El Paso's heritage center on hold


In November of 2012, voters in the City of El Paso approved three Quality of Life bond proposals. That included $5.7 million for a cultural heritage center, celebrating our area's Mexican-American roots.

But a local group didn't think that was enough. A bond subcommittee wanted to raise an additional $20 million to build that center at the Abraham Chavez Theatre, as envisioned by this rendering. But that money never materialized and earlier this year, the city went back to square one.

"Staff was directed to go ahead and return back to the original budget," said Tracey Jerome, director of museums and cultural affairs with the City of El Paso. She said the Abraham Chavez Theatre idea is no longer under consideration.

"It would be irresponsible for us to move forward on a project that we don't have funding for,” Jerome said. “So we're going to work within the budget that we have and deliver a project of excellence for the community."

But when it comes to a heritage museum that works, perhaps El Paso can draw inspiration from its neighbor to the north. Specifically, the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque.

"The way that we attempt to achieve our mission is by presenting 700 events a year," said Rebecca Avitia, the executive director of the National Hispanic Cultural Center, which is spread out over several buildings on a 20-acre campus south of downtown Albuquerque.

"We present visual arts, theater, dance, music, culinary arts, history arts, literary arts," Avitia said.

The NHCC offers the traditional museum experience with galleries that focus on works celebrating Hispanic culture. There is a genealogy center and a research center. But it goes beyond that.

Avitia said leadership at the center made a conscious decision to focus on live performances, for a specific reason.

"Latinos tend to engage with culture primarily through performing arts first,” Avitia said. “We are an easy sell for a musical performance or a dance performance. Art museums have not traditionally been a place where Latinos feel comfortable. So having a performing arts center here at the National Hispanic Cultural Center really helps us."

And, so far, that philosophy is working. Over the past 17 years, the National Hispanic Cultural Center has become one of the best attended museums in the state of New Mexico. In fact, last year alone it attracted more than 280,000 visitors.

"We've dramatically grown, as well as our reach outside of Albuquerque,” Avitia said. “So about 13 percent of our visitors are coming from outside of Albuquerque."

And when it comes to helpful advice for the city of El Paso and its proposed cultural center, Avitia had this to say: "In a very real way, you have to be intentional about maintaining some of the traditionality of the strict world of museums. On the other hand, you have to be really aware that you are in many ways a bridge to those types of institutions for the population that you serve and are there to represent."

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