Crossing the Borders of Culture and Politics

Paul Chin and Vanessa Whang talk about animating a Latin American Idea in the U.S..

By Vanessa Whang

"[La Peña is a] friendly portal to consciousness raising about social justice issues…"

"We make long-term commitments because we know the issues are not going to go away quickly"

Paul Chin was born in China and raised in a Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta farm town, a child of cannery workers. He spent time in Chile supporting the socialist government of Salvador Allende, taught English in Brazil, and in1979 was hired by La Peña to develop community programming.

Vanessa Whang joined the California Council for the Humanities in 2008 as director of programs. Before joining the staff there, she was a New York-based consultant with an interest in cultural equity, arts philanthropy, multidisciplinary arts production, community cultural development, and cross-sector partnerships.

La Peña Cultural Center (Berkeley, California) is a community cultural center that promotes peace, social justice, and cultural understanding through the arts, education, and social action. As a gathering place, La Peña provides opportunities for artists to share diverse cultural traditions, to create and perform their work, and to support and interface with diverse social movements. La Peña was started by a multiracial group of Latin Americans and North Americans as a response to the military coup that overthrew the socialist government of Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973, aided and abetted by the U.S. government. La Peña incorporated one year after the military coup and opened its doors in June 1975. Annually, La Peña presents over 200 events with emerging and established artists, organizes an arts education program, produces new works by local artists, presents internationally and nationally renowned artists, and houses a Latin American café that complements the organization’s mission.  

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When I heard about the idea of having conversation about work that bridges different sectors and the arts, one of the first organizations I thought of was La Peña Cultural Center—not that there aren’t loads of wonderful organizations around the country that have laudable cross-sector and holistic philosophies and programs. It’s just that La Peña happened to play a very formative role in my life, anchoring me in the nonprofit field precisely because I internalized its approach to arts and culture—as a friendly portal to consciousness-raising about social justice issues, and as essential components of what it means to be human in the myriad ways that this is expressed around the globe. I was introduced to the idea of cultural work at La Peña precisely at a time when I was looking for some deeper meaning in my activities as a musician. I became involved with La Peña in the early ’80s: first through joining its community chorus (that had a Latin American new song repertory) and as a student in its free Latin American music classes, then as a regular volunteer at its community events and cultural programs, then as a member of the staff collective,  and finally as a board member.


Working in communities that don’t have a lot of resources often means  you have to wear  many hats; and La Peña was no different. La Peña  moved seamlessly between providing  space for political updates about  various national and international issues and movements,  and presenting  artists from communities in turmoil and connecting them with displaced  compatriots or those who were interested in learning something new. It  served to help build  the capacity of other community groups to organize  events. It developed emerging artists  and supported artists insufficiently  acclaimed in the U.S., building audiences for them. It  offered arts training  not offered in schools or other venues, and built common cause around  ideas that might strike a chord among disparate people and groups.

It has been 13 years since I worked at La Peña, so I thought it would be  good to have a  look at how the organization is functioning now, and to do  that through a historical lens.  Clearly the person to talk to was Paul Chin  —someone who was there before I got there,  who was there when I left, and who is there for the long haul. I interviewed Paul in  December 2007  to get his perspective on how La Peña has been able to work with so  many  different kinds of communities over the years—across lines of race  and ethnicity, culture and  politics, the local and global.

Paul has been on the staff of La Peña since 1979, though he began volunteering there in 1976 after returning from a Venceremos Brigade trip  to Cuba.

“I think, from my personal viewpoint, when you are involved with activist  organizing, it involves building bridges in order to build a bigger, broader  movement and to involve more people in a collective cause. You want to  build broad coalitions. And you want to find allies who you can call on when the chips are down.

I learned about building a broad front when I was in a student group working for ethnic studies at San Francisco State [University]. It’s important to create and build messages that resonate broadly. Being a part of the Third World Coalition Liberation Front, we had to work across racial and ethnic divides and political divides as well. Although I was a member of Inter-Collegiate Chinese for Social Action, I personally felt more comfortable associating with bohemian/artists groups at that time because they were just more relaxed about things than some of the heavy politicos.

Part of the ‘social revolution’ in the ‘60s was about living life differently and questioning the existing social order. I was influenced by the Summer of Love—though I wouldn’t call myself a hippie, even if other people did. Like other young people, I sported long hair and experimented with an alternative lifestyle. I was circulating with all these artist types, like poet Alan Lau, writer Frank Chin, filmmaker Curtis Choy, and a political group that was organizing for social services in Chinatown [Inter-Collegiate Chinese for Social Action]. At that time, there were also a lot of different groups that were trying to build an alternative party. Later going into the ’70s, I recall a lot of those debates happening at La Peña. I was personally drawn into La Peña because of the arts and political context, and because of my experiences of having been in Chile and traveling in Latin America. It was at La Peña that I saw the power of art to transform people.”

Paul then talked about how throughout the history of La Peña the organization has always tried to build bridges with social justice issues, and didn’t see itself as an ‘arts organization’ strictly speaking.

“The broad mission of La Peña is to link ourselves to grassroots work that isn’t necessarily arts related. Like issues of infant mortality, opposition to Proposition 209 [the anti-affirmative-action ballot measure], and the farm workers—issue-based agitation. In the early days, we thought of ourselves as a social service agency. It was in the ’80s that we worked with a consultant through support from the California Arts Council who helped us define ourselves as an arts organization.”

