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A center for community: NHCC marks its 20th anniversary

The National Hispanic Cultural Center is marking its 20th anniversary. The campus is in the heart of Barelas in southwest Albuquerque. Center right is a metal sculpture “Cuesta del Cielo” by Paula Castillo. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

In the heart of Barelas – on the corner of Fourth Street and Avenida César Chávez SW – sits the National Hispanic Cultural Center.

The 20-plus-acre campus draws attention with its design inspired by Spanish, Aztec, Mayan, New Mexico colonial and modernist architecture.

Frederico Vigil painted the fresco located inside the torreón at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. It is the largest concave fresco in North America. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

It is home to the NHCC Art Museum, three theaters, a plaza, a world-class education center and a torreón. Inside the torreón – or watchtower – sits the largest concave fresco in North America.

Not to be forgotten are the Spanish Resource Center and the Instituto Cervantes, which were created by the Spanish government in 1991. The institutions promote the teaching, use and study of the Spanish language, and contribute to the advancement of Spanish, Hispanic and Latin American cultures throughout the world. Albuquerque is one of four locations in the United States that is home to an Instituto Cervantes.

The NHCC marks its 20th anniversary on Oct. 21.

Over the years, the community has experienced the NHCC’s impact and reach, with it often being one of the most visited museums in the state.

It has hosted world-class traveling exhibitions and performances from international stars, as well provided venues for local productions large and small.

In fact, though the word national is in its name, the NHCC has a deep focus on the local community.

Luis Tapia’s “A Slice of American Pie” is a 1963 Cadillac lowrider on permanent display at the National Hispanic Cultural Center Art Museum. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

“A sense of home and family is integral to Latino culture,” said Rebecca Avitia, executive director for the NHCC from 2014-19. “Having the NHCC provide a physical home for so many of the traditions and art forms is especially critical because of how much we value home and family.”

Rebecca Avitia

In recent years, the center has upped its programming to include more than 500 events annually. This includes productions by flamenco ensemble Yjastros and operas by Opera Southwest. Each program at the center has an education element that attracts students from across the city.

A long journey

Though the NHCC is hitting its 20-year milestone, its journey to completion began decades earlier.

The movement to get a cultural center began to coalesce in the late 1970s and early 1980s with a group of local artists and musicians who wanted to preserve Hispanic art and culture. The group El Centro Cultural de Nuevo México rallied local artists, pitched legislators and promoted the idea for the center.

In 1986, the group joined forces with then-state Rep. Al Otero. The Barelas native was able to convince the Legislature to authorize a feasibility study with $74,000 appropriated in 1987.

At the same time, the Hispano Chamber of Commerce was also pushing for a center. This effort led to the formation of the Hispanic Culture Foundation, which was led by attorney Arturo Ortega, and local businessmen Edward Lujan and Edward Romero. Romero later was named U.S. Ambassador to Spain and Andorra.

By 1988, the Legislature passed a bill for $200,000 to begin a site selection process.

In 1989, $310,000 was approved for construction and the Albuquerque City Council authorized a Hispanic Cultural Center Advisory Committee, an 11-member board appointed by then-Mayor Ken Schultz. The committee dissolved in 1990. In 1991, then-City Councilor Alan Armijo tried to revive it.

That same year, the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs decided to oversee the center.

In 1993, the center was planned for a different location at Lomas and Interstate 25. Neighbors didn’t want the center or a federal courthouse, which was also eyeing the location. There were four sites considered for the center, but only one was located in Barelas.

The city agreed to donate 12 acres of its property, valued at between $4 million and $6 million, which the study determined to be a best fit.

Leading the push was the Hispanic Culture Foundation. Political support kicked up with the likes of Manny Aragon, Michael Alarid, Martin Chávez and Gov. Bruce King, to name a few.

State funds included $18.4 million, while the center got $17.6 million in federal funds. Just over $20 million in private funds was also raised. Some of the donors included Bill Gates and McDonald’s Corp.

By 2000, the $56 million center was set to open after decades of planning and became the first center of its kind in the nation.

Navigating a path

The center had nine executive and interim executive directors before Avitia took over in 2014.

Josefa González Mariscal

In March, Josefa González Mariscal took the reins at the center – becoming the second woman to hold the executive director position.

She hit the ground running and worked to immerse herself in the community.

“(The center) has grown from the roots of the community here,” González Mariscal said. “My goal is to put it more on the national and international stage. The center’s name has (the word) ‘national’ in it, and we need to create relationships with places around the United States and abroad.”

The NHCC was closed for six months during the pandemic, which meant the 500-plus events held annually were canceled. The staff pivoted to an online platform, offering its regular education programs.

A visitor could take a virtual trip through the art museum or listen to one of the many historical podcasts available at nhccnm.org.

The NHCC’s latest exhibit, “¡Mira! Nuestra Arquitectura: An Architectural Journey” – an architectural history of NHCC’s past, present and future – will be displayed in the Bosque Gallery, which is an outdoor exhibition space, as part of its 20th anniversary celebration. While the center itself will be closed due to the governor’s updated health order, this new open-air gallery will be accessible free to the public. It consists of 31 panels, mounted on 730 feet of fencing along the western border of the NHCC campus, facing the Paseo del Bosque Trail. It chronicles the creation of the NHCC through text, sketch drawings, blueprints, maps and photographs, exploring Hispanic culture and heritage as expressed through the buildings and landscape found throughout the NHCC.

Estevan Rael-Gálvez was appointed executive director by then-Gov. Bill Richardson. He held the position from 2009-11.

Estevan Rael-Gálvez

He is proud that New Mexico has led this effort and now boasts the largest cultural center in the U.S. focused on this unique and deeply complex community.

“I always recognized the power of the center in the metaphor of concentric and radiating circles. There it sits at a crossroads in the centuries-old neighborhood of Barelas, on a street named for the 20th century Chicano leader, César Chávez, in Albuquerque, along the flow of the Rio Grande and the Camino Real connecting it to the ancient flow of people connecting it profoundly to Mexico and beyond,” Rael-Gálvez said. “It is set within a magnificent and sovereign landscape, where the convergence of Indigenous cultures have long been and continue to be meaningful. It is a crossroads of what it means to belong over time to multiple nations, including, now, the United States.”

Eduardo Diaz

Eduardo Díaz spent three years as executive director from 2005-08.

During his tenure, Díaz was able to get a statewide outreach program rolling.

“We were taking our (education) programs to the communities,” Díaz said. “We were met with a really great response. This gave the center the opportunity to plant some roots in each community. It’s one of the best ideas I had while I was there. We had an opportunity to solidify the center’s place in the New Mexico community.”

Díaz wanted the center to focus on serving the people of New Mexico.

“Having the NHCC is a great thing for Albuquerque,” Díaz said. “It’s important to have Latino serving institutions active in the communities where the Latino population is much greater and has been there longer. The state is lucky to have it because it gives a voice to the Latino community.”

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