Tracking the MACC
A Brief History of Austin's Latino Cultural Center
photograph by John Anderson
1978 was a tense time for Chicanos in Austin. El movimiento, which had provided a sense of identity and pride in Mexican-Americans, had crested. In East Austin, things were stirring and one thing that annoyed a lot of people was the Austin Aqua Festival ó or, more specifically, the boat races held in conjunction with Aqua Fest. Held on east Town Lake from I-35 to the Holly Street power plant, the races drew big boats, large crowds, and loud music to Eastside neighborhoods, irritating residents there and leading to confrontations between them and the racers. It was a tense time, yet out of this tension was born a vision for East Austin, one which included a home for Latino culture and all the beauty that it represents, the Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC).
For 20 years, the vision of the MACC has struggled to stay in focus through heated battles over funding, organizations disbanding, and an ever-changing roster of players involved in bringing it to reality. Now, 1998 appears to be the year the persistence of that struggle bears fruit. A new level of cooperation among MACC advocates has at last established a presence on the MACC site and is bringing before Austin voters ó for a second time ó the chance to fund the MACC through a bond proposal. With the MACC closer than ever to being realized, this seems a good time to review its long, hard history and the passion that has kept it alive.
In 1978, Hortencia Palomares and other East Austin activists petitioned City Council to get Aqua Fest out of their neighborhood. Their stand against the boat races was the beginning: "They would close up the neighborhood and all these people. Mostly gringos who had boats would come for Aqua Fest. The barrio people were totally disregarded; people would park anywhere, even in private properties, trample it, make a big mess, and a lot of people were drunk, of course, and they would pee in people's yards. There weren't a lot of Mexicanos going to see the races.
"So I was in a committee that wrote a proposal to City Council and said, 'We want this to be taken away. But we also want this to be taking place here.' We wanted to replace something negative ó the boat races ó with something positive, such as picnic tables, barbecue pits, 500 trees, etc. The area wasn't developed because it was used for Aqua Fest. It was just dry and bare, pelón.
"And the thing that tied it all together was that we wanted a Mexican American cultural arts center. Well, they granted us $60,000 for improvements on east Town Lake, but we also wanted to develop Fiesta Gardens. Our thing was not just a cultural arts center; it was a whole neighborhood plan for the neighborhood to control. LUChA (League of United Chicano Artists) began playing a crucial role, taking a lead role in developing the art part of the plan."
But by 1986 the cultural center still hadn't been built. Juarez Lincoln Center, which at one time housed LUChA and a college for Mexican American studies at I-35 and what is now Cesar Chavez Street, had been torn down ó the first hit of the wrecking ball landing between the eyes of a woman holding the four elements in Raul Valdez's famous mural. And LUChA itself was besieged with problems ó internal fighting, allegations of misuse of funds, power struggles ó all of which led to friendships being severed and business alliances being broken, and, sometime later, to the eventual demise of one of Austin's first Latino arts organizations.
Still determined to get the center established, LUChA and the East Town Lake Concilio went before City Council requesting that the MACC be built at Fiesta Gardens. As a result, a Task Force was appointed to guide the project. Palomares was on that first Task Force, and she remembers when it began to deviate from the original plan the neighborhood had envisioned.
"The director of PARD was very supportive and he said, 'Why don't you go for it all, go big, go for bond money?'" Palomares recalls. "When he said that, that's when everybody opened their eyes and jumped into the project. That's when a lot of the break came between everybody. Others said we don't want just LUChA to have it; we don't want them to control it. It took a different direction from what the neighborhood wanted. I dropped out."
About that time, the MACC came under the direction of the city's Parks and Recreation Department, with Carlos Pineda, Art School Director at the Dougherty Arts Center, as project manager. Given the friction among the various MACC factions and the fact that almost a decade had passed without serious progress on the MACC, it's easy to imagine proponents giving up on it. But Pineda remembers, "There was a lot of support in continuing the project," and he offers a compelling explanation why.
"I'm 59 years old, and when I was in school there were very few individuals, male or female, that we could identify with ó whether it was in history or the arts or anything else. We had no face, no identity, not even locally. Basically, it was like you didn't exist. You're not in the history books; forget anything about the Mexican Azteca being in there except when Cortez walked into Mexico City.
"The center would allow aspiring Chicano artists to exhibit their art, have a museum, educational components, rehearsal space" and that would be enormously important to Austin's Latino community, he notes. "One, it would give us a face ó 'We do belong here' ó and two, [it would provide inspiration] ó 'Oh, other people came from where I came from and they're Latinos and Mexicans and they did this and this. Well, I've always wanted to do this. If they could do what they accomplished, I could do what I want to accomplish.'"
A turning point for the MACC came in 1988 when City Council approved funding for a feasibility study to determine the location, architectural design, organizational structure, and programming for the center. After examining more than 100 potential sites in Austin, the study settled on 600 River Street as the center site. It met the criteria established by the Task Force, who felt that in order to generate revenue, a facility centrally located would be better than a neighborhood site. The River Street facility, consists of almost six acres of land where Waller Creek empties into Town Lake.
