Latino Community Feeling 'a Little Bit Voiceless' in Cultural Center Debate

The BlakTina Festival in Phoenix was co-founded by Liliana Gomez, who is worried that Latinos are "a little bit voiceless" in the Latino Cultural Center discussion.
The BlakTina Festival in Phoenix was co-founded by Liliana Gomez, who is worried that Latinos are "a little bit voiceless" in the Latino Cultural Center discussion. Audrey Pekala

As Latina choreographer Liliana Gomez was previewing dances for this week’s BlakTinx dance festival at Phoenix Center for the Arts, others were busy making plans for the red brick building that sits next to the center on the eastern rim of Hance Park.

They’re hoping to convert the two-level North Building, located on prime real estate in Phoenix’s Roosevelt Row arts district, into a new Latino Cultural Center. But it’s not clear that the community even wants the new center, considering how few people are working to make it happen.

Latino arts and culture is already thriving here in creative fields such as art, dance, film, literature, music, and theater. Xico Arte y Cultura curates a shipping container gallery in Roosevelt Row. The Sagrado Galleria exhibits works by Latino artists in south Phoenix. And Cultural Coalition offers robust youth programs in Mesa.

Yet few Latino creatives are participating in the drive to start a Latino Cultural Center, which is being led by Phoenix City Council member Michael Nowakowski. It started back in 2001, when the city approved $1.4 million in bond funding for Museo Chicano, a group that folded in 2009.

Today, its former space inside the Regency Garage at Adams and Second streets is home to Arizona Latino Arts and Cultural Center, one of many Latino cultural groups in the Valley.

That’s where Nowakowski’s effort ramped up last week, when just a handful of people on his Latino Cultural Center committee decided to recommend that the North Building next to Phoenix Center for the Arts become the site for the new Latino center.

Before that happens, the city council will need to approve the plan. There’s just under $1 million set aside for the Latino Cultural Center at this point, and the city estimates that renovating the North Building would cost between $11.9 and $14.2 million. That could make it a tough sell, especially if Latino creatives and other community members aren’t on board.

Of course, several factors could explain why so few people are involved at this point. Until recently, few details were posted on the city’s website or shared via social media, and daytime meetings in downtown Phoenix aren’t convenient for most people.

Some fault the city for relying on a consultant report from 2017 rather than having fresh conversations with Latino community members. “We need to figure out how we can bring this conversation back out to the community,” says Sam Gomez, who heads Sagrado Galleria.

Several Latino creatives who worked with consultant Evonne Gallardo were supportive of city efforts at the time. Casandra Hernández Faham, who heads the CALA Alliance, was among them. “We need more spaces for Latinx public culture in a city that is 40 percent Latinx,” she said back in 2017.

Now, Hernández Faham is one of eight people picked by City Council members for Nowakowski’s committee.

But she’s wary of the current efforts, which also involve the city’s Office of Arts and Culture, led by Mitch Menchaca. “This should be driven by a community process versus some other agenda,” Hernández Faham says.

Phoenix New Times asked Menchaca why there appears to be so little community interest in the project. “I feel there is a perception issue [with New Times’ questions],” he stated via email. “It’s unfair to say there isn’t community interest.”

Liliana Gomez embraces the idea of a new Latino Cultural Center, but she’s got concerns. “It’s been in the works for so long that now everyone is disenfranchised,” she says. “People are feeling a little bit voiceless.”

Even so, they’re continuing to make and share new work. “If the center happens, I’ll be supportive,” she says.
“In the meantime, we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.”
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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble