The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center's new visual arts director wants community art to reflect la gente

It is another beautiful day in the heart of the West Side, home to the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, an institution of Chicano artistic and cultural expression.

One door down from the Center's office is a temporary annex. Once a taquería, this building - lovingly called Aztlán

Deborah Kuetzpalin Vasquez, the new visual arts program director at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. Photo by Mark Greenberg
by its tenants - housed the Center's bookstore for several years. The bookstore has since joined the Center's theater across the street, as this space undergoes another transformation - this time into a printmaking workshop. In the brief interim, however, it doubled as a makeshift lounge/art gallery for an exhibit of Chicana art.

To Deborah Kuetzpalin Vasquez, it feels like home. "Being here is like coming full circle," Vasquez says. She is the new visual arts program director at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, and has been in the position for nearly a year. Vasquez brings experience, professionalism, and the energy of a dreamer holding a wish list of ideas.

"When Deborah came in to work here we were happy," says Pilar Chapa-Burleson, director of the Xicano Music Program at the GCAC. "She just completed the Center."

Each program director contributes a different style to the Center. Vasquez' approach - and her philosophy of life - emphasizes Xicano, Mexicano, and indigenous roots. Raza has made art since the beginning of time, she explains. The indigenous cultures integrated art with everyday life - evidenced by their glyphs, architecture, ceramics, and codices. Centuries of Spanish, English, and American colonization separated artistic expression from everyday life. Yet although Mexicanos and Chicanos share political similarities with other Latinos, Vasquez feels that representing - or often misrepresenting - others leads to animosity, not unity. "Instead, I'll bring in someone who knows how best to represent their own people."

Naming ourselves - as Chicanas, Mexicanos, Raza, gente - means that we are tied to a community. This contrasts with an elitist notion of "art for art's sake," Vasquez affirms, because "we're going to make work that has a political, social, economic impact, and we're going to reflect the issues of our gente - which means we're going to have to interact with them."

Vasquez stresses the importance of community involvement to the Center. "There needs to be a mixture of people

"We're going to make work that has a political, social, economic impact, and we're going to reflect the issues of our gente - which means we're going to have to interact with them."

Deborah Kuetzpalin Vasquez
coming through." She points to the Chicana art on the walls. Work by high school and college students, on display for the first time, hangs next to professional, recognized artists. It is the final exhibit in a temporary gallery, evidence of both the rapid growth of the visual arts program, and the need for more exhibition space.

In recognition of these concerns, a new complex lies on the horizon for the GCAC, with space for established and emerging barrio artists, and an expansion in the course offerings, including instruction in traditional and computer-aided (think Alma Lopez) printmaking and design. To ensure a steady mix of abilities, the new building (adjacent to the Dollar General on Brazos, midway between the Guadalupe Theater and Lanier High School) will have a smaller gallery for those who create art "on the grassroots level," representing those artists whose work may never have been formally displayed. Vasquez emphasizes that this initiative is not solely directed toward youth, as she gestures toward Inez Rodriguez' beautiful, bittersweet painting of La Gloria, the historical dancehall demolished last spring. "A lot of times, organizations focus only on youth, since that's where there is funding."

Vasquez didn't start making art on a serious basis until she was in her 30s, when she enrolled for a silkscreen class taught at the Center. Although she had previously taken art classes, this was her first encounter with the connection between the creative process and the community from which it grew. "Oh, I can do this ... I want to teach, with Raza hanging out. This is what I want to do," she said to herself. "And that's what I did."

Vasquez left San Antonio in 1991 to pursue a bachelor's degree in art. At the time she had, in her words, an "unconscious Chicana consciousness." Like many who leave San Antonio, whether for school, work, or military service, Vasquez' time away from her beloved hometown gave her the distance and perspective which made the majority Mexican American population's lack of power all the more apparent.

She returned a decade later, with her master's degree in fine arts in hand, and, with a firm sense of her identity as a Chicana - best represented by Citlali, Vasquez' super heroine alter ego. Citlali's adventures are action-packed and educational: In her most recent appearance, Citlali spoke about the siete guerreros, or seven warriors - the staples of pre-conquest Mexico, from corn and cactus to the nutritionally potent grain amaranth. In the past, she has battled the rinches - Texas Rangers - and, in Vasquez' solo show earlier this year, introduced the viewer to influential Raza women.

Citlali shares with her creator a sense of justice borne out of a love for her people. "Tenemos un deber por nuestra gente (we have a responsibility to our people to represent them)," Vasquez proclaims. "There has to be a political and social consciousness in our art." •

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