Feature Culture war 

Are complaints against Guadalupe President Bret Ruiz valid or are people simply resistant to change?

In August 2005, Bret Ruiz left Dallas’ Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico to become president of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, the West Side community center, gallery, theater, and school that is one of the country’s most revered Latino cultural organizations. Ruiz, who has a graduate degree in art history and an MBA (“I’m passionate and love art,” says Ruiz, “but we have to be able to pay for it.”) took charge of the organization after an extended period of uncertain leadership.

The 20-year-old Center hasn’t had a long-term director since Pedro Rodriguez departed in 1998, and the most recent executive director, Maria Elena Torralva-Alonso, left at the end of 2004. Juan Aguilera, the GCAC board of directors chairman, says the board hired a series of interim directors after Alonso departed, including one that left for another job. The intention was always, he says, to hire interim directors until a nationwide search was complete.

click to enlarge cultfeat_ruiz_5932_420jpg
Guadalupe President Bret Ruiz stands in front of the Guadalupe Theater. Across the street is the former Progreso Drugstore, a center of the West Side community at Brazos and Guadalupe, which serves as the Center’s offices.

But Ruiz’ short tenure has bred animosity among some connected with this West Side icon, who allege he has made racist remarks and ousted key people, and that he lacks a strong-enough affinity for the arts to lead the Center.

From his own account, Ruiz wasn’t hired as an artist, but to provide leadership. “Anytime you have a relatively long interim period `between directors`, you don’t have a strong visionary leadership,” he says. “What I want to bring to the Guadalupe, and what I hope the board saw when they interviewed me, was my business acumen, my passion for the arts, and my total commitment to the fact that we are an authentic organization.”

Yet, on January 17, the Current received a faxed letter from grant-writer José S. Garza, also directed to Chairman Aguilera, charging that, upon his hiring, Ruiz almost immediately began disparaging several members of the staff, many of whom have departed. Garza’s letter, and another written anonymously, criticized Ruiz for firing Mary Jessie Garza, an artist who directed Guadalupe’s education program for the past four years. Mary Jessie Garza says she hired José Garza to write grants for the Center, but Ruiz dismissed him. Mary Jessie Garza and José Garza are not related.

Furthermore, José Garza’s letter accuses Ruiz of making unflattering comments about West Side art, people who consider themselves Chicanos, and patrons of the H-E-B at Zarzamora and Nogalitos streets. “In one instance, he discussed a shopping trip to a local H-E-B and described the customers as ‘rasquache,’” reads the letter, which Aguilera says he never received. (Stanford University professor Tomás Ybarra Frausto defines rasquache as “down, but not out.” According to rasquache.com, rasquachismo means having a “worldview from an underdog perspective,” and is closely related to Chicanos and Chicano art.)

Aguilera confirmed that a board committee will soon conduct an employment review with Ruiz, and that at least two formal complaints have been lodged against him, but Aguilera would not embellish on the nature of those complaints.

Mary Jessie Garza, who says she was fired after she took 32 days of sick leave (Ruiz allegedly told her to take 45 days), also contends she heard Ruiz bad-mouth the staff and disparage West Side residents. “I heard him say the rasquache statement; that the people at H-E-B are dirty,” says Garza. “He has issues with Chicanos.”

Garza says she plans to fight to get her job back. “I really love that institution, and I have many years experience working in the community, and I want to go back. I have a commitment to the children, as well as to our funders. I don’t want to put that in jeopardy.”

Ruiz would not discuss Garza’s leave of absence, nor would he comment on the rasquache allegations. “Those are matters handled through internal policies and procedures; I could not comment on anything specific like that.”

Garza’s statement that he has issues with Chicanos might come as a surprise to Ruiz, who, when interviewed by the Current, defined “Chicano” as a political identity, a mix of artist and activist. He reflected on his own heritage. “In the ’60s and ’70s `‘Chicano’` was the equivalent to saying ‘Black Power’ in the’70s,” he says. “I think maybe what they bring to the fold is the passion for art. It’s almost that art is the handmaiden of what they’re trying to do to effect political change and to be heard. On a personal level, I very much respect both my grandfathers who emigrated from Mexico to Texas during the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to build a better life, and I honor and respect my ‘mestizo’ roots as well.”

A child of the 1960s, Ruiz says his activist parents helped form this perspective. His father worked part-time as an instructor at the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, helping inmates reform their lives. Both parents were involved in Upward Bound, a college-preparatory program, and worked as translators in the Kansas City courthouses, helping “indigent, illegal aliens who could not fight for themselves, who couldn’t even understand what they were being accused of. So my parents did that and I grew up in that culture.”

Although Ruiz calls the Center’s mission — to preserve and promote the cultures of Latino, Chicano, and Native Americans — “very noble, wonderful, and ambitious,” he also sees the challenges. “We try to be many things to many people and in an environment that is competitive, and with sometimes diminishing resources, I think that’s one of our challenges: How do we do those things well?”

“Change is never easy. But I feel like the train is in the station, there’s a lot of good stuff on board here, and people need to get on that train with me and go on that journey.”

– Bret Ruiz

Ruiz hopes that the Center will also appeal to broader San Antonio audiences. “I want it to be so that anybody should feel comfortable and want to come to the Guadalupe,” he says. “I don’t know that that’s the perception right now. When you come down to it, whether it’s dance, or theater, or whatever, anyone can appreciate and take away from it.”

