“Are you waiting for me?” Jorge Holguín jokes in Spanish as he shows up late to a son jarocho class at El Centro Cultural de México in downtown Santa Ana.
“Yes, and only you!” instructor Roxana Guajardo says with a wide smile and a laugh. But she’s also serious—there’s some last-minute packing to do. It’s moving day for the nonprofit, and its current space must be left immaculate. Volunteers have whitewashed walls that once featured El Centro’s guiding principles: “Community Solidarity, Participatory Democracy, Social Imagination and Individual Responsibility.” Gone, too, is the mural of an indigenous revolutionary woman overlooking santaneros marching under a banner that proclaims, “Otro mundo es possible!” (“Another world is possible!”).
The music class takes a break to help vacate the premises. Holguín and other men head down to the basement before coming back up its narrow steps with a huge bookcase. “Centro belongs to those who work for it,” they crack between winded breaths, repeating another Centro slogan. Outside, a black trailer groans with giant calavera paintings used every November for Noche de Altares, the Centro-organized Day of the Dead festival that’s one of the largest in the U.S.
Life on the move has been part of El Centro’s narrative since it started in 1994, the year Proposition 187 whipped up xenophobia in California and Zapatista rebels in Mexico captured the Left’s imagination worldwide. It has wandered from building to building across Santa Ana, evicted for hosting punk shows, or to make room for more parking, or for daring to take on downtown gentrification.
Perhaps because of this struggle, El Centro has survived and created a cultural hub unlike any in Orange County. It offers classes on everything from baile folklorico to danza Azteca and hosts film nights and lectures. El Centro has served as Orange County’s own version of the Highlander Folk School, the legendary academy that trained Rosa Parks, John Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr., and other civil-rights luminaries. An entire generation of local activists has gone through El Centro’s door, spreading its gospel of self-empowerment, community organizing and cultural pride through la naranja and beyond.
Now, El Centro is about to go big. Last year, it won a nearly million-dollar grant from the California Endowment that went toward buying a two-story building just up the street from the Central Justice Center. It couldn’t come at a more urgent moment, with President Donald Trump vowing mass deportations while degrading Mexican culture with every taco bowl tweet and insult.
“It’s a time to hold on to your roots,” says Luis Sarmiento, who helps to run El Centro’s community radio station and grew up in the org. “As things become more intense politically, it’s also an opportunity for community groups to come together to show that there are alternatives.”
But this moment of triumph comes at a fraught point in El Centro’s existence. New leftist groups and spaces are now popping up across Orange County, sapping El Centro’s longtime reliance on youth to provide passion and people power. Partnerships with more mainstream institutions, such as the Segerstrom Center for the Arts and the James Irvine Foundation, are drawing clucks from activists. And longtime volunteers now want nothing to do with it, arguing that in wanting to become bigger, El Centro has strayed from its radical roots.
“On paper, Centro says it was about certain principles,” says Angel Olin Juarez, a longtime volunteer who’s now one of its fiercest critics. “But in practice, it’s something different.”
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Socorro Sarmiento remembers the insult well. The Mexican immigrant earned her bachelor’s degree at the National School of Anthropology and History in Mexico City and worked at the Museum of Anthropology there for eight years, taking groups of students to Mesoamerican archeological sites. She constantly taught her three children—Carolina, Luis and Salvador Jr.—about their heritage. One day in the early 1990s, she decided to visit the Bowers Museum, which at the time exhibited Mayan artwork as part of its permanent collection.
Socorro wanted to take Santa Ana schoolchildren on guided tours through the exhibits as she had in Mexico. But museum staff didn’t see it that way. “With that smile they always give you, they said, ‘No, thank you. We’re not interested,'” she recalls. “I felt really isolated. My home was like my fortress, and my children were my students of all the things I wanted to share.”
Soon after, Socorro joined other mothers who knew one another and were interested in preserving Mexican traditions in el Norte. Over the next couple of months, they put on events at Libreria Martinez and the Mexican Consulate, including art lectures by Gregorio Luke on Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. The happenings were so successful that the mothers approached Santa Ana officials to help find them a permanent space—but bureaucrats scoffed at them. “They felt that Centro should include people from all nationalities and all cultures,” Socorro says. “But for us, it was important to give emphasis to the Mexican culture that was predominant here and not because we were against any other culture.”
