El Centro Cultural de México, the great downtown SanTana-based non-profit, is ready to mark a milestone. The longtime hub of activism and arts celebrates its 20th anniversary this Saturday at the UFCW Hall in Buena Park with a fundraising fiesta! Named 'Best Community Space' in the Weekly's 'Best Of' issue last year, El Centro started out in 1994 with a group of SanTana mothers wanting to pass down Mexican cultural traditions to their children only to be frustrated in the lack of accepting locations. "Sometimes to do a posada or something related to our culture became, in a certain way, a political act," says Socorro Sarmiento, a Centro volunteer and founding mother. "Certain people felt uncomfortable about us organizing around our traditions."
The group of mothers pressed on anyway, hoping to start a non-profit aimed at teaching culture and hosting events without having to deal with expensive permits from the city. Twenty years ago, they became official with a board of directors, but still had no place to call home. The mothers improvised in the time being.
"Very often we held classes and events in cafes, restaurants, the public library and Libreria Martinez," Sarmiento remembers.
El Centro finally found a spot to set up shop in 2002 on Main Street in SanTana just south of Edinger (that building is now a beauty salon). It quickly became a must-visit cultural spot, with its all-ages punk shows, art exhibits, lectures, film screenings and more. But as its history in the past decade shows, they bounced around more often than not. The building the non-profit rented from the Bowers Museum got razed in favor of more parking spaces. They found another spot closer to downtown at the historic Knights of Pythias building only to be unceremoniously booted out by SanTana's Lords of Gentrification in 2011.
Ever resilient, the Centro re-opened soon after at their current Santa Ana Veterans Hall location. Twenty classes free to the public keep the space humming daily, from son jarocho to ballet folklorico, danza azteca, hip-hop, cumbia, and more.
"We are really proud of the Centro because all the people that work here do it for free," Sarmiento says. "All the teachers, all the volunteers for the past twenty years have been working for free. Can you imagine?"
One cannot over-emphasize the importance of the Centro to progressive life in OC; its members hold key positions in everything from schools to labor, nonprofits to media. It birthed son jarocho savvy groups like Son del Centro in 2002 and built musical bridges between Mexico and SanTana. El Centro also plays an important function in being an alternative space for political expression and organization, churning out some of the county's best agitators. Volunteers are currently trying to create "Radio Santa Ana," a low-power FM station that's already streaming online on its website.
For those who claim the alternative space is "too fringe," the Centro helped revive Dia de Los Muertos in OC, humbly starting out with a few altars constructed in memory of the deceased before putting on the grandest festival celebration in all the county. "Now we have 40,000 people visiting our Noche de Altares event every November," Sarmiento says.
Looking back, there's plenty of accomplishments to celebrate these past twenty years–far too many to honor here. "We are inviting everybody to support the Centro," Sarmiento says of Saturday's event. One thing still eludes the non-profit; a permanent place to call home. Volunteers have their eyes set on finally owning their own building in the future.
"A community that feels comfortable with its identity and its culture, is going to be a healthier community, not just for Mexicans, but for everybody," Sarmiento concludes. "If we could have a space that is self-sufficient, it will allow the Centro to grow in new and unimaginable ways."
El Centro Cultural de Mexico celebrates its 20th anniversary at the banquet hall of UCFW 324, 8530 Stanton Ave. Buena Park, Sat., 6 p.m. – midnight. $10
Follow Gabriel San Román on Twitter @gsanroman2