School of Arts and Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza: La Plaza pivots to help community in new ways

School of Arts and Culture at MHP: La Plaza pivots to help community in new ways

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the working-class Mayfair community in East San José – a landing place for immigrants – particularly hard. And the School of Arts and Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza (MHP), the operator of Mexican Heritage Plaza, pivoted to provide what community members needed.

“When we were supposed to stay home, our doors were wide open to ensure that our people had food, COVID testing and vaccination,” said Jessica Paz-Cedillos, School of Arts and Culture executive director and Silicon Valley Community Foundation Community Advisory Council member. The center became a food distribution site, a testing site, and later a vaccination site. Formerly in-person festivals became online or drive-through events.

“We saw 150,000 people walk through our doors” during the pandemic, Paz-Cedillos said.That included 25,000 who were vaccinated there, 52,000 who received food, and 15,000 who were tested for COVID-19. The center was also a voting site.

The School of Arts and Culture is both a cultural organization and a community hub, and it serves both the creative sector and the community around La Plaza, as the Mexican Heritage Plaza is called. As the pandemic progressed, the team considered how to restructure its leadership model and programs to be more responsive to the two communities it serves, both in good times and in moments of crisis.

“As we are looking at recovery, we can’t go back to the way things were,” Paz-Cedillos said.

Funding for New Directions

DancingThe School of Arts and Culture applied for and recently received a $50,000 LatinXCEL grant from Silicon Valley Community Foundation for leadership and programmatic restructuring.

The LatinXCEL Fund, launched in May 2021 in partnership with the Castellano Family Foundation, calls for vastly increased funding for Silicon Valley’s Latinx community leaders and Latinx-led nonprofits through targeted, long-term investments.

The fund reflects SVCF’s new focus on BIPOC, undocumented, and low-income communities and on movement- and power-building, especially for organizations with budgets of less than $3 million.

“It’s rooted in advancing equity and social justice,” said Manuel J. Santamaria, vice president of community action at SVCF.

The School of Arts and Culture is a longtime SVCF grantee. The group was awarded a grant before the pandemic and another to help them pivot when the pandemic hit. Now they have received grants from the LatinXCEL Fund and SVCF’s Arts and Culture Community Action grantmaking program.

Building on History

The Mexican Heritage Plaza was built 21 years ago and is owned by the City of San José. The School of Arts and Culture was created in 2011 and became the permanent operator of La Plaza in 2013. They have a 35-year lease from the city.

“We activated the space via arts education programming, festivals, and summer camps,” Paz-Cedillos said.

The center also hosts theater performances and festivals, and it is a place where nonprofits can hold conferences or fundraisers. The organization has a leadership program for artists of color, the Multicultural Arts Leadership Institute.

“While we are rooted in Mexican culture, history, traditions and heritage, we are a multicultural organization,” Paz-Cedillos said.

Helping Organizations Look to the Future

Restructuring is a work in progress, but the School of Arts and Culture is exploring what Paz-Cedillos calls a “co-leadership model” for herself and the associate director. They are also starting conversations about acquiring and developing property, in hopes of having a voice in the redevelopment of the Alum Rock corridor.

As they discuss property development, they are looking both at expanding their own programming and at what partners need to be brought into the community to expand safety-net services, for example. They are also considering the need for affordable housing.

“SVCF is investing in a bold vision in order to ensure the sustainability of a local asset that is well-known in the community and that represents so much for our people,” Paz-Cedillos said.

The goal of the LatinXCEL grants is to help organizations do this type of internal work – work that is not always appealing to funders since it doesn’t result in a new building or a widely publicized program.

“Many nonprofits will say it’s hard to find funds for the internal strengthening work they need to do,” said Stuart C. Burden, vice president of corporate and foundation relations at SVCF.“Many funders want to fund an activity or an initiative. The LatinXCEL grants are for capacity-building, so they can continue to deliver the kinds of excellent services that they have historically provided.”

The School of Arts and Culture at MHP’s work clearly aligns with the LatinXCEL Fund’s priorities. SVCF is proud to continue supporting this organization’s work as it seeks to expand reach beyond East San José and advance equity for communities of color.

Food Distribution Team