Marcos Najera wants a Latino cultural center in Brown Town

Wendy Weston is one fierce chick. She's loud, proud, and puro Native-American badass. I want to be her. More to the point, I want a space like hers. She's the director of Indian American relations at the Heard Museum, and I've been hanging with Wendy a lot lately while we've been working on a theater project. As I walk around the corridors of her offices at the Heard, or as we munch on jicama and guacamole shrimp salads in the museum's courtyard cafe, I find myself in awe. She has a home in this world-class museum like no other. It's a global headquarters for Native American art, culture, food, music, dance, and dialogue.

A few years ago, a similar feeling emerged. I went to the wedding of some friends at the Irish Cultural Center in Phoenix. It was lovely. Bagpipes, Scotch, and Guinness flowed. I pondered what I might look like in a kilt. Perhaps that was after one too many pints.

At the risk of sounding childish, I now want my own center, too: a Latino cultural center. A place where people could enjoy performance and fine art — any type — that connects to Brown Town. (Full disclosure: I've been an actor in Phoenix since I was a kid. The idea of stepping on a stage at a local Latino Cultural Center — not just sitting in the audience — makes me smile.)

Here's some incentive. This week, the Maricopa Partnership for Arts & Culture (MPAC) will release the results of a yearlong, $150,000 study. I've seen the results. A key finding of the study is that many, many Latinos want to spend money on tickets to art events — and we're not just talking stereotypical mariachi concerts. We want it all, from Spanish obras to Shakespeare. In fact, MPAC's smart study could be the first offerings of any real statistical proof that attracting audience from Brown Town could bolster all arts organizations across the valley.

MPAC President Myra Millinger suggests in the study that Latino audiences already have "a significant financial impact, infusing over $100 million annually as attendees at greater Phoenix arts and culture events and attractions."

Further study observations reveal that despite current attendance numbers and those very broad, very strong interests in the arts, there are simple, surmountable roadblocks that stop many Latinos from heading to their local box office more frequently. According to MPAC communications director Amy Heisler, "There's a certain fear of not belonging or having the right thing to wear."

I'll take it a step further. I say, screw the fashion. Just build a brown arts town — heck, start with a building — and we'll come.

I might get my wish very soon, thanks to a group called ALAC. It stands for the Advocates for [email protected] Arts & Culture. This is a strong, magical coalition of community activists, academics, filmmakers, musicians, writers, theater folk, and visual artists who've banded together in an effort to persuade the City of Phoenix to help develop a space for us. By us, I mean brown artists and our audiences

Fantastic. But what concerns me is that it's just plain hard to find out any information about ALAC's progress. Members of the group (most of whom I know and respect) tend to speak about potential sites for a temporary center in hushed tones. Clearly, there is a fear that if the word gets out that the group is on the make for a space, the bottom could drop out.

I doubt that would happen. In fact, I think transparency alleviates anxiety.

That said, allow me to break it down. ALAC's first step is to identify and move into a starter space by September. Meanwhile, the Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture is currently reviewing a proposed business plan from ALAC that outlines fundraising and staffing plans. There are whispers in Brown Town that the city wants to wedge out the current Museo Chicano downtown near Symphony Hall to make room for a temporary Latino Cultural Center run by ALAC. That's not a done deal by any stretch. Other sites are also under review.

Only one year has passed since ALAC members met for the first time last June at the Arizona Arts Commission. "A year later and we have a lot to celebrate," says Erlinda Torres, ALAC president. "We are focusing on a Phoenix cultural center now, but that doesn't mean we won't help artists in Tucson and Flagstaff build centers in their towns next. We are working with them, too."

Torres admits that that thinking is a bit pie-in-the-sky for now. But at least locally, ALAC has a superhero of sorts in its Phoenix corner who wants to help the group strategize: Ruth Osuna, Mayor Phil Gordon's chief of staff. "The most fascinating thing for me is the diversity of Latino arts groups in ALAC," Osuna tells me. "It's historic. In many ways, they are competitors. But now, they are collaborators." On the flipside, she notes, the board could work to bring more people to the table, not just artists. She quips, "I can add. That's why I'm there."

Love her.

Jokes about addition aside, Osuna raises a valid concern. Is ALAC's board diverse enough and savvy enough to truly work with a municipality to get a building paid for, designed, and built?

I hate to admit it, but artists alone do not a building plan make. In my humble estimation, it appears that while the city's Office of Arts & Culture reviews ALAC's proposed business plan, ALAC's leadership should continue efforts to build out the organization's board, so when and if the city comes through with $1.5 million in bond money from a 2001 bond election, dating back to former Mayor Skip Rimsza's days, the group is ready.

With guidance from city leaders like Osuna and Councilman Michael Nowakowski, I believe ALAC will be more than ready. And you can bet your brown ass that I'll be the first to send Wendy Weston an early-invite to munch on jicama and guacamole in our new courtyard.

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Marcos Najera
Contact: Marcos Najera