The Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts has played a central role in the neighborhood’s cultural life for more than four decades, but a new exhibition puts that legacy in a much longer historical perspective.
On Friday evening, as part of the MCCLA’s 45th Anniversary Gala 2022, the center unveils the exclusive West Coast premiere of “Mayan Rulers in the Heart of the Mission — Reyes Mayas en el Corazón De La Mission.” The exhibition portrays bas relief masterpieces created by the Mayan people in the ninth and 10th centuries, connecting Mission residents who trace their roots to Guatemala and southern Mexico with the iconography of their ancestors.
Zacatecas-born master sculptor Manuel Palos created the pieces at his studio in Bayview from “molds that are the only records of artwork that was, in many cases, later stolen and destroyed,” said Alejandra Palos, Manuel’s daughter and a sculptor in her own right. Her father inherited the molds from Joan Patten, whose work preserving the Mayan sculptures was authorized by the Guatemalan government.
Theft was already a problem at Mayan ruins like Tikal, but the devastating magnitude 7.5 earthquake of 1976 destroyed several museums where artifacts were displayed. Patten used her casts to replicate the damaged pieces. The MCCLA exhibition features 23 of some 90 pieces cast from molds that Palos is restoring, a project that’s very much a work in progress, because “a lot of the molds have been damaged over the years,” Palos said.
“My dad takes them down in his spare time and just starts to work on them. Each one that he makes is a cast from a mold he’s restored, and then he applies his own unique finish, and they look amazing. When the Mission Cultural Center approached us, we figured now is the perfect time to start exhibiting them.”
The MCCLA was founded in 1977 by artists and community activists devoted to presenting and promoting the creative expression of Chicanx, Caribbean and Central and South American people, and it has played a multifaceted role in the Mission. A gallery, performance space, study center and community hall, it has also taken the lead in documenting and preserving the work of visual artists and poets, sculptors, dancers and musicians.
MCCLA’s historical role in championing Latinx culture was recognized last month, when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously named the building a city landmark. The recognition is timely, as the institution has been reestablishing itself after being shuttered for two years during the pandemic. With Martina Ayala taking over as executive director, MCCLA is in the hands of a veteran cultural activist who has long worked in international settings.
As a first-generation Chicana raised in East Los Angeles, Ayala grew up in the movement. She graduated from Franklin High School in Highland Park, but her real education took place among the neighborhood’s artists and cultural activists.
“I’m that kid who learned to walk and dance at community cultural centers,” she said. “We didn’t have the arts programming in our schools. It was in the community cultural centers we got skills that school didn’t teach. I learned how to speak in front of the public, and was exposed to every form of the arts. When I was a kid, my dream was to become the first president in the United States, and the most famous dancer.”
She pursued that dream at the University of California, Berkeley, where she graduated with a double major in dance and political science. But as the 1980s’ “Hispanic Boom” in Hollywood gained momentum with films like “El Norte,” “La Bamba,” “Born in East L.A.” and “Stand and Deliver,” she reached out to pioneering director Luis Valdez. As director of Spanish language programming for Franciscan Communications, she had a budget to make films, and Valdez put her in touch with award-winning filmmaker, playwright, and writer Severo Perez, “who became a mentor to me,” she said. “He taught me everything about filmmaking. It’s beautiful to see how far we’ve come since then, though we still have a long way to go.”
Ayala’s career path includes all manner of positions in arts, education and social services organizations. She went on to found and run the Northeast Academy College Preparatory school in her old L.A. neighborhood, which operated from 2000 to 2006. She has lived in the Bay Area since 2007, working and consulting for an array of organizations, including a stint as director of training at the San Francisco Family Support Network. “But I left that and just focused Martina La Latina Productions, doing cultural events and galas and helping nonprofits raise money,” she said.
Taking over MCCLA in the midst of the pandemic is a steep challenge. Jennie Rodriguez, who ran the center since the late 1990s and is widely credited with reviving the organization, left behind a big pair of shoes to fill. Ayala sees it as a legacy to build on, but she has ambitious plans that require some serious hustling for resources.
“I have nothing but respect for Jennie and her leadership,” she said. “We have the same mission, but I have a very different vision and leadership style. I want to turn this into a premiere cultural center, which means treating artists with respect and finding the funds to pay them. We can’t blame anyone if we don’t do the very best we can to raise the money so we can respect and pay our employees just wages.”
Paying staff and artists isn’t the only factor when it comes to expanding the budget. Aside from the pandemic, MCCLA faces a major hurdle when the organization undertakes a long-delayed seismic retrofit that will force the center to relocate next year. “I have to raise as much money as possible and find alternate ways to deliver our programming to the community, so we can come back bigger and better,” Ayala said.