito, the famous battle shout, it would . . .

"Wait a minute," interrupted a fourth person at the table, an El Salvador-born businesswoman. "Mexican Independence Day is Sept. 16 and my country and some other Central American countries celebrate their independence on Sept. 15. Why only celebrate the Mexican holiday?"

Maria Teresa Salazar's question raised an issue: About one-quarter of Long Beach residents are Latinos, most of Mexican descent. But the city is home also to people of Central and South America, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Spain. Yet, the four agreed, little attention is paid to these cultures.

That afternoon, six months ago, the Community Hispanic Assn. was conceived. Later this month, the fledgling group will open Casa de Cultura de La Ciudad de Long Beach--a Victorian house on Atlantic Avenue and 6th Street that they hope will become a place to learn about and celebrate the diversity of Latino culture and people.

"There is a general assumption in this city that all Hispanics are Mexican just because you speak Spanish and your skin is dark," said Jose Ulloa, a local businessman of Mexican descent who sits on the board of the Hispanic association. "That's just not the case."

Raymond Chavarria, president of the association's board, said the group was inspired to create Casa de Cultura after hearing a presentation by the Mexican Consulate in May. Consul officials want to establish "House of Culture" centers throughout Southern California, including Long Beach and Huntington Park, to showcase Mexico's art, dance and music.

Chavarria said association members thought it was such a good idea that one board member, Carlos Pallares, offered to donate a Victorian house for the center. But members thought the Casa de Cultura would be an even better idea if it included all Latino cultures.

"At first, the Mexican government wanted us to call it Casa de Cultura de Mexico, but that would throw out everything CHA wants to accomplish," Chavarria recalled. "We cannot limit ourselves to one ethnic group. We want to bring all cultures together."

The Mexican Consulate has agreed to provide art exhibitions and talent for the Hispanic association. The group must pay to promote the events and rent a venue, but will receive all profits, said the Mexican cultural attache, Lorenza del Rio.

The Hispanic association is a nonprofit organizatio and any surplus would need to be recycled to create other programs, Chavarria said. It will rely on volunteers, donations and grants to start the center in motion.

Chavarria said the group is already trying to establish relationships with other Latin consulates. In addition, Pallares, an Ecuador-born businessman, said he is working on plans to bring his country's Pasillo Festival, which features music from the Andes, to Long Beach.

"I think that we (non-Mexican Latinos) have been left out too long," Pallares said. '

Pallares and other association members said that Casa de Cultura would help provide an ethnic education not only to Latinos, but to the entire community.

"I think it would break some stereotypes people have about other cultures," Salazar said.

She added: "Fathers and mothers can take their children and say, 'Look, this is what I grew up with.' I think the children, especially, will learn to be proud of who they are."

Gladys Gutierrez, the state district director of the League of Latin American Citizens and a Long Beach resident, said that, as a Latina of Puerto Rican descent, she would love to see other Latin cultures celebrated.

"This would be a vehicle to bring Latinos together to celebrate our similarities as well as our differences and give the general community an idea of how diverse we are," she said. "It would be magnificent if they can pull it off."

Ulloa said the group wants to feature local Latino talent. The spacious four-bedroom house is perfect for poetry readings, photo exhibits and receptions, he said.

He said the group will reach out to establish partnerships with various facets of the Latino community, including a Latino student association and a football/soccer club. Eventually, the group plans to create a one-stop shop where people will come not only to get a cultural education, but a practical one as well. Several rooms in the building next door have been made available to the group for seminars on how to buy a home, how to run a business and lectures on other matters of interest to Latinos. Chavarria envisions a free clinic and counseling services.

"Every ethnic group has a culture center or service center and the Latino community does not have anything," Chavarria said. "We need this."

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