Eric [Leenson, one of the organization’s founders] saw La Peña in the lineage of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade [volunteers from the U.S. who fought in the Spanish Civil War against Franco]. He went to Chile as a Fulbright scholar, met Victor Jara, and brought back the ‘peña model.’ [This model was one of a gathering place that combined culture and politics.] He wanted to politicize people with information through culture. Other founders—like Chileans Carlos Baron, and Hugo and Patricia Brenni—understood this model. Hugo and Patricia were cooks so, like in Chile, having a gathering space like a café became an important part of La Peña. It was a place for people to interact in an informal way.

Even if La Peña didn’t think of itself as an arts presenter early on, the view of culture as an entry point for people to become familiar with other countries and then their socio-political and economic issues has been a fundamental one for how La Peña operates.

We always worked with theater people, like early on when Danny Glover came and wanted to do a production of The Island, Athol Fugard’s play. We would always take chances with projects that were politically progressive but financially risky. In the early days it was easier to take chances. Now we have to look more at the economic consequences of our decisions. Back then, we didn’t really present as much as make a space available to the community. We saw ourselves as a community gathering place where art and politics and food would bring people together to contribute to building a mass movement to change U.S. domestic and foreign policy.


The music classes [for many years subsidized by the California Arts  Council] have been a great way for people from different backgrounds to  meet, and also for people who are not necessarily politicized when they  come in. There are also progressive people who link up with other people  through the classes and go on to help build movements. For example, Dr. Loco [an alias for Prof. José Cuellar at San Francisco State University]  teaches accordion at La Peña, but also curates some of the music  programming and helps organize forums on immigration.”

When asked if La Peña is more reactive or proactive in the way it tries to  link up cultural activities with social issues, Paul explains that the center not only responds to who walks in the door, but that the organization creates opportunities for bridge building. 

“Sometimes the way it works is staff members find issues that they  strongly identify with—like with the Fruitvale Project. Elia Arce [a U.S.-  based Costa Rican theater artist] was asked to do a two-year residency on issues of immigration in the Fruitvale neighborhood [a low-income area of East Oakland with many Latino immigrants], mentoring younger artists on how to work with communities. The Spanish-Speaking Citizens Foundation and the Unity Council were the neighborhood partners we worked with.

In practical terms, how we do this kind of work is we look for appropriate partners, we look for appropriate artists. And it’s good to know what  people’s reputations are in their own community. And we make long-term commitments because we know the issues are not going to go away  quickly.

It’s also about professional development. In the Fruitvale Project, there  were workshops for the spoken word artists we worked with in writing,lighting, stagecraft, self-presenting, finding community partners, and doing oral history. It’s not just about the performance; there are workshops and educational activities. Our Hecho en Califas Festival, like the Fruitvale Project, featured a local artist whose spoken word/music performance looked at the murders of women on the border near Ciudad Juarez. There was a writing workshop for young Latina writers, and they had a chance to perform their work. That was led by the artist Mamacoatl.”

La Peña has been doing this kind of work for over 32 years. I ask Paul how they have been able to sustain the level and quality of work they do.

“We try to keep the work at a manageable scale for the staff. Whatever issue you engage in, you always need to assess your limitations and assets. You have to understand not only your own capacity, but the capacity of your partners to make things work. It’s good to have people on staff who reflect the people you are working with in order to build trust. Communication is a two-way street. Things can get lost in translation. Partnership terms need to be laid out as clearly as possible and in a way that’s intelligible to both parties. You have to ask ‘Will we still respect each other after this is over?’ We enter each collaboration with the hope of long-term, sustainable relationships.”

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After speaking with Paul, I thought about the quiet but dogged way La Peña has always done its work, though the focus has moved from the international solidarity movements of the ’70s and ’80s to more locally-centered work with youth, the progressive spoken word and hip-hop movements, as well as national issues concerning immigration and affirmative action. But La Peña also remains rooted in an internationalist/global perspective, never forgetting the lessons of its beginnings (having been founded on September 11, 1974—the first anniversary of the U.S.-supported military coup that overthrew President Allende of Chile), and staying alive to U.S. interventions globally.

Though Paul has been on the staff of La Peña for almost 30 years, he doesn’t put himself  forward as the front man of the organization. There has always been a rejection of ‘the cult of  personality’ at the Center, and that ethic of maintaining a flat power structure is underlain by a deep belief in the talents and assets that different people bring to the work. It is that belief and respect that has enabled La Peña to build relationships across all kinds of difference.

When I was at La Peña, I had the privilege of working with people who had an enormous  amount of integrity and commitment, who were smart, good-hearted, and good-humored as  well (if you can’t maintain a sense of humor about doing woefully under-resourced social  change work, you won’t last), and who were incredibly fair-minded and honest. I found and  still find La Peña’s valuing of creative processes, not just products, and looking underneath those processes to uncover diverse ways of thinking and being in the world to be extremely  resonant and wise.

 *La Peña has a governing structure that functions like a workers’ collective. The role of executive director is not the traditional one found in most nonprofit organizations.

 Original CAN/API publication: April 2008