“Art is that light into other people’s cultures.”

Let it not be said that the School of Arts and Culture is an unfrequented place. The countless activities held throughout the week ensure that there are constant signs of life within its walls. Here, classes are offered in everything from folklórico dancing to violin to mariachi music. Here, huge annual events are hosted, including the Cesar Chavez Commemorative March (to celebrate the life of this civil rights activist), La Ultima Parada (to celebrate the Day of the Dead), and Fiesta Navideña (to celebrate the holidays). Here, the community can rent the facilities for a wide variety of occasions. The woman behind the school is Executive Director Tamara Alvarado. With a strong team and an ardent vision, Alvarado has infused this place of learning with a lively spirit.

The school’s mission is proudly emblazoned in its logo—a flying, feathered serpent called Quetzalcoatl. The Aztecs considered this dragon-like creature to be associated with learning and the arts, making it a fitting symbol for an institution that grounds itself in its Mexican heritage. Quetzalcoatl also has ties to other Mesoamerican cultures, reflecting the school’s desire for a multicultural perspective in an area with diverse cultural backgrounds. “We can’t get our work done in a vacuum,” Alvarado says with passion. “We can’t just be talking to ourselves within our own community.” And yet she believes, too, that embracing the beauty of one’s own culture will encourage appreciation for the beauty of other cultures. “I think art is the catalyst that helps you see,” she continues. “It’s like when you’re looking at a crystal or a diamond, but you need light to shine on it in order to see all its facets… Art is that light into other people’s cultures.”

Alvarado believes the school is allowed to flourish because San Jose is a community that rebels against passive consumerism. “They want to be the producer, they want to be the presenter, they want to be the dancer, they want to be the painter,” she observes. And that’s exactly what the school that Alvarado is shepherding offers, the chance to get clay on your hands, paint on your clothes. The chance to be a maker.

The school benefits as well by its location in the Mexican Heritage Plaza, which is intentionally sparing in its use of decorations. This design simplicity by no means makes the venue plain, as can be seen by a quick look around its premises. Walk past the buildings painted in warm desert tones and natural adobe colors. Step inside the pavilion with its floor-to-ceiling glass panels that attract the sunlight. Take a loop around the Chinampa Garden—through the rows of palms, past the sanctuary fountain, and under the wisteria-laden trellis. These grounds have witnessed personal milestones from quinceañeras to graduations to wedding receptions, and their 500-seat theater has seen countless dance productions, plays, recitals, and concerts. The facility is like a blank canvas, waiting to be painted on. Your imagination is the limit.

The year the school opened was also the year that Alvarado became its executive director, but Alvarado had been a steward of the arts long before life’s journey led her to this position. Her childhood was spent in dialogue with dance, theater, and music. Alvarado’s parents used to take her to Chicano Park every year to watch the Aztec dance ceremonies. It must have made quite an impression on the young girl, watching the dancers in their embroidered costumes swaying their heads decorated with pheasant- and macaw-feathered headdresses and shaking their ankles adorned with rattles, or chachayotes, to the beat of the drum. Later, Alvarado took up Aztec dancing for herself. “I was drawn to it because it was familiar to me,” she says. “It was part of my culture.” That was 17 years ago. Now Alvarado’s whole family participates and her dance group, Calpulli Tonalehqueh (“community of guardians who accompany the sun”), practices at the plaza.

Though Alvarado has made certain that the school continues to stay true to its roots, it has also grown in some incredible ways. “There wasn’t a lot of activity going on here,” she says of the institution when it first opened. “It was like peeking out the door and asking, ‘Anyone want to play with us? Anyone coming to our party?’ ” But that feeling subsided pretty quickly. The community’s interactions with the school have gone from tentative to embracing. “They weren’t used to consistent programs,” she points out. “I think now in our fifth year, the community knows we’re here to stay.”

Since the school opened, the number of annual visitors to the plaza has almost tripled. “So, yeah, people are coming to our party,” she chuckles.

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This article originally appeared in Issue 9.0 “Celebrate”
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