Today, that location may appear valuable, but 10 years ago, the site had little to recommend it. It was the city's garage, home of the Fleet Maintenance Department, carved out of a barrio, the Rainey Street neighborhood, and not looked at too closely by developers. And nobody was much interested in Waller Creek, which showed the effects of almost a century of abuse and neglect. Still, after more than10 years of waiting, it was a home for the MACC.
Unfortunately, just as the center made this great move ahead, changes in membership on both the MACC Task Force and the City Council caused the MACC to be shelved again for a while. Yet through it all, the East Austin community maintained a grassroots effort to get the facility built. Cathy Vargas-Revilla, publisher of La Prensa, has been on the MACC Task Force for several years and part of that grassroots effort: "What we're about is building our own facility. We're not about programming, who the curator will be, and so on. We're about providing a facility for our artists and our community. There wasn't always agreement about where it should be, but there was agreement that we didn't have anyplace to hang our head. We didn't have a place to be and certainly there wasn't an outreach from the majors to include us or to support our artists."
Vargas-Revilla was instrumental in the next significant event in the history of the MACC: the vote to fund the center with bond money in 1992. She recalls, "I was on the planning commission and got the MACC put on the 1992 bond election. It was item #12, asking for $10 million to fund brick and mortar for the MACC and Carver Museum. Well, bond item #12 was the only thing that failed in an election that approved millions of dollars for city projects."
The failure of that one item was the last straw for some MACC supporters. "That's when the art wars erupted," says Vargas-Revilla. "There was this question of equitable funding for ethnic minorities' arts organizations." In the fallout from the cultural conflict, some members of the arts community proposed linking the Carver and the MACC with the Laguna Gloria Art Museum under its new name, the Austin Museum of Art. "They told us that together we would move the arts forward and Laguna Gloria would become multicultural and all that nice stuff. I want to feel that they're sincere in their commitment to maintain a Hispanic presence, and I hope they do that. [But] in 1996, I resigned from [the board of] Laguna Gloria and said, 'Good luck, but you're not helping me build a center for our people.'"
During the period after the bond election, Vargas-Revilla also began to sense a shift in value in the River Street property. "I felt there were designs on the land by downtown developers, and I had proof of that. So we applied for a resolution that by ordinance, the MACC site be reserved in perpetuity. That's ours now. We started with 'Give us money to build a museum with $10 million.' That didn't happen. 'Okay, give us the key just to get in so we can plan and make sure you don't give that to anybody else because we don't want to go anywhere else.'"
With each passing year, that protection of the MACC site has become more and more important for the project. "When they do the Waller Creek tunnel," says Vargas-Revilla, "there will be a walkway from the convention center to Town Lake. That's why now it's premium property. Why should we give it up and let them build condominiums or a hotel? We have spent sweat, blood, and tears just holding onto that land. I'm sure the city would say, 'Hey, we'll give you another piece of land.' They've tried to do that all along the way. If we don't hold onto that land, we won't be part of it, and if we do hold onto that land, we'll be able to attract the visitors, the donors, the audience we need to have a successful center. It doesn't do any good to have a jewel if nobody comes to see it."
Sylvia Orozco was an original member of the first MACC Task Force and, after an absence of a few years, is back on it now. She was very active in LUChA and, in 1984, founded Mexic-Arte Museum, which has established a strong presence in the arts community with its varied and multi-genre programming. "I was in Mexico for five years and learned about the Mexican art movement," says Orozco. "I would say I'm going back to Austin and want to take this with me. I wanted to bring that richness of culture like Dia de los Muertos. Mexico City alone has 600 museums and the government supports them. They have very little private funding. Those are my role models, their museums."
"I started working with LUChA and, because they were going through transition, it was very difficult. So we started Mexic-Arte. There has been a real strong network of artists that helped with their work or volunteered because we didn't have resources. What we have ó not just Mexic-Arte but all the art groups ó is because of the artists. For the last 20 years, they have been determined to preserve something. That's why we've been able to survive all these years in warehouses, in buildings not for art, in storefronts, in restaurants, in little spaces here and there in all kinds of conditions.
"There are some things that can't be done [at Mexic-Arte]; they could be done at the lake property. Well, the Austin Museum has a lake property at Laguna Gloria, and then they have downtown. We're following that excellent example. The relationship (between the MACC and Mexic-Arte) is growing, and I think that we are going to be complementing each other. We're interested in the museum component of the MACC. We're also interested in the art school programming at the MACC because we can't do it downtown; we don't have enough space."
A longtime supporter of the Latino arts in Austin, Mayor Pro Tem Gus Garcia has provided critical support for the MACC by putting it on this September's bond package. "By ordinance, we dedicated the River Street tract of land [for the MACC] in perpetuity. Now, as a result of the May 2 election, the issues are different. The election puts the tunnel in, removes a lot of properties, opens up the potential for redevelopment all along Waller Creek. The idea is to restore Waller to some semblance of what it was, to preserve the natural areas and enhance it. All this has everybody thinking, What are we going to do with all this land? Some people have come and talked about, 'Well, maybe we ought to move the MACC from there and put it at Palm Park.' The Council is still committed to doing the MACC at that site.
