Features & Columns

Mexican Heritage Plaza
Succeeds After Hard Times

After some hard times, the Mexican Heritage Plaza is busy with classes and performances
Abhinaya Dance BRINGING HISTORY ALIVE: Malavika Kumar (left), Anjana Dasu and Rasika Kumar of Abhinaya Dance re-enact the story of 'Gandhi' at the Mexican Heritage Theater this weekend.

One year ago, I ventured eastward to the eminent crossroads of Alum Rock and King to witness a metaphorical IV drip given to a dormant elephant passed out in the blazing sun, otherwise known as the Mexican Heritage Plaza.

You know the history. When the plaza opened, in 1999, the powers that be initially dumped millions of dollars into the place with no competent planning, no realistic vision, no adequate plan to maintain the facility and too many cooks in the kitchen.

When I visited a year ago, however, a new effort—the School of Arts and Culture @MHP—had just completed a promising pilot program. Nowadays, the school is raging, and the entire property seems fully activated.

Every day, there seems to be something going on. Aztec dancers in full headdress rehearse in the outdoor quad area. Children's classes take place most days after school. Other local arts and ethnic cultural organizations regularly use the theater, which, by the way, has always been one of the most pristine facilities in the entire South Bay. More on that in a second.

So much transpires at the Mexican Heritage Plaza these days, it's hard to imagine, given the disaster it once was. Much exists to gloat about. The youth classes include narrative portrait, comics and graphic novels, samba drumming, opera cultura, classical guitar and hip-hop. Huge displays unfold every holiday. Financial support comes in from various corporations and community foundations. There are connections to local businesses and churches, a Multicultural Arts Leadership Initiative and a serious entrepreneurial strategy to make the place viable in the long term.

I remember when the plaza first opened, especially the theater. It was state-of-the-art, with a zillion-dollar 32-channel soundboard from Crest Audio. In fact, there were audio I/O all around the top perimeter of the house, just off the catwalks, enabling a wide variety of speaker arrangements and plenty of different ways to sonically configure the room.

There were so many options available for any front-of-house mix, it was insane. Hell, if you wanted to spin two channels of 90-decibel audio around a 12-speaker diffusion system, you could do that. It really seemed like someone had been given a blank check for the JBL speaker inventory—complete overkill for most gigs that would possibly use the space—but it was probably a sound engineer's dream having all that equipment at his or her disposal, like giving an unruly teenager keys to an explosives factory.

Alas, the powers that be understood none of this, so they never adequately staffed the place and didn't give the theater director any other employees. All that money went into the facility, yet no one at the top had any knowledge to plan for its staffing or maintenance. Sound familiar? Of course it does.

Nowadays, I honestly believe things are on the upswing. Many different arts organizations seem to be collaborating with each other at the plaza more than they used to. If one just walks in at the right moment, the grounds no longer seem deserted. People mill about on a regular basis. In planning parlance, I think they call this "activating a space," but again, I prefer to say the half-dead junkie on the corner of Alum Rock and King has been given an IV drip and now returns to life again.

Even the dive bar across the street has been painted on the outside, leading me to believe that maybe the plaza's reactivation will kick-start some beautification projects in the hood. We can only hope.

Even better, Gandhi shows up this weekend. The Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose will present its annual fall production in the Mexican Heritage Plaza Theater. Artistic Director Mythili Kumar explains that the show will be a tribute to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, reiterating his message of civil disobedience as an alternative to violent resistance.

"The first piece goes back to Gandhi getting his inspiration from the Bhagavad Gita," she explains. "Following that, we come to Gandhi's life. ... The whole presentation includes the memoriam, his grandniece Manubehn narrating—and we go through his entire life."


Saturday, 8pm, Sunday, 4pm (Nov. 17–18); $20/$25

Mexican Heritage Theater