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LINCOLN HEIGHTS : Plaza de la Raza Is Aching to Grow

At a long cafeteria table, Teresa Munoz sits with other women and their children, molding flowers, small hats and other knickknacks out of a pliable mixture of dough and glue.

“It’s easy for her,” said Munoz, marveling at their teacher’s mastery. “She makes a teardrop with one finger and then flowers and all sorts of things, all with one finger.”

Munoz and her daughters, Rebecca, 11, and Desiree, 7, are taking lessons in migajon , the traditional Mexican technique of using scraps of dough to create art, one of the after-school classes offered at Plaza de la Raza’s School of Performing and Visual Arts.

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But the school, which was established in 1978, has had a tough time in recent years, faced with an economy on the slide and a population on the rise.

“Not being able to expand (our programs), that is the hidden tragedy in this, said Director Gema Sandoval, “because our community has significantly grown and we end up turning people away.

“Our community needs more than ever programs that keep children on task, that give them a chance at success, and at the same time, the few programs that exist have a tough time making ends meet.”

The school enrolls 350 to 600 students a week in dance, drama, art and music classes. Most students, she said, cannot afford the $35 fee for a 10-week session and are enrolled at a reduced fee.

And that has made fund raising more vital to the school.

Corporate donations account for 60% of the school’s $250,000 annual budget, Sandoval said. The rest comes from government grants. Last year’s donations amounted to $100,000 less than the previous year’s, she said.

“In the city, which has suffered a variety of natural disasters, all the traditional funding that we usually receive has been drastically reduced. For the first time in the history of Plaza de la Raza, we are looking for membership donations and having all these fund-raising parties that we have to have in order to keep the place going.”

The school has had two fund-raisers this year and is working on a third in May; it usually has one.

Although shrinking budgets have not yet forced cuts in services or staff, their effects have been felt. For example, La Tiendita, the Plaza’s store that sells professional arts and crafts, was closed for a week when the person in charge went on vacation.

Staff members, who feared their benefits and wages would be cut as budgets tightened, approved joining the California Professional Employees Union in December. The union, which represents more than 700 members of nonprofit organizations, has requested a three-year contract for Plaza’s eight support employees (not including teachers), increases in wages and benefits and an updated personnel policy.

Adding to the school’s uncertainty is Sandoval’s impending departure. The director recently announced that she will step down July 1 from the post she has held for seven years to commit more time to her dance group, Danza Floricanto. Plaza’s board of directors has hired a consultant to search for a replacement.

Silvana Berberian, 17, has taken a variety of lessons for four years at the school and insists its teachers are more challenging than those at Reseda High School, where she is in the 11th grade. In the session that just ended, she took theater, cello, tap-dancing and folklorico dancing.

“This is a place to get away. When I go in the door, it feels like a totally different world,” she said.

Berberian said that the theater classes have helped pull her out of her shell: “That’s what I think helps me talk to people now. Before, I didn’t talk. I would hide behind my mom, and now they have to shut me up.”

The school wrapped up its winter session two weeks ago and begins its spring session April 19.

The students are mostly children and teen-agers, but Sandoval said that when children are involved, the whole family usually is too:

“It changes the aspect of the park. There are no graffiti, drug and gang problems when you bring the whole family in.”


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