So the mothers went back to the Sarmiento home in March 1994 with the intention of forming a nonprofit called La Casa de la Cultura de México. That name was already taken, so they instead chose El Centro Cultural de México and vowed to further their mission of highlighting Mexican culture through presentations and lectures. With no budget, the nascent Centro scheduled an ambitious calendar. It hosted the official band for the state of Zacatecas at Santa Ana High School to a packed auditorium and got involved with the city’s Mexican Independence Day celebration. Unpaid maestros also began hosting workshops in the basement of a dentist’s office in downtown Santa Ana. All the while, El Centro began to grow its volunteer base; those volunteers brought more classes and more opportunities. Reporters took notice of El Centro almost from the start—an Aug. 10, 1994, calendar blurb in the Orange County Register called the nonprofit’s First Contemporary Mexican Film Festival "an unusual cultural event.”
El Centro’s founding mothers presented Mexican culture with dignity. But Prop. 187, which sought to wipe California clear of undocumented immigrants (a population well-represented in El Centro’s target audience), gave their children a rude awakening that Mexicans and their culture weren’t exactly welcome in Orange County. And the Zapatista movement, which launched an armed revolution against the Mexican government on Jan. 1, 1994, captivated them. The EZLN’s communiques inspired activists in Los Angeles and OC to emulate their autonomous politics and open up community centers in Southern California.
"As mexicanas, the Centro mothers all had very strong opinions about Zapatismo,” says El Centro board member Carolina Sarmiento. She attended UCLA in the late 1990s and saw the rise of radical places such as Self-Help Graphics, Café Luna Sol, and Flor y Canto, where arts and politics fused together to create a new Chicano movement. "But as young people, we were all pumped.”
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Santa Ana is Orange County’s hub for nonprofits designed to help out Latino immigrants and their children. Latino Health Access has promotores encouraging residents to live healthier lives. City Councilman David Benavides serves as executive director of KidWorks, a group that offers after-school programs for at-risk youth. The city recently showered 15 nonprofits with more than $760,000 in federal grant money, proving how accepted they are in the social fabric of the city.
Carolina Sarmiento grew up dancing with Relámpago del Cielo, a Santa Ana nonprofit famous for its baile folklorico program. That background got her introduced to a Mexican music genre she hadn’t grown up with: son jarocho from Veracruz. "I was learning to play, mostly zapateado [stomping on a wooden plank called a tarima] with friends in LA,” Carolina says. But even more intriguing to her was how activist amigos began building an intercambio with musicians in Veracruz—networks that promoted transnational trade of thought and music to create self-sustaining communities.
Inspired by how she saw the intercambio change lives, Carolina convinced the Centro mothers to spend their $3,000 savings on buying jaranas, the trademark guitar of son jarocho, and to teach local workshops. The bet paid off: The Sarmientos hosted Orange County’s first son jarocho classes in 2001. From those workshops emerged Son del Centro, the nonprofit’s house band. They began getting paid performances, and their evocative music became aural proof to grant writers and city officials that El Centro could become something bigger.
The increased visibility got El Centro a $36,000 city grant in 2001, which allowed it to finally rent its own space, off Main Street and Edinger Avenue, in an area surrounded by body shops. “Our community had already grown, but the availability of the space made it take off,” says Luis, who was a student at Mater Dei at the time. Influenced by the Zapatista maxim of creating “a world where many worlds fit,” Carolina began pushing El Centro to host other community groups not necessarily centered on traditional Mexican art.
Every Tuesday at 7 p.m., in a tradition that continues to this day, El Centro volunteers gathered in a circle to discuss what events they wanted to host or partnerships they wanted to pursue. Outsiders were invited to ask for El Centro’s help or collaboration, and alliances quickly bloomed. Florida’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers organized a successful 2002 boycott against Taco Bell and its Irvine headquarters from the community center, even fronting for internet access. DIY punk legend Martin Sorrondeguy made El Centro an international hub of straight-edge music, allowing Santa Ana’s backyard Chicano punk scene to take root.
“The punk community would bring in groups from France and Japan,” Luis recalls. “They were always really good shows.”
Too good, actually: Complaints about loud noise got El Centro booted from the space in 2004. They quickly moved to a building by the Bowers Museum, albeit on borrowed time; the museum planned to demolish it in a year to make way for more parking.
El Centro found its next home at the historic Knights of Pythias Building in downtown Santa Ana. Volunteers readied it for the Feb. 4, 2006, grand opening, a packed, sweaty celebration featuring performances from all of El Centro’s free classes: Aztec dancers, son jarocho, baile folklorico, even cumbias. But the good times proved short-lived.
