The Story Behind La Casa de la Raza’s Lawyer-Led Lockdown

President Lisa Valencia-Sherratt Addresses Rumors Surrounding Center’s Dark Summer

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

La Casa de la Raza — a fixture in the historical Mexican-American culture of Santa Barbara ever since it opened its doors 50 years ago in 1971 — has been mired in legal trouble in recent years, and struggles with operations and a second bankruptcy case have sparked rumors that the Chicano community resource center may have closed its doors for good.

A social media post from October 8 by community activist and perennial city council candidate Cruzito Cruz lamented that La Casa had “closed its last door” and claimed that the locks were changed on the César Chavez Center at 601 E. Montecito Street.

The locks were in fact changed and the doors locked — at least for now —  but the decision to cease operations is part of a court-issued agreement in the Chapter 7 involuntary bankruptcy filed by three lawyers who represented La Casa in its last bankruptcy case, which was dismissed in September 2018.

The nonprofit’s current president, Lisa Valencia-Sherratt, responding to the post, said that La Casa is far from finished. “The assumption is that a bank sold La Casa or something like that,” Valencia-Sherratt told the Independent. “The ironic part: The security is to preserve the building.”

“The bankruptcy case went longer than we’d hoped, and while the court still figures out a lot of details of what goes where to who — they decided La Casa needed to pause its operations, and the building itself too,” Valencia-Sherratt wrote in her response on Facebook. 

According to documents in the most recent involuntary bankruptcy filed in March, the lawyers are claiming $212,269 in unpaid services. The three creditors are Kelley Clarke PC, Christman Kelley & Clarke PC, and the Bensamochan Law Firm.

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According to court documents, La Casa was informed of the involuntary bankruptcy in late March and failed to file a timely response, leading to an “order of relief” being entered on May 10. According to court documents, this order of relief meant that a “trustee” was appointed in charge of all operations and property including keys, alarm codes, and control of the building itself.

At the end of July, the trustee, Jeremy Faith, ordered La Casa to “cease operations,” including to stop offering services remotely as it had been doing throughout the pandemic. It was Faith that ordered the locks changed and building shut down on October 7, which Valencia-Sherratt said was in order to protect the property from squatters who had previously broken in and caused damage to the building.

Janet Lawson is currently representing La Casa and recently filed a motion for dismissal on the case, arguing that the three creditors don’t have proper grounds and that a nonprofit corporation that offers community resources should not be forced to shut down during proceedings. The next court date is set for October 28.

While operations at La Casa de la Raza are tied up in court, Valencia-Sherratt said there was a light at the end of the dark tunnel — a new “little sister” organization, to be called La Casita — which will operate as a family services center and pop-up resource distribution at local events. 

“La Casita will be open for helping the community starting on the Eastside soon, as soon as it has a new home,” she said. The first pop-up event will be part of the Día de los Muertos celebration at Ortega Park on November 7, with more in the works as organizers find a fiscal sponsor for the location. Valencia-Sherratt is hoping La Casita will allow the community to receive the support, mental health, food distribution, and more that have been missing while La Casa de la Raza is in limbo. 

The matter is far from resolved, she says, but with community support, La Casa de La Raza could experience a “rebirth” for the next generation in the Chicano community.

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