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Interview with Jennie E. Rodríguez, Executive Director of the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, San Francisco, CA, USA, August 15, 2001

Entretien avec Jennie E. Rodríguez, directrice, Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, San Francisco, CA, États-Unis
Gérard Selbach
p. 95-100

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1The Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts (MCCLA) is located at 2868 Mission Street in San Francisco, in a district mainly inhabited by Hispanics and well-known for its numerous murals. The Center was founded in 1977 by artists and community activists who shared “the vision to promote, preserve and develop the Latino cultural arts that reflect the living tradition and experiences of Chicano, Central and South American, and Caribbean people.”1

2August 2001 was as busy at the Center as any other months of the year with events such as two photography exhibitions (Manuel Peñafiel exhibited photographs of the last Zapatistas who fought with Zapata’s army, and Jeffrey Blackford showed photographs of the United Farm Workers’ struggle), a series of films connected with the photography exhibitions (The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers’ Struggle by Rick Tejada-Flores, Pancho Villa and Other Stories by Philip Rodriguez and The Last Zapatistas Forgotten Heroes by Francisco Taboada Tabone) and a dance and music show from Peru. Up to ten workshops per day (twenty on Saturdays) were providing activities for every taste from salsa, tango, flamenco and Brazilian dances to etching, sewing, drawing, painting, photography and multimedia arts.


Gérard Selbach (GS): When was this Center created and what is its mission?

Jennie E. Rodríguez (JR): The Mission Cultural Center was organized in 1977, that is almost 25 years ago, thanks to the efforts of the community activists and local artists who wanted to have an alternative to what San Francisco City was offering, essentially symphony, classical music and ballets. They did not have much chance for their works to be exhibited. Venues for their kind of works were rare, even non-existent. Their idea was to promote, exhibit and disseminate the Latino arts of the Chicanos (the majority was Mexican), Central and South Americans and Caribbean people. Latino arts cover the whole of America.

GS: I have also seen on a poster that this Center is home to Mision Grafica. What is it?

JR: It is an important activity of this Center: it offers printing facilities for posters and poster arts. It has the location for artists who master the technique. They come here, collaborate with other institutions, work for other organizations like Latino Coalition, the Galería de la Raza and Queer Latino Coalition. Lots of collaboration, and what is hand-made, not commercially produced. We offer the space, the machines and mixed-media classes. They have merged with La Raza Graphics, a commercial organization. We are now in the process of digitizing 4,000 posters and prints thanks to an NEA grant (National Endowment for the Arts). An archivist has been appointed to produce a catalog, document it and make it accessible to the Community. The posters concern the social and political events that happened in the community over the past twenty years. They also cover the Latino and Chicano Arts movement of SF and the Bay Area. The homelessness issue is one of the latest. The dot.comers came to this district and rents became so expensive (they went 200-300% up) that people had to move to other areas, to Oakland, to the other side of the Bay. So they are exhibiting posters in the street, on walls, on spaces where they are not supposed to, to have the most visibility. It is a kind of civil disobedience.

GS: You are some sort of multi-disciplinary organization.

JR:  Yes, we do visual art, performing art, theater. We also rent space or rooms for meetings when there is a social or housing problem, or a youth group to train. We make it accessible so that the community has a social locate. But the Center is also for cultural events.

GS: How many staff members do you have?

JR: Fourteen people in all. But we don’t have enough staff. There are an events coordinator, a gallery coordinator, a facilities coordinator. Fortunately we have lots of volunteers from the community. We also have a youth program coordinator who has to look after over 160 kids in the summer. They are taught Latin American dance, painting and computer graphics. There are six to eight art classes in cycles. We charge $35 for the four-week cycle while outside it is $125 a week, even here in the community. We wish we had more space so that we could serve more young people.

GS: So the demand is high.

JR: We cannot keep up with demand, not only because of the price, but mainly because parents do not want to let their children idle in the street. There are drug problems, etc.. Last year we started an after-school program. We were overwhelmed. We offer mask-making, art, dance combined with an artist-in-residence program through the Californian Arts Council that provides four classes in music.

GS: It seems that one of your important missions is educational.

JR: Indeed, part of our mission is to provide cultural, artistic and educational classes in Latino culture, to transmit that Latino heritage. On a seasonal basis, we bring in instructors depending on funded projects: ten in the summer and four for the music programs. We work with thirty independent instructors on a contractual basis: a six-month agreement to be renewed every semester. To make classes accessible, there is a cap of $10 per class. And instructors have to participate in the semester recitals, shows or exhibits. They become members of the Center not only by teaching, but also by collaborating as artists. In return we act as referral source for the artists when somebody looks for a flamenco or danza azteca teacher.

GS: What are your financial resources?

JR: A combination of State and City grants. The SF Art Commission provides the bulk of it. They monitor and administer this funding and expect a certain amount of programming, good organization and a safe place. Like the four community arts centers, we have to provide 32% of the programming earnings. It is required to continue the agreement from the City Commission. We also have funds from the NEA, foundations and individual contributors.

