The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, one of San Antonio’s most storied cultural institutions, has had several shifts in leadership over the years, but Brownsville native Cristina Ballí, the center’s new executive director, wants to lead the organization as long as the community will have her.

An Our Lady of the Lake University graduate, Ballí is not new to San Antonio or the Westside. Returning to the city after some time away, she told the Rivard Report Tuesday morning, feels like “coming back to a second home.

“One great thing about coming here is I know this community already,” said Ballí, whose work in cultural arts administration and programming has taken her all over the state and has led her to collaborate with various San Antonio cultural and musical organizations. “Since I’ve been doing this work for a while I’ve always been connected to San Antonio somehow.”

After getting her bachelor’s degree in social work, Ballí remained in the city for some time and worked at St. Peter-St. Joseph Children’s Home. It wasn’t until she returned back home to the Rio Grande Valley to work at a Harlingen radio station that she “accidentally” fell into the arts, jumpstarting her decades-long career in cultural arts administration and programming around the state.

Ballí most recently served as executive director of Texas Folklife, a nonprofit organization designated by the National Endowment for the Arts to preserve Texas’ cultural diversity and living heritage. Some of her most notable accomplishments over the years include leading the effort to open the Conjunto Hall of Fame and Freddy Fender Museum, both testaments to her love of the music highly popular along the border where she grew up.

Much of what Ballí has accomplished portrays her firm commitment to honoring her Latino culture, which will serve her well at the Guadalupe where that’s central to its mission.

“She brings a wealth of experience to the Guadalupe, both in terms of arts programming and management,” stated Juan Tejeda, founder of the Guadalupe Cultural Art Center’s Tejano Conjunto Festival who has known Ballí for more than 15 years, in a news release last month. “I think she’s the right person at the right time for the center.”

The Guadalupe and the community will give an official bienvenida to Ballí Thursday afternoon at a meet and greet reception with live music, drinks, and appetizers from 5:30-8:30 p.m. at the cultural arts center, located at 723 S. Brazos St.

John Morán González, the new director of the University of Texas at Austin Center for Mexican and American Studies, will also be in attendance.

For more information on the event, where attendees can get to know Ballí and her vision for the Guadalupe, click here.

While the Guadalupe has already expanded its programming and grown a lot over the past year, Ballí sees the center as ripe with opportunity. As executive director, she will oversee efforts “to develop a vibrant campus on Brazos and Guadalupe (streets),” she said, including renovating existing buildings the organization owns such as the historic Progreso Drugstore Building and the Guadalupanita Café, and leading other rehabilitation efforts.

“We’re working to make sure these buildings and pieces of real estate are activated,” Ballí said.

The cultural arts institution was founded in 1980 by a group of Chicano/a artists determined to preserve and promote their culture and shape the local arts community for residents and visitors alike. Over the past 36 years, the center has become a Westside staple, thanks to the work of some of the most influential Latino artists, such as award-winning author Sandra Cisneros, who helped the center grow.

Assuming leadership over such an iconic organization “is a big responsibility for me,” Ballí said, but she’s looking forward to furthering its mission.

The Rivard Report spoke with Ballí Tuesday to learn more about her and her plans for the Guadalupe. Below is the exchange, shortened in some areas for publication.

Cristina Ballí, the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center's new executive director, is a Brownsville native with an extensive career history in cultural arts administration.
Cristina Ballí, the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center’s new executive director, is a Brownsville native with an extensive career history in cultural arts administration. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Rivard Report: How did your upbringing along the Texas-Mexico border inform your cultural identity and interests?

Cristina Ballí: It definitely had an influence on me and of course it has an influence without (me) knowing (it). My upbringing was not only along the border, but it was working class. I grew very much deep in the culture and that happens, of course. On the border you end up growing up deeply, deeply entrenched in the culture, the traditions and customs, the ways of celebrating, food, language, family, and the music.

I grew up listening a lot to accordion music and conjunto and norteño music because my father really loved that music and of course it was everywhere around us. This (culture) is a way of life for me.

RR: When was your first encounter with the Guadalupe?

Los Tremendous takes the stage as the full dance floor fills. Photo by Scott Ball.
A conjunto band plays to the crowd at the 2016 Tejano Conjunto Festival. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

CB: My first (encounter with) the Guadalupe was the Tejano Conjunto Festival. This was in the ’90s, and you gotta remember – in the ’90s Tejano music was king around here, so that’s when I first started attending the Guadalupe events. I’d go to the festival not fully realizing what the rest of the Guadalupe had to offer. And then I became familiar with its programs here and the presentations and different offerings.

