The Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

A community hub that began as an empty furniture store will celebrate 40 years of supporting artists this Saturday as the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts throws its 40th Anniversary Gala.

The focus and feel of the center has shifted dramatically through the decades, from its international political roots to its role as a community center for local artists to grow.

The center was founded in 1977 in a definitively political way. Its funding was the result of a concession by the city, granted to neighborhood activists who were incensed at the upcoming construction of the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall. That investment, activists and artists argued at the time — according to Cary Cordova’s book, The Heart of the Mission — pandered to the tastes of affluent suburbanites, rather than the cultural needs of neighborhoods.

With help from city funding, the building at 2868 Mission St. was purchased and turned into a cultural center with strong support for a Nicaraguan revolution right from the start. Cordova reports in her book that Sandinista poet Ernesto Cardenal spoke at an opening ceremony that drew some 2,000 people and included a baptism ceremony proclaiming to shield the children from “spirits of greed, capitalism, egoism and Somoza.”

Even its logo proclaimed its rebellious nature — it features Tezcatlipoca, an Aztec god who, according to Adrian Arias’ 2003 documentary about the center, “represented anti-establishment art.”

“It was political times, not just in the U.S. but throughout Latin America, and I think the Mission and the Mission Cultural Center reflected that historical moment,” said Alejandro Murguía, a poet, the center’s first director and, more recently, a San Francisco State University professor.

By the time Arias made that documentary for the center’s 25th anniversary, the Cultural Center had established itself as a hub for dance, printmaking and music — serving as a performance space open to many young musicians who later made a name for themselves, much as it does today.

In the year leading up to that milestone, the gallery space found itself in need of some serious elbow grease, according to its incoming curator at the time, Patricia Rodriguez.

About a year before the center’s 25-year anniversary, she had been hired on to do some typing work to get her feet under her as she returned to San Francisco. Instead, she was told she would be managing the gallery, and found it wasn’t up to snuff.

“I looked around and the walls were painted yellow, and there were a lot of drips on the floor,” she recalled. The gallery had also taken a somewhat laissez-faire attitude to exhibiting, in which artists who wandered in looking to exhibit were simply told to choose a spot on the wall and hang their work.

While archival footage points to ample participation in classes and workshops, Rodriguez remembered exhibitions attracting a less-enthusiastic crowd. At one opening, she estimated some 35 people showed up.

“There was a big table like a kitchen, with hot beans and soup, and all these people were lined up to eat and once they ate this hot food, they split. They weren’t there for the art,” she said. “And I said, ‘Oh no, there’s something wrong with this picture.’”

So Rodriguez got to work. She convinced her employers to patch the holes, clean up the drips, paint the walls white and generally make the gallery sparkle. She reached out to artists she knew — then followed up, and followed up again. The result was a 25th anniversary exhibition that drew several hundred people, she said.

Programs at the center continued to develop and grow, particularly as it began to charge admission for some events, Rodriguez said. The annual mole contest was started, press releases began finding their way to the local newspapers’ fax machines and young artists came in for access to mentors. Rodriguez would sit down with them for hour-long sessions to help them polish their portfolios and send them to the galleries downtown.

“Some of them disappeared and I never saw them again, but once in awhile I’d get someone who would come back and say, ‘Guess what? I just won an award in Sacramento,’” she said.

Rodriguez spent 10 years at the cultural center as its curator, eventually moving on to teach again, but acknowledges the work of her current successor, Angelica A. Rodriguez, and the continuing role of the cultural center as a focal point for the community.

“It is a really vital center for the community in all aspects, from conventions to music to arts to children,” she said. “and then, of course, they’re part of the Carnaval.”

In Arias’ documentary, Cordova says some of the dancers and artists who launched San Francisco’s Carnaval events also participated in work at the center, and collaborations between the cultural center and the neighborhood arts organizations helped plan the first Día de los Muertos processions.

As it prepares for its 40th year, the cultural center has maintained its role as a supporter of local arts — including local photographer Lou Dematteis.

“As an artist, overall I really appreciate the support at the Mission Cultural Center has really extended throughout its whole time of being in existence,” Dematteis said. While he wished the center could find more support to update its various systems and infrastructure, he praised it for being consistently willing to foster talent and help artists grow — including his daughter, who, like her father, has exhibited her photography there.

“I think providing the facility to be able to exhibit, that in itself, that’s a growing process for an artist,” he said. “I think every time you have to prepare your work for an exhibit and actually go through it and make prints and put them up on the wall, that’s a very important learning experience.”

From the start and through its modern-day role, the center has promoted art from a plethora of cultures, looking beyond the Mexican and Chicano art that was flourishing at the time of its founding to works influenced by cultures across Latin America. Now, it is a constant — a stability it didn’t have in its early days.

“Obviously, at the beginning it was exactly the opposite: no budget, no staff, day-to-day operations with no real sense of stability,” Murguía said. “That was the constant struggle, in that sense.”

Now, it’s an anchor.

“I just think it’s so important that these kinds of anchor arts and cultural organizations and spaces are still here and continuing to function and be vital parts of the community,” Dematteis said.
You can get tickets to the Gala here.

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