GS: So your main objective is to promote Latino traditions to local Latinos?

JR: No, not only to Latinos. In dance classes or salsa for example, 70% are Anglo. Lots come here to experience something outside their ethnic experience. The Center participates in the Carnival by helping to build floats, design costumes and train in dances. It’s a six-month planning for the floats, the choreography, the music and the costumes. It is a holistic experience as we all come together for banners, posters for a day, less in fact, for a two-hour public exposure. But that’s promoting Latino traditions. They have a huge impact in San Francisco. They are in fact changing San Francisco traditions. They have a great impact.

There is another big event we take part in: the Dia de los Muertos. It is a traditional Mexican celebration, taking place around October 30th. According to Mexican beliefs, the soul of those who have departed come back to join the living who offer something, set up altars with objects that the deceased were fond of, a photograph or a drink. The event is now even bigger than in Mexico. People, even Anglos, have taken to the celebration. It is now part of San Francisco festivities. A procession comes to the Center, then goes to Buena Vista Park with Aztec dancing. People light candles and hold hands in fraternity. It’s a collective exhibition with artists making a rendering of their altars. One year it is traditional ones; another they are free to create what they fancy, although we had to set new rules for altars.

GS: Why was that?

JR: We had to remind artists that we are a community center and that over two thousand children, teachers and families visit the exhibition. The reason was that some artists wanted to display pornographic photographs in their altar installations. That was not proper, not suitable.

GS: They are altar installations, not art installations where anything goes.

JR: Well, as a matter of fact they are both, but we want the event to be educational and enjoyable for everyone in the community. We do quite a lot to promote Latino artists. It is part of our mission. We have begun some workshops to help artists to submit proposals, to know where the funding sources are, how to prepare their portfolio, résumé and mission statement. We have writing classes to help them say what they think, what motivates them, what they try to achieve.

We also help them to sell their works. We have an annual neighborhood art exhibition (Corazón del Barrio) in February: artists bring their works, prints, jewels, pottery or weaving. Three other cultural centers are open on the same day so that people can go from one center to another. We provide an opportunity for the economic development of artists who can sell their works even by installment as some Latinos have the purchasing power to buy.

GS: You play the role of artists’ promoters, of agents.

JR: Let’s say, we try to be the bridge between the community and Latino artists. We help them to communicate with the public as it is one of the difficulties they face. We bring the artists to that level where they can present their works, protect their copyrights and draft contracts. We are very much involved in the economics of art. We also work with the California Arts Council and hold an Artists’ Forum for a full day. 300 artists or would-be artists join in workshops tailored to their needs: how to produce their works and how to market them if they work for schools, a community project or with other organizations. That is really important because of the dire economic situation most Latino artists are in. They find it hard to make a living out of arts. The market is not there, so we help them to create it.

GS: I have seen on your August calendar of events that you are inviting artists from Mexico, Peru and Spain. Is that common practice?

JR: This is quite common. We also do exchanges: we brought in four painters and sculptors from Cuba and sent others to Havana, we also had a dance company (Escuela de arte de San Gléjandro - Havana), a theater company and folklore shows. We bring this year from Colombia the Theatra de la Mama for eight shows and workshops for theater people, from Puerto-Rico poets Las dos A(t)las, etc.. There is a high demand for Cuban artists. It has been much easier for the past six years. A couple of law firms tend to specialize in bringing Cuba artists, so we work with them and they provide a lot of assistance.

We have a video club bringing series of films from Latin America, Argentina and Spain. We also have a poetry and literature series. We began with one of the best-known Hispanic poets, Frederico Garcia Lorca, and worked in association with the Lorca Restaurant. So we had a poetry, music and food evening and an opening reception here for the patrons.

GS: Do you work with businesses?

JR: We intend to have more collaboration from local businesses. If they want to help the arts and local institutions, we can both benefit. They can get exposure and we get the funding for our art programs. We are negotiating with a local San Francisco Latino TV station: they would broadcast a ten-minute program per week to highlight our main events and activities. In exchange we would project their logo and name in our lobby. We try to do as much as we can from our resources.

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1  For further information on MCCLA, see <>

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Gérard Selbach, « Interview with Jennie E. Rodríguez, Executive Director of the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, San Francisco, CA, USA, August 15, 2001 »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. II - n°6 | 2004, 95-100.

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Gérard Selbach, « Interview with Jennie E. Rodríguez, Executive Director of the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, San Francisco, CA, USA, August 15, 2001 »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. II - n°6 | 2004, mis en ligne le 30 octobre 2009, consulté le 17 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Gérard Selbach

(Paris V, France)
Gérard Selbach, assistant professor at the University of Paris 5, France, and researcher at the CERLIS-Paris 5 and the National Scientific Research Center (CNRS), has as a main field of research American art, art museums, Native American museums and museology. Beside publishing articles and contributing to conferences, he has published Les Musées d’art américains: une industrie culturelle (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2000) and is about to release Les Musées amérindiens: du vol du sacré à la métaphore identitaire (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2004). He is also a contemporary art critic with <>

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