Tuesday, October 17, 2000
Determination Turned Dream into Reality
By Anthony DellaFlora and Wren Propp
Journal Staff Writers
A recitation of the groups and individuals responsible for the creation of the National Hispanic Cultural Center from inception to completion could go on like an acceptance speech at the Academy Awards.
It took efforts ranging from grassroots organizing by the arts community to political dealing at the highest levels of government to accomplish the feat.
The one belief uniting everyone was that the center was absolutely necessary to preserve the legacy of Hispanic art and culture.
By most accounts, the movement to get a cultural center began to coalesce in the late 1970s and early 1980s with a loosely knit group of local artists and musicians.
"Among the artists there was a great frustration that they actually did not have a showcase to be able to exhibit their art," said cultural center board member Loretta Armenta.
Artists Bernadette Rodriguez, Francisco LeFebre, Irene Oliver Lewis, and musicians Jesús "Chuy" Martinez and Lenore Armijo were some of the members of what eventually became El Centro Cultural de Nuevo México.
The group rallied local artists, pitched legislators and promoted the idea of a center.
"We didn't know that at the same time, (state Rep.) Al Otero was doing the same thing," Rodriguez said. The group joined forces with Otero in about 1985, and by 1986 the Barelas native was able to convince the state Legislature to authorize a feasibility study.
The following year the Legislature appropriated $74,000 for the study.
A parallel track of support for preserving Hispanic culture had also begun in the early 1980s in the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce, then under the leadership of Millie Santillanes.
The chamber and city of Albuquerque worked together to organize the annual Feria Artesana event as a way of promoting Hispanic artists and writers.
The chamber efforts led to the formation of the Hispanic Culture Foundation, founded in 1983 by attorney Arturo Ortega and businessman Edward Romero, said Edward Lujan, current center board chairman.
"I think we have a very unique history and ... I think a lot of people were wondering how this would be preserved, and Arturo took the bull by the horns and came up with the idea of the foundation," Romero said.
The foundation concentrated on raising money to promote Hispanic art and culture. Romero said building a center was not necessarily a priority, but the organization did keep Hispanic culture in the public eye and created the blueprint for the cultural center's programming. (In 1997, the foundation became the official fund-raising arm for the center.)
In 1988, Otero pushed a bill through the state Legislature for $200,000 to begin a site selection process. The city of Albuquerque matched the amount.
Lujan, a former state Republican Party chair, said Democrats and Republicans alike supported spending state taxpayers' money on the project, with Sen. Manny Aragon, D-Albuquerque, leading the charge.
"The reason for the center is that New Mexico is the mother of Hispanic culture," Lujan said. "That's where it belongs, and the Legislature saw that."
In 1989, state Sen. Michael Alarid of Albuquerque sponsored legislation for construction. The state Legislature approved $310,000. That same year, the Albuquerque City Council authorized a Hispanic Cultural Center Advisory Committee. Mayor Ken Schultz appointed the 11-member board.
Still, progress was slow.
"Nobody was listening to us, and it was very frustrating," said Linda Valencia Martinez, who chaired the advisory committee. "We didn't have a real political base, and that's what I was trying to work toward."
The committee dissolved in 1990. City Councilor Alan Armijo began trying to revive it in 1991. That same year, Mayor Louis Saavedra approached the Hispano Chamber of Commerce to lobby for the center.
"By 1991, it was a project of embers," said Armenta, who was hired by the chamber specifically to spearhead the effort. "It wasn't growing. It wasn't going anywhere."
The contract with the city was approved the following year, and Armenta went to work.
"I have to give credit to Loretta," Valencia Martinez said. "It was really Loretta that turned it around. I make no bones about saying that to people because she really was the catalyst."
Armenta met Ron Vigil, then deputy director of the state Office of Cultural Affairs. Vigil spoke to the chamber and convinced members that the best option would be to let the office oversee the center.
Momentum began building in the state Legislature. In 1993, Aragon got a bill passed creating the Hispanic Culture Division within the state office.
The division oversees the center.
