With their children by their side, residents who use the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center criticized the Austin parks department for not doing enough to involve the Spanish-speaking community in plans to expand the facility.
Austin parks officials, who have been working for months with architects on plans to add a theater, additional parking, shade structures, palm trees and a grand entrance to the cultural center, held their first Spanish-language discussion group Monday evening to discuss the design.
Some residents urged the city to keep in mind the community members who use the center, and they questioned why they had never heard of the open houses and focus group meetings that have been taking place since last June.
Cara Welch, a public information specialist with the parks department, told the audience that the city had been sending information through email, online postings and by word of mouth with community members. But those in the audience said they wanted the city to take a more hands-on approach to connect with people in the community.
“We can help you,” María Luisa Gutiérrez, with the theater company Proyecto Teatro, told Welch in Spanish during the meeting. “Why don’t we do things correctly? If your meetings weren’t with people like this diverse community, why not think, ‘Let’s start (with) a clean slate. Let’s contact artists, people who are here and who can help.’”
Welch said Monday’s event was held at the request of community members who wanted a meeting in Spanish.
“This community felt like they had a voice and they wanted to be heard, so we responded to that in a way to make sure that we created an opportunity where they could be heard,” Welch said.
Before Monday’s meeting, the Austin Parks and Recreation Department held 11 discussion groups and three open houses with Spanish interpretation. Registration sheets show 27 participants for the November and December focus groups. The open houses drew 80 people in June, 60 people in October and 45 people earlier this month.
Jaime Beaman, the architect leading the master plan process, said the Spanish-language discussion on Monday was the best attended of the focus groups. While the previous ones were attended by adults only, the discussion Monday drew about 45 people, including more than 20 children who participate in theatrical programming at the center.
“They know what they want,” Beaman said. “They really need to be included when it comes to the detailed design.”
And that night, community members made it clear they didn’t want to be an afterthought.
When Tejano artist Leonard Davila, 69, said he would like to see an auditorium that could seat thousands, parents were quick to say they want a center that is designed for community purposes, not a venue for events drawing thousands of tourists.
Julia de los Santos, 42, was one of those parents. Two of her children, ages 13 and 9, attend Proyecto Teatro programming at the center. “(The center) is very important for the community who uses it, because I feel that this is for them like a business. They are not giving us the space we need,” she said.
Beaman said that sentiment echoes what the city and architects heard at previous focus groups.
“The MACC is an incubator for the community. While we invite tourists into the MACC, this is not a tourist destination,” Beaman said in an interview. “This is where the community comes to learn and grow their culture.”