Five years after its opening, the National Hispanic Cultural Center of New Mexico (NHCC) finds itself a model for cultural organizations across the country. With continuing expansion, its mission is also evolving, in keeping with the Hispanic community it strives to represent.
"I view the center as essentially a civic cultural space," says Eduardo Diaz, the center's new executive director as of August 2005 – and a former director of San Antonio's Office of Cultural Affairs and the El Paso Arts Council. "The community has worked very hard to build this space, and the issues of quality and relevance are very important."
That said, the center's planners face the issue of which group it represents: the national Hispanic community, or the local/regional one.
"Initially we were talking about something local," explains Ed Romero, a founder of the National Hispanic Cultural Center Foundation, which drives funding for the center, and now chairman emeritus of the foundation's Board of Trustees. "We saw problems with youth who seemed to have no identity, no sense of pride or belonging to either the American or the Hispanic cultures," he explains. "The concept was that if we could help them identify with the food, the visual arts, the performing arts, we could give them a sense of belonging."
The center's neighborhood, Barelas, is one of the oldest sections of Albuquerque – and New Mexico is one of the oldest Hispanic areas in the United States. Spanish explorers first came to New Mexico in 1539. The first Spanish settlement was established in 1598. Santa Fe, settled in 1610, is the oldest capital in the United States. The United States claimed New Mexico in 1846 but kept it a territory until 1912.
"New Mexico was an out-of-the-way place," says Mr. Romero, a former U.S. ambassador to Spain. "It wasn't a hub for Mexico or Spain, or for the United States. The old families are still here."
But today New Mexico's population is more than 42 percent Hispanic, the highest in the nation. The combination of strong heritage and contemporary relevance make Albuquerque the perfect setting for a national center, the founders believe.
The political impetus for a cultural center began in the early 1980s, when Hispanic artists in Albuquerque formed a loose group to lobby for space to showcase their works. The artists took the idea to the state legislature. Meanwhile, an annual fair put on by the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce and the city led in 1983 to the formation of the Hispanic Culture Foundation, which raised money to promote Hispanic art.
The foundation invited Prince Felipe de Borbon of Spain, then 14 and since named Crown Prince, to be honorary chairman of its board. "The crown then had an interest in this center, because there is nothing like it in the Americas," Mr. Romero says.
The concept took off fully in 1993, when the legislature in Santa Fe created a Hispanic Culture Division within the state's Office of Cultural Affairs. The New Mexico Hispanic Cultural Center would be its crown jewel. Legislators approved $526,000 for design and land acquisition. Funding came with a stipulation that the center be built in southwest Albuquerque.
By the late 1990s, state appropriations totaled about $20 million. The city of Albuquerque donated land and an existing building with a combined value of $4 million. New Mexico's two U.S. senators, Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman, worked to find federal support for the center. Congress appropriated $13.5 million for construction – and the center's name changed to the National Hispanic Cultural Center.
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