Viva La Peña

35 years of voicing opposition through music, art, and moxie

Osha Newman paints the center's "Cancion de la Libertad" mural in 1978

Here's to you, Salvador Allende. Our governmental baddies-that-were may have helped assassinate you over the copper-nationalizing ways of your democratically elected Chilean presidential administration. But in your passing, you inspired the birth of an East Bay community center focused on the use of art for social awakening. Which we're happy to tell you continues to be an integral part of our area's radical cultural milieu to this day. I'm talkin' about La Peña Cultural Center, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary Sat., June 5 — a day that will henceforth known as La Peña Day in Berkeley.

You should check it out, Mr. A. Oh wait — you've long since shuffled off this mortal coil. My bad. Pero no importa, mi amigo, I'll tell you about it.

Back in 1975, things were much as they are today, with bullheaded "leaders" encroaching on the sovereignty of other countries. Rankled over the turmoil in Chile, Panama, and Nicaragua, a cadre of political activists took over the rent of a defunct French restaurant in Berkeley.

And just what were these hippies and reds up to? The budding La Peña's aim was to disseminate information about the conflicts in a way that was not just educational but entertaining. "The core was to use art and music, because you can reach more people that way. It's much more accessible than political speeches," executive director Paul Chin tells me. Their model was the Chilean peñas where Allende began his political campaign — salons where art, politics, and community flowed comfortably.

I'm having this conversation with Chin in the center's lobby. On the walls around us is the center's 35th anniversary mural, painted by local artists collective Trust Your Struggle. It's a contemporary take on La Peña's frontal façade on Shattuck Avenue, an eye-popping 3-D work the center is known for. We're light-years and several generations from the center's first years, back before the Internet, before Bushes I and II (and Reagan!), before Shakira, even before Ricky Martin.

Back then, Chin tells me, art and music from the developing world was considered less sophisticated than their Western counterparts. So La Peña began bringing in acts from around the world, artists who could communicate the struggle in their own countries. For some, the fact that they were gracing an American stage was a political statement in and of itself. Over the years, a few got famous: Eddie Palmieri, Los Lobos, Julieta Venegas, and Isabel Allende have performed there — even folk legend Pete Seeger played a La Peña-sponsored show at Berkeley Community Theater.

The center has grown, offering art courses for youth and adults, gallery shows that include international and local artists, weekly jam sessions for immigrant communities. It has hosted cultural series in conjunction with numerous community groups, on Arab culture, on the black lesbian experience, on hip-hop. The center has multiple stages and one of the region's few Chilean restaurants attached to the lobby so "we can provide food for the body as well as the spirit," Chin said.

It's a successful exercise in cross-cultural understanding through art. "I'm proud to say that our stage has been reflective of most of the oppressed communities in the U.S.," Chin said. But it's an ongoing process. He recounts an incident with a male-dominated weekly drum session that was reported to be excluding women from hitting the skins. The artists were told to let the ladies play or leave. (Happily, they decided the space for their music was more important than their machismo).

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