The Center is housed in the former Progreso Drugstore at the corner of Brazos and Guadalupe streets, once a place where people received medical care — “because they weren’t allowed to go to certain places,” Ruiz says — and a community center. In the past, classes were held in the neighboring Cesar Chavez building, but the Center recently bought and renovated a former H-E-B, a $2 million project that created a new school, including a gallery, a state-of-the-art computer lab, and space for classes such as ceramics and printmaking.

Across Guadalupe Street, the Guadalupe Theater opened in the early 1940s as a predominately Latino theater. The City owns the building but the Center maintains it. “Trying to maintain it is very expensive and it always takes money to do the tile work and keep up to code. It’s expensive, but it’s an icon,” says Ruiz.

The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center was born out of the Teatro de las Carpas, the politically motivated street theaters of the 1960s and ’70s that filled a cultural void in communities like San Antonio, East L.A., and Denver. “Nobody else was meeting this challenge and there were always wonderful cultural things going on around these subgroups or ethnic groups doing their thing,” Ruiz explains. “So it wasn’t like we weren’t being presented in the same way as the culture was being presented at a major museum. We were there but we weren’t there.”

In that sense, the mission of the Center hasn’t changed dramatically. “We’re in the midst of creating and preserving art from a perspective which, really in a broad sense, you could say is Latino — in a broad sense,” he adds. “Now, acknowledge that some people prefer ‘Hispanic,’ some people prefer ‘Latino,’ and our mission also mentions ‘Chicano.’”

Mary Jessie Garza is not Ruiz’ only critic. A citizens-to-be-heard segment wasn’t on a recent Guadalupe board meeting agenda, but Aguilera allowed 10 people to voice their dissatisfaction with Ruiz’ direction.

Local artist Angel Rodriguez Díaz said he is concerned for the “wellness of their institution,” including a lack of arts programming. He lamented the recent renovation of the Center’s buildings at the sacrifice of arts programs. Ruiz, however, says no sacrifices have been made. “We have not made any major changes to any of the programs ... but that doesn’t preclude us having to make changes.”

Virginia Grise complained that Mary Jessie Garza’s firing has left a void in the Guadalupe’s educational programs. “Who is going to make them (arts programs) happen?” Grise said Garza was the person to whom people turned when problems arose at the Center. She urged the board to continue funding to support the work of local artists.

Jim Haught, in his fifth year as an adult painting-class instructor, said a recent tuition hike for his class has driven away students. “The tuition has eliminated my class. People are dropping out, saying they can take classes at the Southwest Craft Center.” The anonymous fax sent to the Current alleges that current tuition prices for visual arts classes, which range from $185 to $225 per class, represent a rate hike. However Ruiz maintains that no tuition increases have occurred. “The reality is that we did not change classes or cut classes.”

Chairman Aguilera further explained that he has told Ruiz and the directors that “we will find scholarships to make sure everyone can attend,” he says. “The fee and ability to pay should not be a factor whether a student should benefit from the programs we have. We’ve always provided scholarships, and we want to pay instructors.”

Ruiz said the meeting was “a good opportunity to hear from the public about their concerns ... but people aren’t aware that things are happening,” adding that it will take time to acclimate to his new job. “People just don’t like change. This is not a solo effort, it’s team-driven and the future has a lot of possibilities.” Ruiz says there are no specifics to discuss, but upcoming projects include revamping the Latina Letters program, a $15,000 JP Morgan grant to provide computer training and workforce development, and bringing cultural-arts programs in from such places as New York. “We’re celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Tejano Conjunto Festival `which was shortened to three days last year`. The goal is to get the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center on a higher level nationally, but nothing is solidified or specific.”

However, people are unhappy about how he has implemented those changes. “He’s not getting it,” says Garza. “It could be because he doesn’t make things happen. He cancelled the Three Kings festival downtown at the San Fernando `Cathedral`. He has no ideas; he is not creative, and he has done nothing there to make this place better.”

Ruiz received a glowing review from his previous job.

Carrie Bourn, the program coordinator at the Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico in Dallas, where Ruiz served as executive director from 2001 to August 2005, says Ruiz made the organization successful. “I worked for him for a full year, and he was always absolutely respectful,” she says. “He never behaved inappropriately toward me at all, and everybody was sad to see him go. When he came on board, the ballet was in very poor condition, and he took us totally out of the red and maintained a balanced budget. Checks never bounced, everybody was paid on time, and there was never any question as to whether or not he was hurting the institution.”

Aguilera says the racial-discrimination allegations will be investigated. “I believe in the Center, and it’s sad to see this coming out. We are addressing the grievances, and everyone will have a fair hearing on these things.”

In an interview with the Current before the board meeting, Ruiz portrayed an organization in flux and facing the inevitable pains that change brings. “I’m assessing and reviewing everything. I want to honor all of our traditions, but I also know that some of them are going to have to change. How, I’m not sure,” he admitted. “I chose to come back here because I believe in the Center. It was a conscious choice, so you know, there are always going to be issues and problems.

“Change is never easy. But I feel like the train is in the station, there’s a lot of good stuff on board here, and people need to get on that train with me and go on that journey.”

By Catherine Walworth and Michael Cary


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