Features & Columns


A new School of Arts & Culture seeks to revive San Jose's Mexican Heritage Plaza
COMMUNITY WALL: The mural at the Mexican Heritage Plaza celebrates local artists and culture. Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

I AM standing in the blazing hot sun on King Road in San Jose, in front of the Mexican Heritage Plaza, as Tamara Alvarado talks about the mural on the wall facing us. To the bottom right of the mural, I see a painted white scroll that used to be blank for years. Now, it actually contains the names of the many artists who worked on the mural, which was the original purpose of the scroll, although it just never got completed.

After launching the new School of Arts & Culture at MHP—an operation with 20 contracted faculty members and loads of kids still signing up—Alvarado, director of community access for the school, took it upon herself to make sure this portion of the mural was completed, so the original artists could finally get acknowledged. It is a symbolic gesture of how the school thinks. Artists are important.

As we saunter inside the plaza, she points out a pink step stool beneath one of the water fountains that she placed there so kids can reach the faucet. "We also have step stools in the bathrooms," she tells me.

By now, many are at least a little acquainted with the repeated failures of the Mexican Heritage Plaza. Millions of dollars were originally dumped into the place with absolutely no competent planning and no realistic vision for making it appeal to the general public. Now the next reincarnation of the plaza has begun, thanks to the School of Arts & Culture at MHP. They will manage and operate the facilities, renting out the theater and other components of the plaza, while they run the school.

A pilot program recently concluded during the summer and classes for the eight-week fall term will begin Oct. 11. A wide variety of instruction will be offered including Aztec drumming and dance for families, group mariachi and solo instruments, plus drawing, guitar and much more. Most of the participating children hail from the surrounding area.

"Part of the criticism of this place was that it wasn't serving the immediate neighborhood," Alvarado says. "That's why during the summer we were happy to see that most of the kids were from around here. That's because we had all these relationships—local churches, community centers and nonprofits—to get the word out."

One doesn't necessarily have to live nearby to take classes, but it's apparent how much this project could help bring attention to an ignored neighborhood. The ancient crossroads of Alum Rock and King presents a characteristically wide, hot and dusty east San Jo intersection. Looking south, one sees the giant backstop at the Rancho del Pueblo Driving Range—a defining landmark of east San Jo. Northward, one can see almost all the way to Milpitas.

Most importantly, the neighborhood is rich with independent businesses. The Guadalajara Market and eatery has been there since the 1950s. A newer place, El Patio, features a variety of food and even gigs outside in the back. And La Costa has always been one of the best and cheapest places for tacos or seafood anywhere in that part of San Jose. The scheme for the School of Arts & Culture also includes engaging the owner of the decrepit, rundown strip mall across Alum Rock.

As of last week, the school finalized its logo, a depiction of Quetzalcoatl. It looks much better than the poop statue in Plaza de Cesar Chavez. Plaza employees are already proudly wearing shirts with the logo.

"We picked the feathered serpent because it represents precious knowledge," Alvarado explains. "And so we picked that, because as a school, we're a place focused on the acquisition of knowledge through arts and culture."

The sum total of all the above is inspiring. The plaza seems to be making a new attempt at actually connecting with the surrounding community. There finally seems to be an orchestrated, logical plan to put the plaza back on the radar, a plan incorporating arts and music instruction for youth—a component sorely lacking in today's crumbling education infrastructure.

As my conversation with Alvarado came to an end, I declared the plaza back from the dead. In recent years, it seemed like a dormant elephant passed out in the blazing sun. Now it has been given an IV drip. The resuscitation has begun.

"And that IV drip is filled with arts and music and culture," Alvarado added.