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          Front Page

Tuesday, October 17, 2000

'A Community Came Alive'

By Anthony DellaFlora
Journal Staff Writer
    Long before the National Hispanic Cultural Center was even a concept, the seeds were incubating everywhere in a German prisoner-of-war camp, in New Mexico classrooms and in the hearts of Hispanic artists and musicians.
    It was, in fact, this convergence of individual and collective experiences that created the conviction and drive necessary to plan and build the center.
    For Edward Lujan, chairman of the cultural center's board of directors, the spur was the experience of being discouraged from speaking Spanish, his first language, in school.
    "It became, unfortunately, kind of a stigma on being able to speak Spanish and have an accent," Lujan said.
    For Lujan's generation of parents the priority became English, and children could learn Spanish later.
    "What happened is by the time they learned English, and we tried to teach them Spanish, they didn't need it," he said. "The pitiful part is now that my grandchildren can't even understand (Spanish), because my children don't speak it at all."
    Lujan believes language is one of the integral parts of a culture, along with food and music.
    "If you lose any one of those, you've lost a lot of your culture," Lujan said, adding he has always regretted not teaching his children Spanish first.
    "I feel very guilty. It wasn't done with malice. But I made a mistake," he said.
    "We all went through that experience ... in school," said Edward Romero, current U.S. ambassador to Spain and a co-founder of the Hispanic Culture Foundation.
    "They would ask us to speak American, and American, of course, was English, and those of us that had generations and centuries of being ... what we thought was an important part of American heritage were being told that we weren't," Romero said.
    "I think that's one of the reasons why something like this is so important."
    The late Arturo Ortega was the other co-founder of the Hispanic Culture Foundation, an organization formed in 1983.
    Ortega's son, Daniel, said there were many reasons his father wanted to preserve Hispanic culture, but a key one may have occurred during World War II.
    The senior Ortega became a German prisoner of war in 1943 after his B-17 was shot down.
    While in the prison library, Ortega, whose first language was Spanish, discovered a Spanish newspaper published for farm workers sent by Gen. Francisco Franco to Germany to aid the war effort of the Axis.
    He concocted a plan with an Anglo officer from San Antonio to pose as Spanish farm workers should they escape.
    Two years later, Ortega said, the opportunity came during a forced march.
    Using Spanish and German he had learned in college, the elder Ortega and his partner successfully made their way across the German countryside to the American lines.
    "The importance of bilingualism or multilingualism and the importance of being bicultural or multicultural really was seared into my father's character," Ortega said.
    Artist Bernadette Rodriguez said the inspiration for a center hit upon her return to Albuquerque in 1979 after a year in Mexico City.
    "I brought back crates of paintings and drawings with me, and my father said 'My God, you need a place to display these. There's nothing here in Albuquerque,' '' Rodriguez recalled. "I remember driving down Central looking in storefronts with him for a place."
    At the time there were few opportunities for Hispanic artists in New Mexico, Rodriguez said.
    "Across the board, everyone had their horror stories. 'Well, I didn't get in. I think it's because of this.' 'They didn't call me back after my audition, I think it's because of that my last name, or the way I look or the way I speak English,' '' Rodriguez said. "We all felt that."
    It was through the efforts of Rodriguez, Francisco LeFebre and other Hispanic artists that the movement toward creating a cultural center began to become concrete in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
    "There were three or four different waves of movement for the cultural center," said Linda Valencia Martinez, who served on a cultural center advisory committee under Mayor Ken Schultz.
    "The first wave was really the artists. It was their dream and vision to have something like a cultural center, and these were the real movers."
    From there, leaders in such entities as the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce, the Hispanic Culture Foundation, the state Office of Cultural Affairs, the state Legislature and the city of Albuquerque moved the dream to reality.
    "There was lots and lots of help. I think the story has to be that it wasn't any one (person)," Lujan said. "To me, the story is a community came alive. Obviously there are lots of people who took on the cause, but they took it on because there were a lot of people talking about it, there were a lot of people working on it, there was a lot of moral support for doing it. You weren't out there just by yourself."
    Said Loretta Armenta, a current center board member who helped revive the movement in the early 1990s, "It became the one vehicle that we could all work on collectively to be able to bring together some of the wonderful contributions that had been made in New Mexico over many hundreds of years, and to be able not only to showcase it, but to preserve it."