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San Diego's Chicano Center Faces a Struggle of Transition

The Arts * New directors' use of financially beset Centro Cultural de la Raza, where art and activism met for decades, meets strong protests.


SAN DIEGO — As it enters its 30th year, the Centro Cultural de la Raza, one of the nation's oldest centers of Chicano art and social activism, is rent by a dispute between longtime members and a new group of directors running the center.

The new directors say they are trying to save the center from disarray and near bankruptcy. But some of the center's founders complain about a "purge" of artists and a softening of the anti-establishment spirit that has been a defining feature of the center.

"The Centro has been taken over by a bunch of people who don't respect our community," said David Rico, a member of the Brown Berets de Aztlan. "They're going to do what they want to a Centro we created."

Located in a former water tank in the Pepper Grove section of Balboa Park, the Centro Cultural de la Raza has been a focal point for painters, dancers, muralists, musicians and other Chicano and Mexican artists since 1970. In its heyday, it was considered one of the leading Chicano art centers in the nation, known for its exhibitions and classes.

In recent years, however, the center has had financial and organizational problems, leading to it being ineligible for grant money from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council and being put on "probation" by the San Diego City Council, which doles out hotel-motel tax revenue to art groups.

The center "hasn't mattered much in the last couple of years," San Diego Union-Tribune art critic Robert L. Pincus wrote recently.

To rectify the financial problems and restore its artistic reputation, the center's governing board last year hired Nancy Rodriguez, formerly of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio. The board, a self-perpetuating entity, has also had a change in leadership.

"The organization had basically imploded over the years," said Aida Mancillas, board vice chairman. "The center was used as a kind of clubhouse by a small group of people."

The new board asked artists to pay for using its space and to sign partnership agreements with the center. Some of the artists felt slighted and left. The board disbanded an artists advisory committee.

"There's no doubt about it: Past boards were really not committed to straightening out the finances," said Victor Ochoa, a founding member whose murals adorn the exterior walls of the center. "But just because because you have financial problems does not mean you destroy the structure of the organization."

Two key incidents have exacerbated the tensions between the old guard and the new leadership.

The first involved a decision by a current board member to paint over a "13" on one of the outside murals because the number has links to street gangs.

Second was the use of the center by Police Chief David Bejarano, the city's first Latino police chief, to talk with teenagers about community problems.

"The new group wants things to be more smooth, more acceptable to the funding sources," said Ochoa, with disapproval.

Although artists claimed the act was censorship, board members defended the painting over of the 13, noting that the number had not been part of the original mural and had been been added without approval.

The use of the center by Bejarano touched a nerve because the center was born out of Chicano activism of the late 1960s, which quite often involved protesting alleged police abuse. To allow the police chief inside the center was seen as a repudiation of the center and its founding spirit.

"This is a public building," said Guadalupe Corona, board president. "To me, [the Bejarano session] was an event that supported young people's voices, that gave them a chance to be heard."

Board members also have called police when emotions overflowed at a public meeting at the center to discuss the controversy. Corona has reported receiving a death threat at her home.

Calling for a boycott of the center, the Save Our Centro Coalition has distributed fliers with pictures of police at the center with the provocative caption: "Have the police taken over the Centro?"

The two sides also disagree about why the center was not available for a gathering of striking janitors during their dispute with the managers of high-rise buildings in downtown San Diego.

Board members say the center already had been booked for another activity. Dissidents say the new leadership did not want to get involved in a politically controversial labor movement.

Except for demanding that the organization repair its finances, the city has taken a hands-off attitude toward the internal dispute. The City Council provides $25,000 a year in hotel-motel taxes to the center.

"It is not the business of the [San Diego] Commission for Arts and Culture to interfere in the business of nonprofit organizations," Victoria Hamilton, the commission's executive director, responded when asked for help by the Save Our Centro Coalition.

The chasm between the two sides is so great that the former board members and their followers picketed Friday's 30th anniversary celebration at the center, which was highlighted by Mexican Indian dancing and exhibits of Mexican masks, photographs from the Mexican revolution and native costumes.

There is little evidence of a rapprochement in the offing.

"I believe in structure, I don't believe in a survivalist mentality," said Corona. "Some of [the picketers] are not used to seeing a woman in a position of leadership."

As San Diego police, some on bicycles, some on horseback, kept protesters away from the door to the center, protesters vowed not to rest until the current board resigns.

"We are not going to stop until these people leave the center," said Rico. "They are holding our center hostage."

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