RR: What drew you to the Guadalupe?

CB: I think everybody is drawn to the Guadalupe. As an arts administrator you cannot not be drawn to the Guadalupe. It is kind of the epitome of organizations that provide cultural programming to the community.

When I switched to arts administration from social work it was actually because of a small cultural arts center I started working with, the Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center. Narciso Martinez was the father of conjunto music and he was from San Benito, (Texas). That little center was modeled after the Guadalupe, like many others across the state and the country.

RR: The Guadalupe’s mission is about promoting and preserving Latino art and culture. Why do you think that’s important to do today?

CB: Today, with our political climate, of course it’s important to reassert who we are (as Latinos) and the value that we bring to the world. It’s important to not forget our cultural expression and our artistic expression to help shape our identity, to help shape a strong identity.

In fact, when I was in discussions with the (Guadalupe) board about this (job) opportunity, when I was considering my options, that was actually one of the pushing factors – thinking about the political times that we’re in right now. So it’s really important to assert this work.

RR: What strategies will you use to uphold that mission?

CB: (I’ll) continue to make sure that the programming offered here is of the highest quality, that it’s compelling, and that people want to attend (the programming) because they know they’re going to get something good out of it. The great thing is I feel really confident right now that the staff is already doing just that. There’s a very good group of staff in place right now, and they’re already producing very good and compelling programming. I’m lucky to walk into a good situation.

RR: You’ve worked in a number of other places as a cultural arts administrator – how do you think your past positions will help you in your new role at the Guadalupe?

CB: I am very experienced already in arts administration, grant writing, program production, publicity, marketing, all the aspects of running an arts organization of significant scale and impact … so in that sense the operations and all those things are ready to go.

My job here is just to keep an eye on that and fine tune things so (the staff) can have a good environment to be productive (in), and to be out there in the community forming partnerships and see how we can work with other organizations and how we can better serve the community with fundraising. I know there are a lot of people that want to support this organization financially … so my job will also be to raise funds so that we can continue doing programs here.

RR: The Guadalupe has seen lots of change in leadership over the years. How will you bring stability and vision to the cultural arts center?

CB: I feel that my whole career has been preparing me for this moment. I have expertise in Mexican-American cultural programming – I have over 15 years of expertise in that. Everything has been leading me up to this, so I feel ready to take this job and I feel very comfortable with the community. The community has welcomed me so warmly and I’m really touched and incredibly moved and humbled. I feel we’re ready for each other.

Where I am in my life, I want to stay put for a while, I want some stability in my personal life as well. I told the board that I hope things go well and that I’m here at least 10 years.

RR: What can the public expect from the Guadalupe in the coming months and next year?

CB: In the next months we’re going to launch an end of the year fundraising campaign to match a challenge grant from the Kronkosky (Charitable) Foundation of $100,000. We hope to raise $30,000 between now and the end of the year to help us with that match.

We’re also going to be (sharing) historical information that we’re uncovering about the Guadalupe.

RR: What are some of the things that the Guadalupe is doing well and where do you see opportunity for growth?

CB: In the last year, the staff here has really amped up the program offerings. There were some very good shows and performances and very good classes. A solid, classic program of the Guadalupe has been the Guadalupe Dance Company and Dance Academy. The Ballet Folklorico has been strong for many years.

Guadalupe Dance Company dancer Connie Espinoza dances during the event. Photo by Scott Ball.
Guadalupe Dance Company dancer Connie Espinoza performs during the event. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

There are opportunities for developing the campus and lots of opportunities for fundraising. I think people really want to support the Guadalupe right now and the community wants to see the Guadalupe succeed. I think the community really depends on the Guadalupe – they depend on it for the programming that they like to see and enjoy. One thing that was always interesting to me was that the Guadalupe is one of the only organizations I’ve seen that the community takes ownership of.

RR: Can you elaborate on that?

CB: When I got here, everybody that I met either worked at the Guadalupe or volunteered or did a play or had their first art show there or was on the board – everybody in the (Latino) arts community has some connection to the Guadalupe and that’s why I think they depend on it.

It has really nurtured that (Latino) cultural creative community in this town.

Camille Garcia

Camille Garcia is a journalist born and raised in San Antonio. She formerly worked at the San Antonio Report as assistant editor and reporter. Her email is camillenicgarcia@gmail.com