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The Boston Globe

Making Progress, Facing Challenges; Center For Latino Arts Struggles To Realize Cultural Goals

Johnny Diaz, Globe Staff

6 October 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

When the Center for Latino Arts/Casa de la Cultura in the South End opened its doors last year, some local Latino artists celebrated the fact that they finally had an arts center to call their own, a local Latino cultural base to showcase their work. Since then, center officials have aggressively cultivated programs that cater to the region's growing multinational Latino community.

The center has offered a mix of locally produced and imported works by artists as diverse as their backgrounds - Argentine, Salvadoran, and Peruvian. Center officials have also presented a "Women in Latin Jazz" series, hosted a Mexican puppet company aimed at adults, and introduced delegates to the South End art house during the Democratic National Convention.

Next up: the center's biggest fund-raiser and most prestigious event, a concert by Latin saxophone legend Paquito D'Rivera, at the Berklee Performance Center tomorrow.

But while the CLA has pumped new life into the local Latino cultural scene and forged links with the community, its small staff - two full-time employees and one half-time - still faces tough obstacles in its quest to make the art facility a magnet for the city's Latino population. Fund-raising continues to be a challenge, as does marketing to Latinos from various classes and countries whose only common thread may be the Spanish language.

That leaves some wondering whether the art complex, next to housing development Villa Victoria, is doing enough to attract Latino and non-Latino audiences.

"The potential to succeed is undoubtedly there," said Jose Masso, regional director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, whose office has organized Puerto Rican exhibits at the CLA. "[But] our office has found that a good percentage of folks don't even know that Villa Victoria exists. It would take developing a strategic plan that over a series of years would leverage what they have. They have a beautiful site, but what they have is limited resources from its staff and economic capital."

Angel A. Amy Moreno, a professor of Latino history at Northeastern University and Roxbury Community College, has chronicled Villa Victoria's and the art center's evolution.

"[The CLA staffers] have a very tough job, and I admire them for that," Moreno said. "They are trying to do the best they can under their circumstances. You need more people there to effectively run the place."

That is something Sabrina Aviles, the director of the Center for Latino Arts, knows well.

Before she came on board last year, the only arts facility at Villa Victoria was a single performance hall known as the Jorge Hernandez Cultural Center, on West Newton Street. Over the years, the JHCC was the Boston home for acts such as the late Cuban band leader Mario Bauza and percussionist Milton Cardona as well as Peruvian theater groups and Puerto Rican troubadours.

The hall opened a small window into Latino culture and provided many local Hispanics a foundation to promote and preserve traditions such as sweet fifteens. But with the JHCC's expansion last year into the Center for Latino Arts, the organization went into high gear to reinvent itself and reach a bigger audience.

"The biggest challenge of my community of Villa Victoria is, how do I get them to come here," Aviles said. "I have to go to them. But I also have a lot of different Latinos and different backgrounds to pull in from all different socioeconomic backgrounds."

Not all have the financial means or the time to attend art shows and performances. But many do, especially Latino professionals and Hispanic college students who come to Boston to study - but may not know of the CLA's existence.

"We are trying to become an alternative," said Alex Alvear, the CLA's performing arts director. "We are really trying to raise the bar of the expectations we have for ourselves and what others have of us."

To try to create more crossover attendance between Latino artists and the general public, on Friday the center brings back El Bembe, a monthly salsa night that teaches novices how to dance before the night kicks off with a live band. The dance night has been a way to introduce non-Latinos to the center. Also, a collaboration with Emerson College resulted in a new intergenerational class with local youth from Villa Victoria and the South End working on projects that study their ethnic identities through art and music.

Meanwhile, to help defray the costs of hosting functions, the center has found help from the corporate sector. American Airlines, for example, will cosponsor the D'Rivera concert, while the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University is sponsoring the current exhibit, "Blueprints for a Nation," by Puerto Rican artist Adal Maldonado. And coming Oct. 29 is the Boston Latino International Film Festival, the first time the event (formerly the Cambridge Latino Film Festival) is held under its new name and at the CLA.

To bolster the center's brand name in the community, Aviles and Alvear are exploring the possibility of establishing an advisory board made up of local business owners and art enthusiasts to help expose the rest of the community to the CLA.

"For just having gotten out of the starting gate, we are doing a lot," said Vanessa Calderon-Rosado, acting interim director of Inquilinos Boricuas en Accion, the parent social agency of Villa Victoria as well as the JHCC. "We are going to be big in the arts scene in Boston, and we are going to be something to watch out for as a major cultural player."

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