La Casa de la Raza | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

If a landmark designation qualifies as the ultimate act of love in the City of Santa Barbara, La Casa de la Raza got a unanimous declaration of adoration from the City Council this Tuesday. The councilmembers designated La Casa’s building at 601 East Montecito Street a landmark for its mix of Spanish-Colonial architecture and its famous Chicanismo-themed murals inside made by Santa Barbara muralist Manuel Unzueta. But more than that, the one-time lumberyard converted into a Latino community center at the height of the brown-pride movement in the 1970s was designated for what it embodied. It was a cultural and political meeting ground for artists, musicians, athletes, dancers, social service providers, public speakers, tutors, teachers, political activists, and those in need of space to celebrate a quinceañera.

Speaking at the Tuesday council meeting were many who remembered La Casa in its heyday. Frank Rodriguez of CAUSE harkened to La Casa’s role in the struggles for immigrant rights, recalling that he was in 2nd grade in 1992 when California voters approved Prop. 187, which denied undocumented immigrants access to a host of social services. Rodriguez remembered how the playground at Franklin Elementary School was all but empty. When he asked where the other kids were, he said, he was told they’d all gone to La Casa de la Raza.

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Even in recent years, when La Casa had fallen on hard financial times, facing foreclosure actions, La Casa provided a haven for people during the Thomas Fire and the 1/9 Debris Flow. During the pandemic, La Casa provided space for organizations distributing food and assistance to those facing sudden economic hardship.

Landmark status will protect the building from certain types of changes that its advocates worried might be planned by Tomas Castelo, who gained ownership in the recent foreclosure action. Castelo was the first president of La Casa de la Raza when it was initially founded in 1970. His ultimate plans for the building — a three-story stucco with a distinctive octagonal tower — are not clear, but his relations with La Casa’s current board members have not been without turbulence. Still, he and they have reportedly been trying to come to an understanding that allows for many of the defining functions that have been taking place at La Casa to continue.

Activist and La Casa board president Ana Rosa Rizo-Santino spoke about the unsung women who over the years kept La Casa’s doors open, saying they “quietly gave but got no flowers.” She thanked the mayor and councilmembers “for giving La Casa de la Raza the flowers it deserves.”

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