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A House for Hispanic Culture

From reading and art to theater and dance, Casa de la Cultura en Santa Clara provides a place to preserve and celebrate Latino heritage.


A Teatro Bilingue participant uses her imagination to conjure up a "queen's robe."

Maria Azucena Vigil cuts right to the heart of the matter. "They are known throughout Mexico. Every little town has one," she says. Her diminutive stature, softly accented voice and silver hair paint the picture of a gentle abuela, a Latino grandmother one can easily envision at the hearth of her family. But this lady turns out to be as much activist as abuela. Her voice rises slightly and she brings her forefinger down on the table with increasing force to make her point. "The soul of the people is contained in there. It is what keeps the culture alive!"

She is describing the phenomenon known as casa de la cultura, a small gathering place historically located in the center of many Mexican villages, a place where works of literature and art are housed and made available to all in the village.

Maria Eugenia Trillo, sitting beside her, joins in. "Santa Clara is the heart of this area. It is central to this mining district. You know the name (of the town) has gone back and forth to Central," she says. Her dark hair and eyes are set off by her brilliant purple top; her features enhanced by her turquoise jewelry.

"This is why we use the phrase 'Santa Clara tiene corazón,'" Trillo explains, then translates, "Santa Clara has heart!"

The two women are the initiating force behind Casa de la Cultura en Santa Clara, a grassroots effort to promote bilingual literacy and understanding of and appreciation for indigenous cultures and to preserve cultural arts and history.

"We started out meeting at the (Santa Clara Catholic) Church," Trillo says, "but now we meet at the community center, so everyone knows this is open to everybody." She adds that she dreams of the group having its own building in the future, and that efforts are already underway to make that happen. The group now has 15 members on its board of directors; it passed its official bylaws late last year, and its application for 501(c)3 nonprofit status is in process.

"It will be a real village center; a gathering place with a cultural library, a space to share talent and the arts, oh, and a gallery," she says.

Casa de la Cultura en Santa Clara
upcoming events:

Feb. 3, 2-5:30 p.m.–Silent auction fundraiser, Bayard Community Center. Mining District and other local artists. Preview 2-5 p.m., reception begins 4 p.m., bidding opens at 5 p.m.

Feb. 23–First meeting of the CDLC-SC's Oral History Chapter

March (date and time TBA)–San Patricios/Latino Dance Fundraiser

April 12–Opening reception, Barelas Community Oral History Exhibit, JW Gallery.



Spanish Literacy for Everyone

Latino Dancing

Learning to Read Spanish
Mondays and Wednesdays

Teatro Bilingue

Hispanic Choir

Call for general information and to confirm class times and locations, 538-6526 or 574-4484, or email trillo@wnmu.edu, jeannieamiller@qwest.net, mvigil@zianet.com.

"It is so important for our young people to have something positive to do, and a place to go," Vigil puts in.

"We can't wait for the building, though," Trillo says. The estimated $5 million project is some three to five years in the future. "It has to start now. We already are providing something, and showing what the need is and what we can do."


Promoting literacy and bilingual fluency is one of the group's key efforts, addressed through youth and multigenerational conversational groups and classes and Teatro Bilingue, a bilingual theater program.

"There are children growing up in Hispanic families, and they don't feel confident or comfortable enough with their own family's native language to speak it at home," says Trillo, who teaches at Western New Mexico University. "I have students who tell me, 'Miss, we don't have one book, not one solid book in my house!' So they grow up not reading in Spanish." This leads not only to illiteracy in their family's native tongue, but a loss of Hispanic history, she says.

The Casa de la Cultura group offers weekly classes such as "Spanish Literacy for Everyone," and a program for family bilingual literacy. These classes are offered free of charge, thanks to passionate, willing volunteers, and admission is always open, Vigil says.

In Teatro Bilingue, children learn all aspects of performing on the stage– body awareness, movement, gestures, vocal tone and projection, character development, plot, dialogue and costuming–all in a bilingual atmosphere. Subject matter includes religious, traditional and historic aspects of Hispanic culture. Last season saw the group's first successful presentation, a play including some adult actors in key roles, as well as youths.

The group held its first benefit, a Dia de los Muertos dance, last November, at Mingo's Party Place, with a DJ paying music for all ages. Trillo says more than 55 people attended.

"Maria (Vigil) and her husband danced the night away!" she says, prompting a shy smile on Vigil's face.

Dancing has been well-received by the group–"Dancing is culture!" Vigil puts in enthusiastically–and Casa de la Cultura's participants are asking for more, Trillo says. Rose Chavez, a dance instructor with more than 35 years experience who recently moved from El Paso to Hurley, will be teaching Latino dancing–Salsa, Cumbia, Merengue, Bachata styles and more–for students of all ages.

"And this is not only about preserving and understanding Mexican culture, but Cuban, Central American, Dominican and Spanish," Trillo says. She notes that some members of the local community of Caribbean descent have come forward, wanting to share their culture and teach their native dancing style, as well.


The group's next major fundraiser, a silent auction of art, is slated for February. It will feature works by more than a dozen artists, including some–such as Fred Barraza, Harry Benjamin and Johnny Benavidez–who were born and raised in the Mining District.

A visit from the traveling Barellas exhibit from Albuquerque is a huge event coming to the area, thanks in part to the group's efforts. Starting in April, a portion of the exhibit, celebrating the history and culture of the oldest community in Albuquerque, will be installed at the JW Gallery in Hurley. In addition to art and informative displays, oral history workshops will be conducted in conjunction with the exhibit.

"This is going to be a very big deal. It is a rich opportunity for many people, no matter what their culture and background, to come and touch this important piece of history," Trillo says.

Getting back to local grassroots, a Ballet Folklorico and art lessons with local artists and artisans are in the group's plans for the future, Trillo says.

But what she wants to see right now is greater participation. "We need more volunteers and more ideas. This effort is open to the public, and I welcome anyone who wants to encourage and support appreciation for and preservation of arts and culture," she says. "It is happening now, and we are excited to invite anyone to play their special part in this important work in our community."

–Donna Clayton Lawder


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