Director says facility provides essential access to the arts

Ofelia Vasquez-Philo had dreamed of Centro Cultural Hispano de San Marcos for 35 years.

In September 2009, that dream began to solidify when the former Bonham Elementary School building became available for lease. As soon as Vasquez-Philo saw the space, she said knew her dream would become reality.

A flood of paperwork followed, but when it all settled, Vasquez-Philo and her planning group had secured the building.

The center has been housed in the former school for three years, and Vasquez-Philo and her team have set about filling it with the treasures of their Hispanic heritage.

Vasquez-Philo said the facility provides many Hispanic artists and leaders in the area with a place to show off their work while also grooming the next generation of San Marcos artists and leaders.

"The minute we opened the doors to this place, people just came in, and they've been coming ever since," she said. "They like what we offer, and they feel comfortable because we're in the middle of the barrio."

A "wall of fame" has been erected in the main lobby where visitors are greeted by portraits of many of the city's past Hispanic leaders, including Luciano Flores, the first Hispanic mayor of San Marcos; Celestino Mendez, the first Hispanic person to serve on the San Marcos CISD school board; and the smiling face of Vasquez-Philo, the first Hispanic woman elected to that school board.

Vasquez-Philo said she was concerned that many minority families lacked the resources to pay for extracurricular activities, so Centro makes those areas of study accessible to the community, offering free classes in piano, accordion, mariachi, ballet and art.

"If you want a child to be a well-rounded intellect, he needs the arts," she said. "The arts are very essential. Music is like food for the brain. You can express your feelings by singing, dancing [or] playing an instrument, so that's what we're trying to do."

In addition to extracurricular activities, Centro offers tutoring in science and math. Vasquez-Philo has made it a personal mission to ensure that students who are lagging behind their peers have an opportunity to catch up.

San Marcos Mayor Daniel Guerrero praised Centro's volunteers, staff and board for their willingness to archive the effect that Hispanics, who account for 37.8 percent of the city's population, according to the 2010 census, have had on San Marcos.

"You want to do your best to try to collect these stories and these articles now before they're gone and we're never able to recapture them again," Guerrero said.

The center plans to host several events for Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15–Oct. 15.

Vasquez-Philo said the group is still working out details, but among the planned activities are a healthy tamale showcase at which attendees will learn how to make tamales with vegetables and olive oil instead of pork and lard, presentations at San Marcos schools, and various recitals performed by the center's students.

"You have a better sense of yourself when you know where you came from, where your ancestors came from," she said. "You learn why you are the way you are."

Centro Cultural Hispano de San Marcos, 211 E. Lee St., San Marcos, 878-0640,