That same year, state Sen. Martin Chávez introduced a bill seeking $1.5 million for design and land acquisition. The Legislature approved about $500,000.
Both measures were approved by then-Gov. Bruce King.
Later that year, Antoine Predock was chosen as architect for the center, and a programming committee was formed.
Initially the center was planned for a different location, one near Lomas and Interstate 25. But neighbors there weren't anxious to host the center or the new federal courthouse, which also was eyeing the site.
In 1994, Aragon and other Albuquerque legislators pushed for $38 million for construction. The legislature approved $12 million, but it proved to be the event that put the project over the hump.
The measure required that the center be built in southwest Albuquerque. Of four sites considered for the center, the only one in southwest Albuquerque was in Barelas.
With now-Mayor Chávez at the helm, the city agreed to donate 12 acres of city property, valued at $4 million to $6 million at Bridge and Fourth SW, which a study had determined as the best site.
King, running for re-election, disagreed with the $38 million appropriation. Still a supporter of the center and its price tag, King wanted the center to take smaller bites from state funds over a longer time, a spokesman said at the time.
Ultimately in 1994, the Legislature approved and King signed a $12 million appropriation for the center's land purchase and construction in Barelas. In September 1994, King appointed 14 members of a 15-member board to oversee the center.
But King lost his re-election bid to newcomer Gary Johnson, a Republican, in November. The going got steeper in 1995 when Johnson announced he would not support the center and would turn over responsibility for it to the city.
The Legislature grew tense early in 1995's 60-day session as the new Republican governor took office above a House and Senate controlled by a Democratic majority.
Johnson inadvertently entered a legislative fray over perceived racism when a comment the governor made about young people and crime was taken by some as a slam against Hispanic lowriders.
Some of the tension swirled around Aragon's 1995 appropriation proposal of $18 million for the center's construction.
"There were serious battles, questions like 'Why do we need the Hispanic Cultural Center?' '' Aragon said recently.
But after meeting with representatives of the Hispano Chamber of Commerce and the Hispanic Culture Foundation, including Lujan, Johnson relented. He eventually approved $3 million appropriated by the Legislature and reappointed a new board.
About this time, the project was garnering extreme interest from the state's congressional delegation. At a Hispanic Culture Foundation gala in 1996, Sen. Pete Domenici pledged to get federal funds for the center.
"When Pete got up, he said that this really needed to be the national center and there should be some federal dollars in there," recalled Lujan.
Domenici and Sen. Jeff Bingaman worked both sides of the aisle and by December 1997, they'd convinced Congress and President Clinton to authorize $17.8 million for construction.
To date, more than $13 million has actually been appropriated.
A few other appropriations for land acquisition and construction dribbled out of the Legislature and the governor's office between 1996 and 2000. By 2000, state appropriations were up to $18 million.
In 1997 the Legislature approved a measure, which Johnson signed, to give the New Mexico Hispanic Cultural Center a name change. They dropped "New Mexico" from the front and added "National."
Lujan said Johnson takes a "bum rap" when critics characterize him as against the center.
Asked how he convinced the governor to change his mind, Lujan said he and other board members explained the center's genesis.
In 1998, the Hispanic Culture Foundation launched a $20 million fund-raising drive to supplement construction funds and create a $10 million endowment.
By February 1999, groundbreaking had begun.
"I was by the cultural center the other day," said Armenta. "I sort of got this lump in my throat, and I just looked back to the early '90s and I thought, who would have ever thought that people coming together could make something so wonderful like that happen?"
Following the 2000 special legislative session, Johnson signed off on a list of general obligation bonds for voters' approval on Nov. 7. The list includes $2.3 million in general obligation bonds for land purchase and parking for the center.
Supporters will be coming back to the Legislature during the 2001 legislative session, which begins in January, for more construction funds, Lujan said.
But first he wants New Mexico, including legislators, to get a good, long look at the center, which he described as "not just for Hispanics."
Almost $20 million is needed to complete it, he said. Lujan was not willing to say how much supporters will ask for.
"I usually go for the moon, but we haven't decided yet," he said.