East LA's Venerable Self Help Graphics Arts Center to Close in Six Months

Self Help Graphics has been an East LA institution for more than 30 years. A few days ago, word got out that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which holds the deed to SHG's building, sold the structure to a private developer. SHG has six months to move out.

Self Help Graphics is situated in a large 1920s-era building with arts workspaces, a performance space, art gallery, and print shop on the corner of Cesar Chavez and Gage avenues. Its outside facade is covered in colorful mosaic; a mural is located across the street. For years it was the home of the city's largest Day of the Dead celebration, among other art shows, performances, readings, musical events, theater, and more.

I've performed my poetry there many times, including having a packed community event with my then 17-year-old son after "Always Running" first got published and with a "Voices of Youth" event featuring poetry by neighborhood children and teenagers from Homeboy Industries, sponsored by the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation.

My roots to SHG, however, go back to the late 1970s. I found a local Chicano writers' organization in Highland Park called LA Latino Writers Association (LALWA), headed up then by Victor M. Valle. I was in my mid-20s, hungry for life, art, a new beginning, and connection to other writers. I worked in various industrial and construction jobs, garnering skills like mechanics, carpentry, welding, pipefitting, and such. But my passion was poetry, odd as this may seem.

At the time, I lived in the City Terrace hills just above where Self Help Graphics is located. We soon moved LALWA's operations there. In the early 1980s, the LA Latino Writers Association published ChismeArte magazine (then produced by Guillermo Bejarano and others), organized the Latino Reading Series, and the Barrio Writers Workshops. By 1982, I became director of LA Latino Writers Association, editor of ChismeArte, and a facilitator of the Barrio Writers Workshops. Some of the writers and artists who came through our organization included Roberto Rodriguez (now a nation-wide columnist and author), Helena Viramontes (the acclaimed novelist and short story writer), Marisela Norte (the Poet Laureate of East LA), Naomi Quinonez (a poet and anthology editor), Sybil Venegas (now head of Chicano Studies at East LA College), Barbara Carrasco (an acclaimed Chicana artist), and many more.

Manual "Manazar" Gamboa was involved then (also heading this work and the Concilio de Arte Popular), becoming my friend and mentor--he was the first to take me to Chino Prison to facilitate writing workshops there and other interesting places, something I've been doing now in prisons, juvenile lockups, homeless shelters, migrant camps, schools, and Native American reservations for 30 years.

During this time, I met Sister Karen Boccalero, who founded Self Help Graphics in the early 1970s out of a garage. Sister Karen was an artist as well as an arts administrator who embraced the local artists, bands, poets, photographers, sculptors, and more--including a shy, often drunk, and inexperienced young poet named Luis Rodriguez. She created a thriving center of print art, visual art, avant garde, innovative and impeccably unique Chicano creativity. Los Illegals and other early 80s bands played there. Gronk, Willie Herron, Harry Gamboa, Frank Romero, Eloy Torres, Miquel Amescua, Yreina Cervantez, Leo Limon, Chaz Bojorquez, Peter Tovar, Patssi Valdez, and many others made art, did workshops, and established East LA as a world-class center of the arts (known more outside the US--in the US. East LA has mostly been depicted as a poor working class and immigrant Mexican community without much to offer except violence and noise. SHG proved there was more to this community, particularly when it came to creative capacity).

For about six months, Sister Karen gave me a small office facing Chavez Avenue (it was known as Brooklyn Avenue then) from which I managed the funds and operations of LALWA and its magazine. Who else would do this? Who else would invest in unknown, but committed individuals, to take a chance on art and literature that nobody else would bother with?

I honor Sister Karen for her bravery, dedication, and ongoing support. In the long run it paid off--like I said, several of our writers are now renown. Chicano artists and musicians that began at SHG are now showing in major galleries, public spaces, and even the entertainment industry. The majority of the artists displayed in the LA County Museum of the Art's exhibit of the private collection of actor/comedian Cheech Marin, presently being shown, began at Self Helf Graphics.

As I said, my own success had seeds there. Now I have 13 books, most of which are acclaimed, including the best-selling "Always Running." I also now helped create a bookstore and cultural center in the Northeast San Fernando Valley called Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural, Inc. that would not exist today if it weren't for Sister Karen and Self Help Graphics.

Sister Karen, unfortunately, passed away in 1997. Many of her students and fellow artists took up SHG's mantle and continued the work, even at great odds. The LA Times today (July 10, 2008) made it appear that everything went down hill after Sister Karen's passing. As always, when a founder of an institution goes much of what that person helped establish may go awry. But the artists, administrative staff, and board have done a great job trying to keep things going. Yes, mistakes were made. Yes, funding was hard to come by, and, yes, more should have been done. But what was done is substantial.

There is a rumor that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is selling the building to pay off multi-million dollar lawsuits related to the priest-abuse scandal. This would be an awful shame. The Archdiocese is denying this, but still it begs the question--why sell the building under the SHG board's nose and not work with the community in keeping this space open?

Yes, it's true that Self Help Graphics can still exist in another incarnation--it's the spirit, not the building, that must live on (it already is in places like Tia Chucha's). But as everyone knows, obtaining other buildings, especially in this tight economy, with little funding support, would be quite a massive undertaking.

But all things are possible, something Sister Karen instilled in many of us. I say LA city and county officiasl, the artists, the poets, the musicians, and arts organizers should come together and work out a plan, funding sources, and a timeline to keep Self Help Graphics alive -- at the same space or at a comparable or even better space in East LA.

We will also need the will of policy makers, funders, developers, and others to make this happen.

To me one of the most important issues facing the arts today is the increase in closures involving cultural spaces, independent bookstores, theaters, and art galleries. In the Los Angeles area alone, over the last two to three years we've lost Dutton's Bookstore, the Midnight Special Bookstore, Bohemias Books, 33 & 1/3, Luna Sol Cafe, Antigua Cafe, Tia Chucha's Cafe Cultural (now in a smaller space with no cafe), Under the Bridge Bookstore, Carla's Passion Art Gallery, and now Self-Help Graphics. We need public policy to safeguard these institutions. They are not considered "money-makers," although they can be successful. They do, however, provide for a quality of life and bring new artist/writers/musicians/performers to the world.

Self Help Graphics is a case in point.

A neighborhood arts policy should include subsidizing rents; help in buying property or in building spaces; tax write offs for developers who include such spaces in their developments; more arts funding for neighborhood arts, including cultural spaces; and more. It should include having all the arts in every school as part of every curriculum with adequate materials, supplies, spaces, and instruments (a friend of mine who teaches band in Compton for a time had classes with students, but no instruments).

Let's make this crisis a catalyst. Let's help make community arts, as exemplified by Sister Karen and Self Help Graphics, a reality all over the LA area.

A community without the arts has no heart.


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