La Peña Is Still Rooted at 35

The Berkeley cultural center celebrates its 35th anniversary with intergenerational programming and a big suite.

At La Peña Cultural Center, a 35-year anniversary is roughly equivalent to a quinceañera in terms of the hubbub it generates. On the date of its actual quinceañera, the cultural center had just launched its first spate of music workshops. Holly Near would arrive later that year with an acoustic guitar in tow and a repertoire of songs to protest Pinochet’s regime in Chile. Fourteen more years would pass before La Peña paid off its mortgage. Another four years would pass before Pinochet’s indictment. By the time La Peña reached adulthood, it had become a venerable, medium-size institution with a $700,000 annual budget. Politics had changed in South America, and in Berkeley, a new generation of activists had taken reign.

Many of those changes come to bear in the programming. With the recent hiring of development director Susie Lundy, La Peña made itself a lot more contemporary. Lundy is one of those multi-disciplinary artists who know how to navigate between worlds. She completed her Ph.D at UCLA after writing her dissertation on graffiti in East Oakland. She’s also a muralist and B-girl with numerous connections in the hip-hop scene, all of which she’s included in a new, highly imaginative calendar. It’s not the first time that La Peña has celebrated hip-hop as a cultural form — indeed, this was the very institution that helped launch Goapele and local rap crew Living Legends — but it is a remarkable turning point. Now, hip-hop artists arrive as curators rather than mere performers. They contribute dance choreography, culinary events, film screenings, and art exhibits, alongside the traditional emcee battles and poetry slams. This month’s calendar features a hip-hop documentary film fest, and a disco tribute to Michael Jackson.

Eclecticism may be a notional part of La Peña’s current identity, but the center also remains preoccupied with its own history and legacy. Thus, much of this month’s 35th anniversary celebration will focus on the past. A historical timeline on documents significant events since the center’s genesis, beginning with the 1973 military coup in Chile, which served as the impetus for a group of Berkeley activists to purchase their own venue (in Chile, the term “peña” refers to a public gathering space). Much of the building’s life story is distilled in a multimedia presentation that’s set to accompany the 35th anniversary suite by jazz composer Wayne Wallace, called Ayer, Hoy y Pa’lante. (It premieres on Sunday, June 13; 8 p.m., $12-$14.) Two years and two arts grants in the making, Wallace’s suite marks the zenith of this multi-day celebration. But it’s preceded by many worthy events, including a street fair this Saturday, June 5, (noon-6 p.m.), plus a birthday dance party with rap group Rebel Diaz and the all-female dance outfit, Las Bomberas de la Bahia (Saturday, June 5; 9 p.m., $10-$12). At a glance, these acts represent different subcultures and different parts of the Latin music diaspora. And perhaps that’s what makes them appealing — at this anniversary party, “diaspora” is the operative term. All events happen at La Peña Cultural Center (3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley).


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