El Centro Cultural de Someplace Else

Frida fighters: Yenni Diaz, Carolina Sarmiento and Benjamin Vasquez of El Centro Cultural de Mexico
John Gilhooley

On June 28, the chairs formed a wider circle than usual at El Centro Cultural de México's Tuesday-evening volunteer meeting. The Santa Ana-based organization had invited the community to join it in response to news, broken by the Weekly, that property owners Broadway Improvement Co. Inc. sent El Centro a 30-day notice on June 9 to vacate the space it was renting on the second floor of the Knights of Pythias building on the corner of West Fifth Street and Broadway.

With little more than two weeks left before everything had to be cleared out, one might have expected a tense, apprehensive mood. But an organized, highly participatory, bilingual two-hour meeting ensued, threading through an emergency agenda with a sense of calmness.

About 50 people associated with El Centro were gathered. They were artists, activists and other concerned parties, multigenerational and multiracial, but mostly young, immigrant and Mexican—a microcosm of Santa Ana. The meeting began with everyone seated introducing themselves and summing up with one word what El Centro has meant to them: "comunidad," "culture," "family."

One of the two women guiding the meeting, volunteer Roxana Bernal, translated from Spanish into English—stopping several times in laughter after repeated in Spanish what was just said in Spanish. After about an hour, participants broke into subcommittees to discuss the possibilities surrounding the impending move, the remote chance of somehow staying and ways to fund-raise for whatever comes next, including utilizing PayPal, hosting cumbia nights and asking for donations at an upcoming fandango with son jarocho house band Son del Centro. They mulled over long- and short-term options for the 23 free classes offered by the organization. Several people stated that the long-term goal of the nonprofit is owning its own building.

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Jose Luis Gallo of La Causa Films recorded testimonials from several speakers in an adjacent room. With hanging jaranas as the backdrop, Crystal Gonzalez told the camera, "El Centro is a space where people live out their dreams. People interact here with a lot of love and an open heart. Usually, when people come here, they feel welcomed. They feel at home."

There is some political will within city government to help the nonprofit, according to Councilman Vince Sarmiento. "[El Centro does] a lot of good work that is a benefit to downtown and the city as a whole," he says. "I've directed our staff to help El Centro's staff to look into a couple of different properties held by the landlords and view the sites in downtown."

From the onset, El Centro has framed its predicament in the context of gentrification in Santa Ana, noting that in the past five years in its location, the group has never missed a payment. At a morning meeting on July 6 with longtime Latino advocacy group Los Amigos of Orange County, a new committee was formed to address the situation. "We've been trying to get the word out," says Gabriela Gonzalez, who was asked to chair that committee.

A business owner in what was formerly known as Fiesta Marketplace (it has been renamed East End Promenade) spoke of the changes occurring in downtown and how Irving Chase­—who owns many of the buildings on Fourth Street central to charges of gentrification voiced by small, mostly Latino businesses and community activists—was demanding the product lines of certain stores conform.

According to a story published on the news website Voice of OC, while Chase doesn't have a formal role in Broadway Improvement Co., he is related: Allan Fainbarg, a substantial stakeholder in the company, is his father-in-law. Chase's son Ryan told the site he suggested to his father that the cultural center be moved into the East End Promenade—though that option was never seriously discussed at the volunteer meeting at El Centro.

Though Irving Chase has said he didn't have any part in the decision to issue the 30-day notice to El Centro, he did describe the group's space to The Orange County Register as being in "bad shape" and even "a disaster," citing graffiti in the hallways, bathrooms and elevator—all communal spaces between the east- and west-wing tenants of the Knights of Pythias building's second floor.

El Centro board member Carolina Sarmiento (no relation to the councilman) characterized Chase's comments as unfair. "The focus is placed on the pretext of 'orderliness,' 'criminality' and other unfounded accusations made that is ultimately leading to the unjust displacement of an entire community center," she says. "El Centro has invested a lot of its money upgrading the space, from the rolls of toilet paper to every time we've given the walls of the hallway a fresh coat of paint."

After receiving the notice to vacate, the organization felt it wasn't given enough time and petitioned property manager Diane E. Dixon. "The board asked her for an extension of another 30 days' time," Sarmiento says. "She communicated back to us that our request was denied."

But the day after the June 28 meeting, El Centro received a 60-day extension from Broadway Improvement. "We decided it the prudent thing to do in order for them to find another space," the company declared in a statement provided to the Weekly.

Those extra days are not good enough for the nonprofit's supporters. "El Centro is an organization that has zero administration-salary budget, and all of our programs are headed by volunteers on a weekly basis," says volunteer Benjamín Vázquez, who is also a Santa Ana Unified School District teacher. "It does more with less than any other nonprofit in Santa Ana. A 60-day extension would not be considered a victory for us. We, as volunteers of El Centro and Santa Ana, feel the city can do much more to find a permanent place."

The new date for El Centro Cultural de Mexico to vacate is Sept. 14, just two days shy of Mexican Independence Day, when the city of Santa Ana will be holding its annual "Fiestas Patrias" weekend street festival. "I think an extension was the decent thing to do by the Broadway Improvement Co.," Vázquez says, adding, "In the end, we are still without a space on Sept. 15."

Portions of this story previously appeared on Heard Mentality, the Weekly's music, arts and culture blog.


This article appeared in print as "El Centro Cultural de Someplace Else: The nonprofit community center got a last-minute extension, but supporters are still crying 'gentrification.'"

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