Leading MACLA

I believe that building bridges is the work that I’ve been called to do.

I believe that building bridges is the work that I’ve been called to do.

Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana (MACLA) looks like a large renovated warehouse on the corner of First Street and William. Decorated with a bright bichromatic mural, the space also functions in many ways as a bridge. At the heart of the busy, artistic SoFA district, the MACLA building straddles the tenuous boundary between luxury condos and up-and-coming urban immigrant neighborhoods. As MACLA promotes, protects, curates, and commissions Latino and Chicano art, it also forges links across generations and gender, communities and classes, ethnicities and races. MACLA has a strong presence in the city’s landscape, where many new arrivals and longtime residents cling to their homes and heritage in the face of sweeping change. MACLA is not only a haven for artists with a Latino perspective, but also a place where everyone is challenged to expand their horizons.

Anjee Helstrup-Alvarez has been MACLA’s executive director for eight years and has served MACLA in various capacities since 2004. “When we bought this property three years ago, we put a stake in the ground,” she says. She explains MACLA’s role in the community and how this position, both literal and metaphorical, between gentrification and marginalization, defines their mission. “Our philosophy,” she says, “is to uplift voices, to present the perspectives of Latino artists in the broadest possible sense.” And that perspective offers particular insights. “We address broad issues and themes—both those talked about and those not talked about—from the margins,” she adds. “We see art as a vehicle for broader dialogue.”

MACLA has always had a distinct and important point of view. As San Jose focused on revitalization and urbanism in the late 1980s, a group of advocates grew concerned that money set aside to promote the arts was largely ignoring the hugely prevalent and talented multicultural artistic community. Funds flowed freely to support classical art forms, such as ballet and the symphony, but there was also a real need to utilize public finances for Latino art. As the city embarked on a long renaissance, this group of activists established MACLA to ensure that Latino art would have a strong and lasting voice in the redevelopment of the city center. Today, as downtown San Jose becomes shinier and more polished, MACLA continues to proudly and enthusiastically voice support for Latino artists and, in so doing, promotes a widening of perspective within the larger community.

Helstrup-Alvarez cites a recent MACLA production of Chris Franco’s play, 57 Chevy. The play describes the ordeals of an immigrant family as they first move from Mexico to Los Angeles, and then transition from the city to the suburbs of Orange County. The story is told from the perspective of Franco in the backseat of his family’s 1957 Chevy. That production resonated with many people of different ethnicities who identified with the immigrant journey. But it also reached those with no such experience. “People can connect, can find empathy. They can think about their world differently,” she says, adding that everyone can understand viewing life from the back seat of a classic American car.

For Helstrup-Alvarez, MACLA’s mission is personal. She reminisces about her own childhood in San Jose, when her mother remarried a Japanese-American man. Helstrup-Alvarez saw firsthand the bigotry that her younger half-brother experienced. She recounts one story in particular when strangers yelled racial taunts at him while they were visiting family in Wisconsin. It was a startling moment to experience outside of the Bay Area bubble of diversity and acceptance, and it made a serious impact. “We have a choice in how we live our lives,” she says soberly. “I believe that building bridges is the work that I’ve been called to do.”

After obtaining her Bachelor of Fine Arts from San Jose State University, she interned at the San Jose Museum of Art, where her interest in mural art led her to MACLA. There she found the intersection between art and community. This was a place where exceptional art, created by diverse talented artists, could have a real impact and bring about change. Helstrup-Alvarez, an artist in her own right, set aside her artistic ambitions, because, she explains humbly, “my energy was better spent creating resources for other artists.”

As executive director, Helstrup-Alvarez sees her work as crucial to the future of a vibrant, diverse, and shining city. “San Jose is a very interesting place,” she says, thoughtfully. “It’s a place where, if you want to do something, you can make it happen. That’s a very special thing—if you see a vision or a future for yourself, you can make it happen.” And that, she explains, is different from a place like San Francisco, where institutions and traditions can get in the way of this kind of alternative progress. MACLA works to clear paths, to eliminate obstacles, and to make it possible for artists to create and inspire. “We have created a space for the community to gather, to give artists the support they need, to understand their dreams,” she says, “all while being sensitive to the context in which their art is received.”

MACLA’s mission would be ambitious for any small nonprofit, but Helstrup-Alvarez has kept her organization focused and nimble. She has a strong, diverse team who help her curate and commission art with a clear perspective and voice. “We’ve gone from being project-focused to thinking more holistically,” she explains. “We understand what’s going on in the community, and we are driven by what is the right thing to do from humanity’s perspective.” Helstrup-Alvarez runs a lean organization that maintains its focus, but she is also savvy in creating partnerships and engaging in larger networks. “This allows us to amplify our work,” she says, adding that in 30 years, they’ve made extensive and effective bridges to national and international networks.

While MACLA showcases some of the most exciting art coming out of the Bay Area’s Latino community, it also encourages the larger community to do more than simply observe. This starts with MACLA programs that engage local schools, inviting students to come to their design studio lab to learn how to tell their stories through digital media. The quest for community participation continues with performances on the South First Fridays art walks, where artists not only demonstrate a dance, but teach it, encouraging everyone else to join in alongside them. In viewing its mission with an eye to engagement, and not just advocating for artists, MACLA is making the community a part of something and passing on responsibility for the protection and promotion of Latino arts and culture.

As the city continues to grow and change, Helstrup-Alvarez is hopeful that MACLA can find ways to protect the voices of those on the margins. MACLA stands resolute in an expensive community with high rent and new buildings. While Helstrup-Alvarez is happy to see a revitalized downtown, she is cautious, and that’s why, she argues, “we’re holding a space—a physical space, a conceptual space—that allows for inquiry and exploration, where people can come together to question, dream, and create.”

“You know,” she pauses reflectively, “I read an article the other day that argued that Silicon Valley has an empathy gap. I believe that art is that bridge to empathy—it allows us to connect with someone else.”

Written by Kate Evans
Photography by Daniel Garcia

This article originally appeared in Issue 9.1 “Find”

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