"Literally two weeks later, there were already problems happening,” says Gustavo Arellano, OC Weekly editor and then-El Centro board member. "The big issue was always these punk shows.” El Centro needed fundraisers and donations to make the rent. Punk shows drew young people from all over Southern California, but most of the board saw the raucous events as a liability. Directors quit over the issue during a tense meeting—even Socorro’s husband, OC Superior Court Judge Salvador Sarmiento. Only Carolina and Arellano stayed on.
"I just saw a lot of concern in a lot of faces of people,” Arellano says of the volunteer meeting that followed the mass resignation. "But everything ended up turning out all right. A new generation of people stepped up.”
After the split, El Centro volunteers took the Zapatista-inspired step of stripping any future board of directive powers, shifting decision-making over to the consensus-based volunteer meetings. "The big issue was that the way we were running things didn’t go according to our ideology,” Carolina says.
Observers and old board members predicted that El Centro would soon collapse under such an unorthodox style. Instead, it thrived. Activists strummed jaranas during pro-amnesty marches in Santa Ana. The space attracted more young people than ever before, ready to organize on all fronts, from immigration to police brutality to the arts. The Orange County DREAM Team (which helped undocumented college students), Un Mundo en Resistencia (murals), RAIZ (deportation-fighting youth group), Colectivo Tonantzin (organized to fight anti-Mexican policies in Costa Mesa), CopWatch Santa Ana (devoted to exposing police brutality), Breath of Fire Latina Theater (duh), and other groups plotted to transform Santa Ana and beyond from El Centro’s welcoming confines. It hosted Grrl Fair, Bombazo Fandango and other events over the years. A collaboration with Café Calacas turned the Day of the Dead festivities—originally held in the living room of the Sarmiento home—into a regional phenomenon, further promoting El Centro’s promise to the world.
"It blew up when we moved it over to Fourth Street in 2009, and people say it’s because of the Art Walk,” says Benjamin Vazquez, a Valley High School teacher who got involved with El Centro in 2006 and is currently a volunteer, "but the Art Walk never has 40,000 people on any other night.”
But the success of Noche de Altares created a problem for El Centro. Downtown Inc., a private nonprofit, was among the sponsors for the event in 2009 and 2010, at a time when gentrification of the city’s downtown became an issue for El Centro activists. Core organizers tried to convince volunteers that those funds were needed to grow the event, but El Centro declined any funds in 2011, leading to the departure of Café Calacas then-co-owner Jackie Cordova. "It was always an us-vs.-them situation,” Cordova says, referring to volunteers and organizers. She was handed a written letter that stated Downtown Inc.’s proposed $30,000 sponsorship would be rejected, without any discussion with her. "There was no partnership at that point.” (Cordova’s former husband eventually left as well; he helped to start a rival Día de los Muertos festival two years ago.)
And there were strained relations between El Centro and Irv Chase, who owned most of the buildings in downtown Santa Ana. In 2007, El Centro had convinced Chase to let the organization host an event at the Yost Theater, a longtime institution in Latino OC that Chase had rented out to an evangelical church for 25 years. The son jarocho concert drew nearly 1,000 people and media coverage from across Southern California—and convinced Chase to rent the Yost to professional promoters instead of El Centro. The bitterness lingered for years, exploding in the summer of 2011, when El Centro was evicted by Knights of Pythias owner Allan Fainbarg—Chase’s father-in-law. El Centro responded to the ousting by staging an anti-gentrification street-theater protest through downtown, with the Yost Theater as a stop. Activists carried a casket bearing the names of Latino businesses booted by gentrification. "This is our beautiful garden and culture,” Carolina announced to the hundreds of protesters. "This,” pointing to the Yost, "is trash.”
Homeless again, El Centro struggled to find a new home in downtown Santa Ana; volunteers claim local business owners and politicians bad-mouthed them. The group eventually signed a lease for a new spot in early 2012, promising to never again engage with downtown advocates.
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Ana Urzua steps away from the cramped quarters of her Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities cubicle to praise El Centro for changing her life. She casually looks up at the ceiling from time to time, as if in search of memories from the past 17 years. Urzua started taking music classes as a teen and later joined the Taco Bell boycott effort and played with Son del Centro.
Urzua’s first job out of college was with Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD), starting a trend among her generation of El Centro activists. "Later, as you grow and are looking for your livelihood, it was the decision of what kind of job [to do]ua says. Many El Centro activists she referred to OCCORD were hired; others joined nonprofits across the county or became teachers or worked for unions—an activist coaching tree with few peers in progressive OC.
