The rise and fall of Centro Comunitario

By Carolyn Barbre

The ink wasn't hardly dry on a story in last week's Gazette about how the community center at 140 W. Honolulu St. had changed it's name to El Quinto Sol Centro Comunitario, and expanded its activities, when we got a call that the doors had closed, possibly for good.

"What happened? That's the big question," said Dr. Saundra Sturdevant last Thursday from her residence in Three Rivers. "I think we're all still examining what happened." Sturdevant said the Migrant Photography Project (MPP), documenting in images and words the lives and work of Mexican migrant women in Central California, has been housed in a building owned by the Lindsay Unified School District for the last five years. She said the roof of the building became waterlogged so MPP had to move. This spring they found the old Lindsay Gazette building, now owned by Lindsay CPA Dennis Hylton, and rented the front half of the space as a office for MPP. She said not long thereafter the space was expanded to include the back half of the building, another 2,000 square feet. MPP put money in the bank to fund what became the community center.

"I made the decision in consultation with what became the core staff of the center." Sturdevant said core staff all had a minimum of 10-15 years residence in Lindsay. She said as a non-resident, it wasn't her place to tell Lindsay what it needed in a community center. "I made it clear that Migrant Photography could fund this for a period of time, but if the community center was going to work, it had to be a center that worked in the community and was responsive to the community and gained community support." Sturdevant said that didn't happen.

"Lindsay is a Valley town that is very fragile in many ways, a town with great promise and great hope. The city, with Scot Townsend's leadership, has a good shot at being a viable town that serves the needs of all the people of the community." She said what they should have done was to go over to Father Ignacias at the church and say 'We've got a community center, come and visit us and see what we're doing.' She said they should have gone to the mom and pop stores, Gutierrez' Auto Shop, etc., asking for not just financial support, but for their skills, training and knowledge.

"The responsibility for developing the center and making it work rests with the community, people involved with the center and the citizens of Lindsay as a whole. It's a great opportunity missed here and I'm heartsick about it." Sturdevant said she saw it as a place for people to be educated in computers, to upgrade skills to get a better job; a place for education about pesticides that affect agricultural worker families and so on.

She said it was very successful with the youth "who came together and built a stage, had poetry and were doing their thing." But she said it "scared a lot of people. Many people said 'Oh my God. They're undoubtedly gang members, doing drugs. What else are they doing?'" Sturdevant did not name names of the reported fearful. She said the Migrant Photography Project has received tremendous support form the Central Valley and has been able to help other organizations through their photography and work methods. She said she should have asked for matching funds from the community. "I think that would have been a just demand. And I didn't set up a structure whereby methodical outreach and education would flow from the center itself."

Dr. Sturdevant, 67, has been a professional documentary photographer for the last 20 years.

Longtime Lindsay resident Brenda Cervantes was one of the core people. She said, "The director, Dr. Sturdevant, decided that the group trying to work together there was one she could no longer work with." She said another problem was trying to get affordable insurance. She said after MPP pulled out, "This left a group of inexperienced people who wanted to be active in the community to pay rent and buy insurance that would be very expensive because we were working with young people."

After MPP departed, the center held an art show, showcasing paintings by Victor Cervantes and photography by Irma Arrollo, which included a couple of low rider cars from the Lindsay Car Club which was going to become involved with the center. They also changed the name to the Fifth Sun Community Center in reference to the Aztec calendar. Brenda said they were trying to be very polite and offend no one.

"It's very shocking, kind of disturbing that these things are happening," Brenda said. "I sound kind of sad about all of this." She was distressed at MPP's departure. "Saundra felt the operation was not working as a team. My idea is to then let us know where we can correct it. Please guide us." She said they should have been given a couple of weeks or a month to pull it together to Saundra's satisfaction.

Hylton, the landlord, said on July 1, that he had a letter stating that the Migrant Photography Project was vacating he building in July. He said it was part of their rental agreement that they would carry insurance. "So they've been searching for it and they finally gave me notification that they were going to vacate."

Irma said she has been trying to find money, but there is much to do if they must vacate by July 9 including cleaning and getting their stuff out of the building. The phone was disconnected last week. "I say we are very lucky because we find this place, like a dream come true, but at this time it's not easy." Irma said they are like orphans without MPP which she has been involved with for five years. She said she is trying to talk with Scot Townsend and District 1 Supervisor Bill Sanders about funding. "We now need another sponsor because Migrant Photography moved out and they have all the money and I don't think we'll get back together."

Sturdevant said, "When I talk about education and outreach in a fragile community, you've got to do that. You have to cultivate relationships." She said she had been talking with councilmember Danny Salinas and was having a very positive interaction. "He thought the community center was a good thing, and I invited him over, but nobody followed up on that. Nobody called and said, 'Come on over.' You need that in addition to doing your own thing. Doing your own thing only goes so far." Sturdevant said they needed to tell people what they were doing and work with authority. "There are certain power structures in Lindsay, both formal and informal. Those involved know the community and have to figure out how to work in this community."

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