Latino group tries to turn around Mexican Heritage Plaza

In search of a new vision for Mexican Heritage Plaza
By Joe Rodriguez Mercury News 01/30/2009

In ancient and modern Mexican cities, plazas splashed by sunlight on warm winter days teem with youngsters, oldsters and everyone in between, running, sitting, reading, flirting and munching on delicacies of every sort. But in East San Jose there is a plaza where not even the Aztec sun gods - there were at least eight of them -- could draw a crowd during this balmy, picture-perfect week.

"It should be alive from eight in the morning to midnight,'' said Olivia Mendiola, an East Side community leader. "There's no reason that plaza should not be buzzing all day.''

Soon, she and 12 others will have their chance to turn around the Mexican Heritage Plaza, one of San Jose's biggest redevelopment and artistic duds. The City Council this week selected the final members of a committee charged with finding a new vision for the cultural complex that opened in 1998 and never became a premiere showcase of Latino arts, economic engine for the low-income neighborhood around it or the cool hangout that City Hall and its operator had hoped for.

While several committee members reached Thursday by telephone said they wanted a significant break from the past, others are going in with open minds and no set preferences.

Alcario Castellano, a Latino philanthropist, said the first thing that should go is the notion that the plaza should be the "Lincoln Center of Latino Arts,'' referring to internationally renown arts palace in New York City. That vision was pushed hard by the Mexican Heritage Corporation, the non-profit that operated the plaza until last year. City Hall, weary of bailing out the group, took back the keys and currently manages the buildings and grounds.

"Let's get off that kick,'' Castellano said. "Nobody outside of New York, maybe Washington, can match Lincoln Center.''

He would like to see more programming that appeals to the local community, which is predominantly working class and of Mexican origin. An example would be a show on low-rider, automotive art he sponsored recently that drew record, mostly Hispanic and local crowds for the plaza.

Mendiola, the director of the Mexican American Community Services Agency, also would like to the focus to remain on the Latino. So would committee member Carlos Perez, a local artist who was among the plaza's earliest supporters who wanted a community-oriented plaza only to lose the battle to the "Lincoln Center'' advocates.

"I feel that the vision was never truly realized,'' Perez said. He supports an arts center with a heavy emphasis on teaching Mexican art, music and dance to youths, but he would also open the center to Asian, African-American and other, ethnic, artistic programming.

At least one member, Moy Eng of the Hewlett Foundation, said she has no preferences.

"I don't have an agenda or a prescribed vision,'' she said. "I'm just looking forward to working with community leader on the plaza's potential.''

Taken as a whole, the 13-member committee represents a diversity of experience in the arts, community involvement and commercial entertainment. In a break from the plaza's past boards of directors, they don't appear to be political hacks or cronies of local power brokers. However, they represent several constituencies and institutions: neighborhood residents, longtime volunteers, contributors, and the city's arts commission and city council.

While neighborhood representative Guadalupe Gonzalez and volunteer representative Linda Snook generally support the idea of a Latino arts and education complex under city or non-profit control, Manuel Fimbres, a private funder representive on the committee, wants to explore private ownership of the plaza.

"What if the center was controlled by a commercial entity, or owned by a non-profit?'' the retired San Jose State professor asked. "The Mexican community really identifies with the center. I don't know why but it's a source of strength. I want them to have a jewel.''

The committee expects to hold it's first meeting in late February or early March. It will seek proposals for the plaza and recommend a winner to the city council and redevelopment agency.

Other committee members include: Chris Esparza, principal of Giant Creative Services; Maria de la Rosa, a teacher and former artistic director of Los Lupenos dance company; Alfredo "Danny" Garza, a director of the Plata Arroyo Neighborhood Association; Erin Goodwin-Guerrero, an artist and retired San Jose State professor; and Roy Hirabashi, artistic director of San Jose Taiko, a Japanese drum ensemble.

Contact Joe Rodriguez at (408) 920-5767 or jrodriguez@mercurynews.com

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