A beacon along El Camino Real: National Hispanic Cultural Center at 20

A rendering of Phase 1 of the National Hispanic Cutlural Center’s Visual Arts Building, courtesy NHCC

It’s a Mayan pyramid in the heart of Albuquerque. It’s a Spanish villa just feet from the Rio Grande. It’s a historic adobe. It’s one of the busiest cultural destinations in the city. It’s the National Hispanic Cultural Center (NHCC), and it’s turning 20 this year.

Managed by the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, the NHCC is a hyphenate venue “dedicated to the preservation, promotion and advancement of Hispanic culture, arts and humanities.” The campus in the Barelas neighborhood of Albuquerque features an art museum, three theaters, a research center, and a restaurant. “It’s not just a museum, but it’s a full-blown, multiservice community center that represents the Hispanic and Latinx community,” says executive director of the NHCC Josefa Gonzalez Mariscal. “You’re approaching culture from all these angles, and that’s what’s fascinating.”

Prior to the pandemic, the NHCC hosted some 700 events per year. Over 20 years, it has become an integral space for the arts. “If we were not here, many artists would not have a platform to express themselves,” Gonzalez Mariscal says. “Most of the large museums in this nation have a minimal number of exhibitions that represent people of color.

“It’s a perfect public-private partnership because the state maintains the facilities and provides the staff, but all the programming is through a nonprofit, the NHCC Foundation. The public can have a say in what is presented by donating to the foundation because all the programming is through the foundation.” The theaters have hosted flamenco dancing, theatrical performances, and the ¡Globalquerque! music festival, among others. The campus is also home to the Instituto Cervantes.

“The Cervantes Institute’s relationship dates back to 2001 when the Government of Spain reached an agreement with the State of New Mexico for the NHCC to host one of the 56 Cervantes Institutes in the world,” says Sílvia R. Grijalba, executive director of the Instituto Cervantes Albuquerque. The institute is dedicated to the promotion of Spanish language and culture. “Both the government of Spain and our king, Felipe VI (who has visited the NHCC and Cervantes twice already), have a special interest in this fruitful partnership that helps to promote the culture of Spanish-speaking countries.“

Dr. Estevan Rael-Gálvez served as executive director of the center from 2009 to 2011. Among other accomplishments, he supervised the organization of a Dia de Los Muertos event, a César Chávez march, and a crosscultural celebration with the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. “I worked to promote and realize the center as a place for community programming and gatherings focused on difficult but necessary discussions, including about immigration, sexuality, gender, poverty, health care, and voting rights,” Rael-Gálvez says. “We are living in an era that continues to be polarizing and places like the center have an opportunity and responsibility to serve as spaces for civic dialogue.”

Gonzalez Mariscal started as executive director in May 2020, and events were already in the works to commemorate the center’s anniversary. “They were planning to do many things, but the pandemic hit. So, when I started listening to my staff, this exhibition was being researched and was almost completed,“ she says of a project on the design and creation of the NHCC edifice. Gonzalez Mariscal recalled an outdoor gallery at the Bosque de Chapultepec in Mexico City, and she proposed that the NHCC do something similar. ¡Mira! Nuestra Arquitectura: An Architectural Journey opened in the Bosque Gallery on the walking trail along the river side of the NHCC at the end of October.

“I felt our architecture embodied our missions and our programs,” says archivist Anna Uremovich, who worked on the exhibit. “So, what better way to connect what we do with something solid.”

Although the NHCC turned 20 in October, its roots extend back a decade prior to 2000. The Hispanic Cultural Foundation was created in 1983 to promote Hispanic art, writing, and business. In 1993, the foundation received funds from the New Mexico legislature. Architects Antoine Predock and Pedro Marquez provided the initial designs. Predock, among the best-known architects in the Southwest, would later leave the project.

Initial designs were made with Martineztown, the area near the intersection of I-25 and I-40, in mind for the campus. Instead, the campus was placed in Barelas. Named for a regional, landowning family, Barelas was once a river crossing along the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the King’s Road through New Spain. During the 20th century, Barelas became a bedroom community for employees of the nearby Rail Yards, a repair facility for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. Although the Rail Yards had long stopped, the bulk of its operations before plans for the NHCC were made, Barelas remained a vibrant residential part of the city. “It seemed the appropriate place to put a Hispanic cultural center,” Uremovich says, because the area was already steeped in Hispanic culture.

The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District donated land along the river. The City of Albuquerque had hoped to do the same, but Barelas was still home to many. The city offered to compensate residents who moved out of the area by Avenida Cesar Chavez bridge, but not everyone was convinced by the offer.

Adela Martinez, who first moved to the area in the 1920s, wanted to stay. “The newspapers said Adela did not want to move because she had been living in the same house all her life,” wrote her son in an essay for the New Mexico state historian. “But they missed the point completely because it wasn’t the house alone that was behind her determination not to move. It was something more powerful and gentle. It was the memories of her children playing in the yard, and the Mexican/Hispanic culture of Manuel Avenue SW that had found a loving home in the heart, soul and mind of Adela.” The Martinez Family decided to keep their home. To accommodate them, the center’s board flipped the designs for the NHCC and put the parking lot along Avenida Cesar Chavez. The Martinez house is still standing and occupied.

“The initial design was much larger than our current footprint for the campus,” Uremovich says. “By 1995, the concept was in place; Predock, the original architect, was already brought in by the Hispanic cultural division.”

Construction of the NHCC began in 1999. The work was split into three phases, the first calling for the building of a visual arts edifice and for the renovation of the Depression-era, Pueblo Revival-style schoolhouse on the campus.

The opening ceremony on Oct. 21, 2000, was an international affair. Don Felipe de Borbón, the prince of Spain, attended. Vice President

Al Gore spoke, as part of his campaign for the presidency. All told, thousands of people gathered for the event, despite the fact that the center still would require a great deal of construction afterward.

Work on the second phase included the Mayan-influenced shape of the Roy E. Disney Center for the Performing Arts, which ended in 2004. The Disney Center includes a 700-seat main theater and two smaller auditoriums. Aside from the performing arts center, one of the most visible features of the NHCC is El Gran Torreón, a tower inspired by traditional Hispanic defense structures. The interior is marked by a fresco that took artist Frederico Vigil a decade to complete. An attached visitor’s center is currently under construction. All told, the campus spans 20 acres. ◀

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