Cross-Cultural Work Curation History and Heritage Showcase

Erin Wolter, El Centro Cultural Hispano de San Marcos

During the Spring semester of 2013, I interned at El Centro Cultural Hispano de San Marcos. Centro Cultural Hispano de San Marcos was a dream that Mrs. Ofelia Trinidad Vasquez Philo (Hereafter Mrs. Philo) had for more than 30 years before she finally obtained the old Southside Elementary School Building. She grew up in the area and noticing the prejudice and lack of resources for Hispanic citizens, decided that she wanted a place where people could come together and help each other and their community while also endeavoring to preserve their Hispanic culture and values. She carried this dream for years until she finally got the opportunity to make her dream come true.

In 2007, a planning group was established to make El Centro a reality. One member, Lup Costilla made a presentation to the Minority Arts Commission for support. Upon their disbanding, the Minority Arts Commission made a motion to donate the money they had left to El Centro Cultural Hispano.  Mrs. Philo then met with the San Marcos CISD Superintendent about the old Southside/Bonham School that had remained unused for years. Once the superintendent drew up the contract, it was official; Centro Cultural Hispano de San Marcos was born.

The goals of Centro are to help Hispanic kids in the community to learn, stay grounded, and prepare for higher education. However, the mission of Centro goes far deeper than that. Officially, their mission statement is: “The mission of Centro Cultural Hispano de San Marcos (CCHDSM) is to serve as a community beacon for the preservation, development, promotion, and celebration of the Hispanic arts, culture, heritage, and values.” They not only have tutoring, piano lessons, accordion lessons, and ballet folklórico classes for children, but they also offer classes for adults in ballet folklórico, cooking Mexican food without added fat and lard (to try to prevent diabetes which has become a large health concern in the Hispanic population), and art classes for both children and adults in traditional Mexican crafts.

One of my duties was to write placards, or descriptions, of the artifacts already housed in the museum. This was an interesting task in part because I got to do research on many types of artifacts, but mainly because I didn’t know what a lot of the items were. I am not Hispanic, and a lot of the items were very culturally specific. For example, we have cornhusk dolls, yoyo pillows, 5 old wooden rosaries, clay pots and dishes, molcajetes, matates, “cancionero” books, among others. When I first began writing the placards, I didn’t know why some of these things were important because it isn’t a part of my culture. So I did my research (through the internet, books, and interviews) and talked to people at El Centro about the artifacts. The cornhusk dolls were made by disabled women in Mexico who make the traditional dolls as a way to supplment their income. The yoyo pillows were present in every Mexican home and were made from old clothes and blankets. The rosaries came from an old hacienda in Eagle Pass, Texas and were used on the altar of their chapel. The clay pots were used to cook and make hot chocolate. The matates and molcajetes were, and still are, used to cook and make salsas, guacamoles, and other foods. The “canicioneros” (or “Singers”) books were collected by Mrs. Philo when she was a girl and they featured the most famous Mexican singers of the day. I learned a lot about the culture by researching the kinds of things they use every day, but that I would not normally encounter as a non-Hispanic individual.

I also helped scan and retouch old photographs of people in San Marcos. As an avid amateur photographer, this was a very fun project, and one that I was very passionate about. I was given a series of about ten photographs. They were all old, some were originals and some were copies. I scanned them into my computer, and I was able to get rid of folds, stains, rips, and other damage to the photographs on a computer program called Adobe Photoshop. We then printed the photos and mounted them on cardstock to be displayed in the museum. The difference in the photos was amazing and I was so pleased to hear so many people at El Centro comment on how wonderful it was to see such beautiful photos of their family and friends. Restoring the photographs was my favorite duty at El Centro. Photographs give one an incredible chance to literally see into the past, and I believe they are a crucial part of a museum exhibit for that reason. I have offered to continue retouching photographs at El Centro as a volunteer, and already, many more photographs have been donated.

The most difficult part of getting a museum started, in my experience, is deciding what narrative to tell. All museums are slightly different, but all good museums use their artifacts to tell a story. The story that a museum decides on is crucial. It is the foundation for the artifacts to be accepted and the exhibits to be created. The narrative is everything. This, however, is what I happened to overlook at the beginning of my internship.

My supervisor wanted to jump straight in with labels for the museum and, so I began to get ready for that. However, when writing placards, the descriptions for the artifacts on display, I realized that I was merely describing the artifacts and not using them to tell an overall story; they had no cultural significance. This realization was only made stronger after a discussion with my internship coordinator, Dr. Hadder. He asked what our narrative at the museum was and I threw out some information, but when I got to thinking about it, I drew a blank. I then proceeded to sit down with my supervisor at work, Mrs. Bobbie Garza Hernandez, and really flesh out what our narrative would be. This experience opened my eyes to the importance of getting this good solid base around which the museum would be built. After talking with Mrs. Garza-Hernandez, we came up with a narrative, which we then proposed to the museum committee who ratified it.

To come up with a narrative for the museum, there were a few things we had to consider. We needed to decide what kind of museum we were and what kind of museum we wanted to be. We were already a community museum, which is usually part of a bigger entity, in this case, a community center. We also wanted to be a narrative museum that tells a story with the artifacts as visual evidence and has an educational goal.

From there, we discussed what we wanted to focus on in the museum. In the end, the committee and I came up with the following narrative:

“The Centro’s Museum will look at the development of Mexican-American communities in the Greater San Marcos Area. This will include looking at the founding families and their careers, churches, organizations, schools, etc. We will aim to show the integration of Mexican-Americans over time by displaying (on maps) the different barrios (“neighborhoods”) and their chronologies.”

During my time at Centro, I also learned a great deal about the importance of curation. Curation, put simply, is the managing of artifacts within a museum, archive, or repository. When I began to look at the artifacts in El Centro, I noticed that some had curation needs that were not being met. For example, there were photographs with scotch tape and electrical tape on them. The acid contained in the tape will not only eat through the emulsion on the photograph, but also eat through the photograph paper itself, ruining the precious photo.

During my internship at El Centro Cultural Hispano de San Marcos, I learned a lot about the Mexican American culture. It was especially nice since my minor is Spanish, so I also got to utilize that and practice with my co-workers at El Centro. I was lucky enough to grow up in a solid middle-class family of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and I never suffered any real hardships, but the people at El Centro have. Frank Contreras, the old principal of Southside School (as well as a former student), gave a speech at the historical marker dedication ceremony about the educational injustices experienced not only by him but also by his friends, family, and neighbors. His speech was so sad and so moving. He remembers being called names, being looked down upon, and having people assume he was stupid just because he was Mexican. I grew up hearing about injustices, but it was a real eye-opening experience to talk to Mr. Contreras and hear about it from him.

I was worried, going into the internship, because I don’t belong to the Mexican-American culture. I felt like maybe I didn’t belong at El Centro and that maybe I shouldn’t help create a museum about what I didn’t know. But I always felt welcomed and everyone always greeted me with a smile. It was a warm and comfortable place to work and I will always value the friends I made there. I would strongly recommend El Centro as a place to work.

In the future I hope to attend graduate school focusing on Cultural Anthropology. Whether that will take me the museum and curation route I don’t know. But I do know that museums will always be a huge part of my life, and this experience has only strengthened that desire. It takes a lot more work than I ever imagined starting a museum from the ground up, and it has given me a newfound appreciation for them.

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The Internship Coordinator

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