Features & Columns

Mexican Heritage Plaza
School of Arts and Culture

Mexican Heritage Plaza arts school inspires young minds and galvanizes a neighborhood
Mexican Heritage Plaza CLASS ACTS: Students at the School of Arts and Culture can take classes in a variety of visual and performing arts.

As of right now, the School of Arts and Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza celebrates two years of transformation on multiple levels. In 2011, after numerous phases of failure, the beleaguered plaza emerged anew when the school took it over.

Within the first year, the facility attracted thousands more kids and adults than when the City of San Jose operated the place. Now, after two years, the place exudes a sense of activity it never did before, with parents from throughout the valley sending their kids to learn music notation, dance, arts, creativity and critical thinking skills. What's more, the school's success and image has at least partly inspired the surrounding communities to ratchet up pressure on speeding, graffiti and the neglectful landlord who owns the blighted stripmall across the street.

Last week, executive director Tamara Alvarado led me in and out of classrooms and around the entire plaza, as she articulated the school's position. Especially now during summer, 1,200 children attend classes each week. Kids are the future and if we can inspire them artistically, as early as age five, they might not segue down more dangerous paths in life.

"The number one asset of the community is kids," Alvarado said. "We have to invest in their creativity and their critical thinking skills. We have to have safety in mind here, especially in this community."

As we traversed the property, Alvarado took me into several rooms to oversee, er, interrupt classes in progress. In one case, kids used papier mache and methods of Tlacuilo drawing, the pictorial language of the Aztec codices. Another room featured hip-hop dance. We randomly encountered guitar teachers and dance instructors. In another instance, Alvarado dragged me into Nauhxa Chavira's Aztec dancing class for kids aged 8-10.

"This is not glitter and glue and construction paper," Alvarado said. "This is serious arts education."

Perhaps most importantly, the plaza is a safe place to hang out. Parents are comfortable dropping off their kids. Except for myself, no suspicious characters lurked anywhere.

"It's a hundred thousand square feet of safe," Alvarado told me, as we continued walking. "With all the stuff happening these days, what parents want to know, first and foremost, is that you're safe. Until you're safe, you can't study, you can't learn how to dance, you can't learn how to think. [At the plaza], as soon as you walk in, someone's there asking who you are. But it's also welcoming."

This is true. When I first creeped into the facility, gracious employees asked my purpose for visiting. They gave me water with chia seeds, stating that the ancient Aztecs drank the concoction for energy. As I moved into the theater lobby, teenaged interns were busy sorting out School of Arts and Culture t-shirts. They were former students who had since moved up to T.A. positions. Overall, the vibe far transcended the hick-town politics I experienced at the plaza many years ago.

Under the previous reign, something exciting would unfold at the plaza, a show, company or workshop, but without remaining long-term. It seemed like short flings were the norm. Now things are different, as Alvarado has helped cement long-term relationships with several institutions. Arts organizations no longer show up as they see fit, treating the venue as if it were just a convenience. Permanent multiple partners include Opera Cultura, Future Arts Now and Mariachi Azteca, with more on the way.

All one has to do is hop across the street to see the effect in the neighborhood. The empty stripmall, a shining example of landlord neglect, sits along the northern side of Alum Rock, but is now finally cited with code violations. Fenced off, it appears ready for facade improvements. The plaza's now-constant activity and its focus on youth education have clearly increased the community's awareness and helped put pressure on powers-that-be.

"We're taking care of business," Alvarado said. "What we stand for is arts and culture. We don't stand for any of this other mess. We don't stand for violence and we don't stand for blight. We're noticing those things and we're saying, 'This isn't right.'"