Across Town from Fiesta, El Centro Celebrates Community

Holds Art and Poetry Party

Poetry is an important aspect of El Centro, and the open mic nights give it a connecting force for the Santa Barbara community.
Jackie Botts

This past Friday night, as thousands milled around downtown in their Old Spanish Days getups, smashing cascarones on each other’s heads and getting smashed on margaritas, a very different scene took place at El Centro, a volunteer-run community center nestled within the lower Westside, which describes itself as a radically inclusive space “for the community, by the community.”

The event, which kicked off at 4 p.m. and lasted till 10, was many things at once: an art session, a barbecue, a birthday celebration, a send-off, and a powerful and packed open mic. It also coincided with the approximate one-year anniversary of El Centro, the end of Escuelita, a youth-oriented summer program, and the inauguration of an enormous mural. For five weeks the students of Escuelita had added fresh paint to the wall, manifesting the themes they had learned that week in workshops, ranging from Gentrification to Intersectionality to Chumash Ecological and Social Practices.

El Centro is big on radical organizing and de-Colonial teachings, but instead of an anti-Fiesta demonstration, it was holding its own remembrance of history. Kids were painting large green and violet leaves onto a dark purple wall (soon recruiting passing reporters with paintbrushes), while other youngsters raced around a group of teenagers who sat laughing in a circle on the lawn. Outside, men grilled ribs and chorizo next to a spectacular array of torta fixings, salads, fruit, and cookies. One woman’s exploratory toddler was passed between at least five different sets of arms throughout the night, bathed in coos and kisses.

Delineations between friend, family, neighbor, and collaborator were indiscernible. Nearly everyone held some role: board member, youth mentor, organizer, resident poet. Boardmember Simone Baker explained that this is very intentional: Each community member has something to give to the space. Citing a principle central to the Black Lives Matter movement, for which she is also a local cofacilitator, Baker explained, “We are dedicated to having a low-ego and a high-impact. It’s intentionally not about just one person or one identity but rather community and youth.”

Vivid murals border El Centro: a beautifully detailed dark-skinned woman with brown wavy locks and bright red lips lined with yellow roses and a blue hummingbird, next to her a yellow sunset behind green and blue trees, and an adjacent purple wall detailed with white, green, and lavender leaves.

“Fem God,” responded youth art and mural instructor and El Centro boardmember Gabriel Cardenas when asked who the woman was on the wall. He circles back to earlier Mexican muralism where women aren’t portrayed in a dominant role — following traditional patriarchal standards. “We try to use the space to get in touch with our cultural roots,” Cardenas said. Growing up with his mom and sister, Cardenas was motivated to give thanks to the women in his life by creating this mural — also representing her as Mother Earth and showcasing what she gives to the world. Along with local rapper and activist Alas, Cardenas was one of the featured poets in the Noche de Poetry, which opened with a Chumash song sung by two Santa Barbara brothers.

About a year ago, Boardmember Chelsea Lancaster, a program advisor at Santa Barbara City College, and other local organizers began the process of reclaiming the vacant building, which had previously been managed by the county, to create a community center that would respond to the needs of the lower Westside, a mostly Latino neighborhood that Baker described as underserved and overworked. Initially, SBCC students utilized the space for youth to access often-overlooked artistic resources. Organizers then formed writing circles for formerly incarcerated folks, which expanded to encompass people of all identities.

Noche de Poetry y Open Mic Night grew about half a year later — an event that welcomes individuals of all backgrounds and languages. Poetry is an important aspect of El Centro since it is seen as a connecting force within the Santa Barbara community. Jonathan Gomez, research assistant at the UCSB Center for Black Studies Research and boardmember of El Centro, describes the night as a “space where people can speak out loud about the things that people demand and need.” El Centro is now the regular home for danza azteca classes, a pop-up bookstore and café, and local justice group meetings. “Community is not found, it’s forged, it’s created,” Gomez said.

Most recently El Centro hosted Escuelita, an educational and cultural program designed to fill the gap in locally relevant ethnic studies programs in Santa Barbara schools. Organizers went door to door in the surrounding neighborhoods to get the word out to parents and kids. They modeled the five week summer program after a volunteer-run, independent Saturday School in Los Angeles called Escuelita Aztlán and the Freedom Schools of the civil rights movement.

Youth mentors and partner organizations (Future Leaders of America, Ethnic Studies Now, Black Lives Matter, CAUSE [Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy], Just Communities, and the Museum of Contemporary Art) led educational workshops on Tuesdays and Thursdays, cultural food and danza classes on Wednesdays, and arts sessions on Fridays — all free of charge and accompanied by a meal.

While more than a few open mic performers called attention to the brutal colonial history that Fiesta celebrations happily brush over — or even reinforce — it also became clear that the event was not about being in opposition to anything, but rather a celebration of the community that El Centro has become.

“We at El Centro are more than what we are against. We are for each other, which means we also spend time investing in our own communities,” Baker affirmed. “This is resistance as well.”