It is a unique institution located in a most unlikely setting. Nestled on the banks of the lake at Lincoln Park, its whitewashed walls and tiled floor sharing the space with the ducks and the boathouse, Plaza de la Raza looks like an oasis.
And for more than two decades this community-based center has been just that for arts and education, offering music, theater and crafts lessons to hundreds of neighborhood children and parents every week, charging minimal fees and surviving strikes, deficits and a near-constant change of administrations.
"I've been coming here for seven years," says Marissa Gaete, 14, a dance student who takes ballet and folclorico classes. "If Plaza ever closes," she muses, "well, there would be no place to go."
Although it is unlikely that Plaza will close any time soon, on the eve of its 25th anniversary the institution is confronting serious budgetary problems. Nonetheless, it remains committed to its mission of fostering Latino arts and artists and serving a community that otherwise would seldom be exposed to those arts.
"Our school budget is going down," says Executive Director Rose Marie Cano. "But we need to survive and we need to bring in our own revenues. I have a great product to offer. There's only one Plaza."
Plaza is known to much of the public as a performing arts center with a top-notch schedule of events, funded mostly with private grants. But the essence of the institution is its school of performing and visual arts, which year-round offers more than 90 classes a week--many of them free--to more than 600 students. Up to a third of those classes might be cut, because funding, which comes mostly from the city, has not increased and Plaza has been running a deficit for several years.
But Councilman Mike Hernandez is steadfast in his support of Plaza. "I want them to get more money this year, for their administrative costs," he said. "I don't want those classes reduced, and I'm sure I'll get them the money."
Hernandez's strong feelings are typical of those who have been affiliated with the center in some capacity. On any given afternoon, parents who attended Plaza years ago now bring their children here to take art, music, theater or dance classes.
For Hernandez, the ties go way back. He and his wife took classical guitar lessons here 20 years ago, and he even served on the board in the late '70s.
"I think Plaza is one of the better programs that exist now in the city," Hernandez says. "And I think now, more than ever, it's going to become a showcase for our culture and for community-based talent."
That was precisely the point when actress Margo Albert and labor union organizer Frank Lopez founded Plaza in 1970. "My mother had a dream of building a bridge out of the barrio through the arts," says actor Edward Albert. "When we started out, we had no buildings, just the park. We used to come, my mom, my dad and I, and just read to the kids in English and Spanish."
Although Margo Albert died in 1984, the family has remained active in Plaza, and Albert has been on the board for years. (His father, Eddie Albert, is the chairman.)
On a recent afternoon, Albert wore faded jeans as he planted flowers in anticipation of the Saturday night fund-raiser--featuring Los Lobos--that will commemorate Plaza's anniversary.
Aside from running the board meetings and procuring donations, Albert wants to expand Plaza's services and is developing a health care program that would focus on serving and training mothers in the community as well as providing free exams and X-rays.
But, he says, the driving force behind Plaza today is Cano, who has worked with the organization for 15 years in various administrative functions. Cano's appointment is expected to bring some administrative stability to Plaza, which in the last 15 years has seen 11 executive directors and at one point was even picketed by a group of dissatisfied parents and artists.
"My job as executive director is to open the doors to our artists and to collaborate more with other communities in order to survive," says Cano, whose summer performance roster included Lula Washington's L.A. Contemporary Dance Theatre, an African American dance company.
Cano plans to apply for more grant money and knock on more doors to keep the center running at its current level. Even more important, she wants to teach the community itself to contribute to Plaza in order not to always depend on outside funds.
"This is like sacred ground. Once you walk through here you understand what it's about and why the struggle continues," Cano says. "I feel it's a new time here."