Deep in the Heart of Texas

Many said it would never happen, but Latinos in the heart of Texas proved more tenacious than expected. A 30-year-old dream was finally converted into bricks and mortar on September 15, 2007 with the grand opening of the Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC) in Austin.

“We came to the end of a three-decade long road when the initial building for the MACC was opened this year and as the MACC begins its programming and Latino arts organizations begin to use the space as it was dreamed about so many years ago, I think we are at the beginning of a new journey,” says Austin City Council Member Mike Martinez. “The Latino arts community in Austin has been screaming for a world-class facility worthy of our world-class arts community. Now that we finally have it, I am excited about the possibilities and what we’ll be able to accomplish.”

Unlike most development projects, cultural centers can present a challenge. Public perception doesn’t always support them, particularly with bigger concerns like health, safety, and infrastructure presenting a city with greater fiscal pressure. At the same time, internal power struggles within the community over the project leadership can create the appearance of division or a lack of conviction, prompting city leaders to shelve the project entirely.Such was the case with the MACC, and yet, it finally happened.

The epic journey began in the mid-1970s when Latino community leaders, artists, activists—and their moms—hatched a plan to build a cultural center where families could learn about and celebrate their heritage. The group began a sustained lobbing effort at city council and in 1986, the first MACC Task Force was established and granted $75,000 for an initial feasibility study. A subsequent feasibility study produced an architectural conceptual design by local architect Ponciano Morales for what was now called “The MACC.”

“It was significant that the center reflected the history of Texas and the demographics of Austin’s Latino community which is predominantly Mexican American,” says Cathy Vasquez-Revilla, a former member of the task force and publisher of a local community newspaper, La Prensa. Latinos were less than 20 percent of Austin’s population in the 1970s but according to the 2000 census, they make up 30.5 percent of the population, 23.4 percent of which is Mexican or Mexican American.

In the end, several studies were produced, fleshing out the center’s components—a theater, a gallery, a plaza, office and classroom space, and a multipurpose room for the community—and moving the site to its current location on Lady Bird Lake. Council Member Gus Garcia eventually designated the 6.9-acre lot the future site of the MACC by city ordinance.

As the years passed, the task force received new appointments but never disbanded. In 1991, Vasquez-Revilla, a newly appointed member of the Austin Planning Commission, reenergized the project when she suggested that the city use 1985 bond monies allocated for another art project, the Laguna Gloria Art Museum, for the MACC. The controversial move reignited discussion about the MACC and led to the project being placed on a 1992 bond election. The proposition failed that year but public outcry continued for the next six years so that in 1998, the city placed a $10.9 million bond package for construction of the MACC on the ballot. Positioned more appealingly in the same proposition as monies for libraries and other park projects, it passed.

Legend has it that the late Martin Del Campo opened his presentation to the architectural selection committee appointed by the city with a speech about how he envisioned the sun and moon when he began to consider the design of the MACC. De Leon took the vision and drafted a crescent shape, where office and classroom spaces would be housed, joined by three pyramids, modernized versions of Mexico’s Chichén Itzá, to house a multipurpose room, a 300-seat black box theater, and an 800-seat theater. The buildings would all be constructed of white hand-chiseled concrete made in Mexico.

We wanted a world-class facility that would be a beacon to Latinos across the state as well as the nation, and that’s what the Del Campo & Maru/CasaBella/de Leon proposal provided, asserts Roén Salinas, director of the Aztlan Dance Company, and member of the architectural selection committee. I remember going to city council meetings as a thirteen-year-old to testify about the need for the MACC. I really never thought I’d live to see it happen.

The scope of the project, however, quickly exceeded the bond monies, growing to a total cost of more than $60 million, so it was split into three phases. September 15, 2007 marked the grand opening of the first phase, which includes a gallery, offices, classrooms, and a multipurpose room. The challenge remains building the two remaining pyramids to provide performance space for theater and dance groups, as well as a space for touring acts that can generate much needed revenue.

The Latino community must also begin to develop as art patrons. The city has not allocated programming dollars and expects the staff to raise the funds through classes and facility rental fees. “We’ve had visitors to the center who were actually brought to tears with the architectural beauty of the site,” says Amparo Garcia-Crow, education program manager at the MACC. “Our challenge now is for the Latino community to become invested in the MACC, not only as audience members but as paying users.”

Considering the project’s history, Garcia-Crow believes that Austin’s Latino community will once again step up with their support. “One of my favorite moments so far was when one of the original task force members came by with her grandchildren to show them the facility. It was clear that she was passing on her legacy to them,” she said.

By Valerie Menard