Last year, Urzua ran for Santa Ana City Council, while Vazquez faced off with forever-mayor Miguel Pulido, signaling a new strategy. “The Centro way was to not go into the system,” Urzua says. But she was disgusted by an all-Latino City Council that seemed to want to push out the city’s poor Mexicans and usher in people with money. “I had a lot of people saying I’d lose my soul. I was very reluctant but felt it was a need.”
Two years ago, El Centro hosted a heated panel about the professionalization of nonprofits. Angel Olin Juarez, then a member of CopWatch Santa Ana, took the opportunity to blast the space that shaped him. The Santa Ana native first came to El Centro around 2001 when he performed with his Chicano punk group, Cuauhtemoc. He later took son jarocho classes and became a member of Son del Centro while volunteering on nearly a daily basis. Carolina credits him with creating the term santanero to describe someone from Santa Ana, a demonym now used citywide.
But by the time of the aforementioned panel, Olin had drifted away. In front of a shocked crowd, he criticized El Centro for veering from its professed Zapatismo. He maintains its cultural programs seduce youth into a “black hole” of nonprofit activism. “People shouldn’t mistake it for actually being a threat to a system that oppresses us,” he says.
Soon after, CopWatch Santa Ana left the Centro fold and began organizing meetings at Memorial Park. Then other activists departed, criticizing El Centro for becoming hierarchal, uninviting to youth, and too friendly with the city, a Delhi Center in the making.
In January, a youth activist wrote El Centro a 10-page letter, criticizing it for accepting a Wells Fargo grant for this month’s Día del Niño event, banning a hip-hop instructor for smoking weed, and straying from Zapatismo. “At this point,” she wrote, “Centro is damaging and ignoring folks, just like every system we are faced with in Santa Ana, the U.S. and the World.”
New spaces such as Mano Negra and Sanctuary Sound are bringing in Santa Ana youth with punk shows, hip-hop and open-mic nights.
“They’re always going to get young people taking classes,” says Marilynn Montaño, program director for Barrio Writers. “You have a lot of older folks that know all of Centro’s background, but at the same time, they’re holding on to all this power and aren’t passing it on to the youth.”
But the allure of El Centro remains. Born two years after its creation, Elizabeth Campos is a newcomer and true believer. For the 20-year-old volunteer, bringing back youth involvement begins with reviving the punk shows. “If no one else is willing to work on this cause, then I am,” she says. “I still feel it’s worthy.”
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Arches and palm trees at the front entrance frames El Centro’s new home, a two-story building with a Spanish-tile roof. Beneath a canopy toward the back, a side door leads to the future main performance space. Transforming the onetime labyrinthine law office into a vibrantly colored Mexican cultural center is going to take some time—three years in the optimistic estimate of Karen Sarabia, El Centro’s first full-time, paid general coordinator. (Her hiring was also controversial, as the board picked her over a longtime volunteer.)
Walls need to be knocked down, carpets have to be ripped out and wood floors installed, and a new indoor mural awaits. Aztec dance and ballet folklorico are currently taught in the parking lot. But Radio Santa Ana’s headquarters just got a fresh coat of paint and is about to go terrestrial. El Centro is finalizing a contract agreement to move Voice of OC into a spacious upstairs office by June. Community partners looking to become renters are vying for vacant space.
While El Centro faces criticism of becoming mainstream, long-timers promise its new status as building owners and landlords won’t tame their activism. Instead, they say, the move represents the culmination of a dream and the stability to plan even more ambitious projects: a research center, a library, a café. “The grant wants us to be the Centro Cultural de México that we’ve always been,” Vazquez says. “If we lose too many youth and too many radical voices, then I might get worried. But folks are still showing up to Centro that are good people.”
“The success of a space that has come to influence so extensively is a lesson for Santa Ana,” Urzua says. “Now, we’re at the table, politically.”
Volunteers hope setting up in a residential neighborhood dense with produce trucks, plus apartments, two elementary schools and an intermediate school will bring yet another wave of youth. “There’s just a lot of opportunity to serve a population that Centro has been trying to serve for a long time,” says Campos, who lives across the street.
Vazquez is planning a youth summer program with Resilience OC, alternately at El Centro and Jerome Park.
True to its core beliefs, El Centro is holding fundraisers to help one of its own: a volunteer and baile folklorico student who was recently detained by la migra.
With a grand-opening celebration in the works, those who have been there almost from the start promise having a mortgage won’t compromise El Centro’s soul. But the tension between its grassroots past and newfound professionalism is a delicate issue on the mind of everyone past and present.
“If Centro were to become a nonprofit just like any other out there,” says a former board member who requested anonymity, “that would be a tragedy.”