Tijuana Cultural Center (CECUT)

Interview with Director Vlanka Robles-Santana

Written by:
Toba Singer
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The Tijuana [Mexico] Cultural Center merits a far more titillating acronym than CECUT! It stands out as one of my two favorite Tijuana institutions (the other being the Dance Conservatory of Mexico/Conservatorio de Danza de Mexico-CDM).  Built in 1982, CECUT sits just two kilometers from the U.S./Mexican border. Outside of Mexico City’s cultural enclave, CECUT is the Culture Ministry’s sole institution committed to meeting the country’s diverse artistic and cultural needs.

I discovered CECUT while a guest presenter at the CDM’s 2018 National Dance Month Festival when I attended a mixed media contemporary dance performance in its theater. When I returned to Tijuana the following year to introduce the keynote speaker at the  April 2019 CDM festival, my hosts arranged for me to participate in a tour of CECUT’s IMAX Dome, Museum of the Californias, Performance Hall, El Cubo Exhibition Halls, its Cineteca, and visit its well-stocked bookstore and indoor and outdoor cafés. At the end of our tour, CECUT’s Director, Dr. Vianka Robles-Santana took time to come to the upper level outdoor deck overlooking an esplanade, to introduce herself and speak about the show on exhibit in the El Cubo galleries. 

During a recent return visit in early September, I interviewed Robles-Santana in her office in the administrative wing of the 3.5-hectare complex. As someone who prefers small galleries to large museums, I realized that what drew me to CECUT was its modular character: a large institution that houses a variety of intriguing galleries, theaters, and indoor and outdoor performance “nested” spaces. In my mind, CECUT should be the envy of any major city in the United States, if only because its design alone. Rather than plunking down a discreet parcel of cold, minimalist, concrete slabs, the architectural team created a structure that “sings,” flows, and emanates imagination and discovery at every turn. I asked Robles-Santana to tell me about how CECUT came to life.

Toba Singer: Where did the idea of CECUT originate and what was its mission at the time of its founding?

Vianka Robles-Santana: In 1982, the then President of Mexico José López-Portillo’s wife, Carolyn, undertook a project to promote the arts.  They constructed the initial large building to advance that plan. Prior to CECUT, Tijuana had several small theaters, one belonging to the telephone company, Telnor; another that was part of the autonomous university campus; and a third was privately-run; but we had no municipal theater.  There were no arts programs in local schools, nor at the university. The mission was to conscientiously raise the arts profile and its Mexican identity here in Tijuana through our presence, as well as collaboration with other institutions, including the schools.

TS: The Center’s design, inside and out, with its imposing dome, glittering fountain and lush outdoor gardens, promises enchantment, even when one views it from afar. Who was the architect, and how does its design correspond to the project’s inspiration and mission?

VR-S: The Mexican architect Pedro Ramírez Vazquez designed the complex, a critical step in igniting the city’s cultural development. Originally, there were three buildings, the Dome with the very first Imax Theater and its annexes. Then in 1996, a small museum was added. After that, each succeeding director has made significant improvements to the complex. So now we have not only the Imax Theater but a commercial-style movie theater as well,  and a 200 person-capacity screening theater for film festivals and experimental films. In addition, there is a proscenium stage theater for dance events and plays. There is the museum where you saw the California exhibit and the gallery where you saw the show that is currently mounted, featuring outstanding works by recently deceased Mexican surrealist Francisco Toledo. Besides those, there is the Federico Campbell Literature Special Collection, also an aquarium, a bookstore, three cafés, and a restaurant that is a satellite of the famous Caesar’s, in downtown Tijuana, where the Caesar Salad was invented and first served!

In terms of the mission, we intend to keep growing, not only physically but in the quality and quantity of what the Center offers to the community and the region.

TS: How is CECUT funded and what direction has funding and financial development taken since 1982?

VR-S: Mexico’s history is deeply rooted in its revolution against Spanish colonialism and   incursions on the part of the United States, but that is not to say that there haven’t been internal conflicts resulting from the oppression of indigenous populations in our country. The federal government finances construction and projects to promote education and expression around these themes.  We are tasked with raising funds via the special programs and events that we mount, where our box office contributes about one quarter of the funds. For the majority of programs there is no entrance fee.

TS: In the curating of programs and events, what has been the impact of “globalization” and specifically, the imposition of maquiladoras [small non-union factories] by U.S. big business?

VR-S:  President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration has shown great interest in Mexico’s indigenous culture, as well as that brought here by the giant wave of immigrants propelled by the current economic crisis and harsh living conditions in Central America, and those who arrive  from cities within Mexico as near to us as Vera Cruz for the same reasons. It places its confidence in a substantial effort to integrate these newcomers via the relatable popular and folkloric art. There are programs, classes and films on these subjects, and courses in the indigenous languages and culture, that transmit them both accessibly and investigates them with an eye towards objectivity.

TS: I understand that you have an apprenticeship program for teens. Could you say something about what they learn in this program?

VR-S: We have a certificated program, seminars, and master lectures. One of the course offerings teaches teens to become docents. This includes Introduction to Art, Art Therapy, and Methods to strengthen arts programs in schools.  We match the courses with the teens’ professional ambitions. Another is a group of classes aimed at professional visual and performing artists, and art in literature. We work with incapacitated children, and non-Spanish-speaking people. We take some of our programs inside prison walls. There is an “Ancianos” club to attract participation from seniors.  Over the next several months we intend to design programs targeting indigenous women, the trans population, and those forced to work the streets. The Pedro Valtierra photography exhibit in May came as a result of the discovery of old archives. Thanks to those archives, we’ve also been able to show the way ancient women lived and worked, and have reconstructed a significant number of younger women figures from those times. Festivals take up such varied themes as “feminicide,” the death of the revolutionary figure, Benito Juarez, and the social ostracism which trans people encounter.

TS: In recent years there have been sharp debates on what is termed “cultural appropriation.” Has CECUT discussed its attitude and policies with respect to this issue, or opened discussions on it to the public?

V R-S: Our responsibility is to include the community in such discussions. There are different shades of opinion, some with profound significance. There are technical values, as well as conceptional ones to consider. Views on both aspects tend to reflect the social order under which we live. Francisco Toledo’s work is very much a product of academia and the circles that form around it.  Other views have their roots in the community. One should not be divorced from the other.

TS: What is your personal opinion about the acts of censorship now under way in Northern California? I am referring to San Francisco’s George Washington High School mural “The Life of George Washington” that the San Francisco School Board initially voted to destroy (at the cost of upwards of $600,000). They justify their action to censor based on claims that certain students feel  “unsafe” around art that depicts the oppression of slaves and indigenous peoples. Pressure via international protest and local organizing, has resulted what has been vaunted as a new “compromise” plan: not to destroy the mural, but to censor it by covering it up.

V R-S: Culture is constantly changing. You cannot apply society’s current-day standards and temperament to works created in a previous era. When an artist completes a mural, it’s for  keeps. Our curatorial role is to save and preserve it. A detail that must not be overlooked is that technique looks forward in time. Take the example of Mexico. Our art was ransacked by our conquerors, and stolen from us by them.  There is now a movement here to bring back sacred art that was looted by the countries that conquered and colonized us. We plan to exhibit it regardless of whether or not it resonates with current-day views held by this or that current of thought.

Toba Singer

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