San Diego County Arts Writer

The hands of artist Gilbert Lujan molded a wet, thick mixture of clay-like earth, straw and horse manure onto a bamboo frame. Slowly, his adobe hut has taken shape inside the Centro Cultural de la Raza building in Balboa Park.

Like most of the exhibits and performances that are part of the center’s six-week 15th anniversary celebration, which opens today, the 10-foot-diameter adobe shelter makes political as well as cultural and artistic statements. Lujan chose traditional adobe because it is prohibited in buildings by the California Building Code’s seismic standards.

“I think adobe is more reliable than other building materials, but it is a victim of biases in the building code. In Arizona and New Mexico it’s used. All over the world it’s used. Why should a state line make a difference?” said Lujan, a Los Angeles sculptor.

Social politics and art. The two combine as one in Latino art and are organic to the center’s current celebration, “Hecho en Aztlan,” or “Made in Aztlan.” Aztlan is the mythical place from which the ancient Nahuatl Indians came, a place that corresponds to northern Mexico and the southwestern United States, according to the show’s catalogue. It also symbolizes something like the place Latino culture occupies today.

“Made in Aztlan: A Festival of Chicano Arts” is both a benchmark and a crossroads for the center. While the festival attempts to represent 15 years of Latino art, it is structured to raise questions about what direction the center will take in the future. A huge exhibition featuring 50 artists from the Southwest and Mexico dominates. But folkloric dancing, traditional and rock music concerts, theater, poetry readings, performance art and a series of lectures on Latino arts are also part of the massive festival.


“It’s like a tour de force of Chicano art and thought from the last 15 years,” said Guillermo Gomez-Pena, who has worked almost a year coordinating the art exhibition. Three generations of local and regional Latino artists and performers will take part in the festival’s events.

Among the scores of participants are poet Jose Montoya from Sacramento; painter John Valadez from Los Angeles; muralists Victor Ochoa from San Diego and Judy Baca from Los Angeles, and the rock group Los Illegals from East Los Angeles.

Founded in 1970 by a group of artists known as Toltecas en Aztlan, the cultural center was originally a volunteer organization. Now it has an annual budget of $150,000, which pays the overhead and a staff of eight: two full-time employees, two part-time employees and four artists-in-residence. Most of the funds come from COMBO, the county’s combined arts funding organization; the City of San Diego, and the California Arts Council.

“We’ve established a track record. We’ve survived while other similar organizations have fallen away,” said Veronica Enrique, the center’s director.

Yet the center has hit a plateau in its growth. A key question is whether it can continue to grow physically and fiscally, while maintaining its role as a cultural reservoir and clearinghouse for the traditions and arts of American Indians and Latinos. All of that, the center’s staff fears, could be lost in developing a sophisticated fund-raising organization with membership campaigns and a greater outreach into the broader community.

“We’re trying to develop ourself as an institution, and there really are no role models for us,” Enrique said. Turning into a museum, or as she put it, a “sanctuary for Chicano art” is one possibility. Indeed, some of the lectures that are interspersed throughout the festival are designed to provide feedback on whether the community served by the center would like to see it become a museum.

But such a museum, Enrique noted, would not have the same dynamics as a mainstream museum or commercial gallery. As a nonprofit organization, the center relies on grants, donations and contributed income. One change this year is the allocation of nearly 3,000 square feet for gallery space within the colorful former water tank the center occupies. It is beginning to move into the area of corporate sponsorship, but a very big concern is a fear of losing its integrity.

“Our community is moving into the middle- and upper-class areas,” Enrique said. She hopes that some of today’s Latino and Anglo professionals will see the work of artists they once stood with on the picket lines of the 1960s and buy into the center.

“We’ve hesitated with large corporate sponsorship because it’s a given that a business’s name will go before your name,” Enrique said. “That doesn’t make sense--where you’re promoting someone else’s product.”

In matters of integrity, the center has a record of standing its ground.

It successfully fought a petition demanding removal of a skeleton that is part of a cultural mural on the center’s exterior wall. When a brewery, which sponsored a poster, asked that a clenched fist be changed to an open hand, the center made it clear that the clenched fist was the specific image desired and was appropriate to its community. If censorship was imposed, the center’s sponsors pointed out, the positive publicity the brewery sought might become negative overnight.

Such occurrences cause people to come to grips with issues they don’t normally face, Enrique said. “We’re not going away,” she said. “You can’t look at San Diego without looking at Mexicanos and Chicanos. And you can’t look at Mexicanos and Chicanos without letting them look at themselves.”