"We need to pass the bond y eso va estar pesado. We got turned down the last time. The 1992 elections had a different configuration. First, we were coming out of a recession; Austin was not flexing its economic muscles like it is today. Now, there are folks in the private sector that are interested in how they can help develop the minority communities because they rely heavily on those communities for a workforce. Now, everybody is saying what can we do to make this city greater.
"The other thing is the campaign for 1992 was structured wrong: [The MACC supporters] did a coalition with S.O.S. [Save Our Springs]. A lot of Hispanics felt betrayed. 'We supported S.O.S., but you all didn't support the MACC.' There was so much anger.
"What is very encouraging for me is that the Latino Arts Consortium of Austin (LACA) has come together. They argue amongst each other but now the meetings end without fistfights. They used to end in fistfights."
"The MACC is not a home for everybody. It's a stage for everybody, for individual artists to small groups. We already have a commitment to making it almost rent-free. When you talk about the larger groups and the 501(c)(3)s, we're going market rate. We can't give it away because nobody is giving us $450,000. We need $450,000 annually just to maintain the site. It's not city-funded at all."
"But the MACC is moving right on course. You have the city manager, the councilmembers, the CMACA (Center for Mexican-American Cultural Arts, the nonprofit organization created to run the MACC), all these people coming together and spending time on this project. This has never happened before. The city is working on preparing a bond package for September 26. We're going to be on that package for $10.9 million, and the mayor has actually come out and said the MACC is a priority project of this city.
"There is a wealth of Latino arts that are so underrepresented. We don't have our own stage here in town right now. Try to get Paramount or the Bass Concert Hall or Palmer on a weekend. Those already belong to the white folks. That's why we have our major events on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday nights. We have to conform to the white man and what he gives us. So we're going to have two performance stages and an outdoor amphitheatre floating on the lake! And we're going to actively encourage the Latino community to program out of the MACC and create seasons that CMACA can market. For example, we can invite a musical group like Cenzontle to teach a class on Andean music.
"And we're going to be working with all the neighborhood associations, especially those in East Austin, so that they can understand and buy into the concept that we need to be downtown. I remember when Sixth and Congress had nothing but Mexican and black tienditas and shoe stores, the Green Spot. I look at Sixth Street, and I see how the doors to the Latino community have been shut. That's why it's important for Mexic-Arte to stay on Congress and it's important for us to be on Town Lake. We need our presence downtown."
So what if the bond doesn't pass? "That's not an option," states Salinas clearly.
In December 1997, LACA and several minority arts organizations joined together to present the traditional Latino Christmas play La Pastorela at the MACC in an effort to establish a presence at the site. They say the city actively discouraged them from producing the show there. The groups persevered. They weren't given the okay for the event until two days before it happened.
In February of this year, after almost 20 years, the MACC finally opened an office on the site. Actor, writer, and LACA Coordinator Tomas Salas works part-time for LACA out of the MACC office in exchange for volunteering for the MACC. He knows how much still must be done before the MACC vision is realized, but he isn't worried. "There is a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done," he says. But "we'll still build whether or not the bond passes. I think the city is worried that if it doesn't pass, nothing will happen. But they don't know us. They don't know that we are used to working with nothing and we can make something out of nothing. We proved that with the Pastorela and with our other projects where we have a fraction of the budget of the Lyric Opera. They put on two or three productions a year, and the budget is over a million dollars a year. Zachary Scott, it's the same thing. They keep doing the same thing over and over with thousands of dollars, and here we are with pennies. And the projects we create are competitive with their projects."
"I think that the city needs to realize that we're going to turn this into a corporate center whether it's with a big chunk of money or whether it's with our blood, sweat, and tears."
There is no doubt that the MACC will change ó hopefully for the better ó the Rainey Street neighborhood in which it is located, the last vestige of a Hispanic neighborhood that once went all the way up to Sixth and Congress. A mercado was once where the police station is now. Now bound by I-35, Cesar Chavez Street, River Street, and Town Lake, the area is a mixture of plywood homes and high-rise condominiums.
Ironically, as it strives to preserve something for the Hispanic community, the MACC, along with the Waller Creek project, will be hastening progress of the area. Developers have already purchased the empty lots next to the MACC, anticipating joint use ventures.
The MACC sits on one of the most prime locations in the city, within walking distance to the convention center, hotels, and the vibrancy of Sixth Street. Unlike the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, which, while very successful with its Latino arts programming, is located in the midst of projects and concrete, the MACC is virtually surrounded by intense greenery and the wonderful river at its door.
It seems almost like an omen that the MACC is becoming reality on the eve of a new millennium; it's as if it was waiting for the right time to happen. Now it stands poised to showcase Latino culture and all the beauty that it represents en el mero corazon, in the heart of the city. The MACC is a jewel ó so let it take its place in the center of the City of the Violet Crown.