“I’m not retiring,” said Jennie Emire Rodriguez, who for the last 25 years has been a stabilizing force at one of the Mission District’s cornerstone cultural organizations.
Rodriguez, who guided Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts (MCCLA) through some of the center’s most challenging moments and who oversaw its growth, served her final day as Executive Director on Feb. 28, passing the baton to Dr. Martina Ayala.
“I think we’re heading in the right direction,” Rodriguez said. “The new blood coming in, I know that it’s well centered and committed.”
Committed is something Rodriguez had to be when she took the job in 1997.
At that time, MCCLA was reeling. The center’s merger with La Raza Graphics led to serious questions of financial transparency and resulted in the termination of MCCLA’s leadership, the installation of a new board of directors, messy public accusations, and ultimately, a deterioration of community trust.
“An image that comes to mind is that the center was locked with a padlock. And they would not let anybody come in, because there was such a distrust and dissatisfaction about how things were going,” Rodriguez said.
And so Rodriguez got to work. First, getting the paperwork in order for MCCLA’s merger with La Raza Graphics, and then rebuilding trust with the community.
“And it got pretty intense. They were asking for maybe the board of directors head on a plate. But I think they recognized that there was a genuine interest in bringing things back to normal,” Rodriguez said. “But I think that’s a thing of the past. And I think we have gone through a lot and have accomplished a lot in that sense, of making the center a stable space that has some solid management structure and that can fit and be flexible to adapt and adjust to whatever comes…‘ir con la marea.’ We have to do that. Go with the flow. But still, we continue to be as vigilant and committed to the tenants of its founders. Promoting, preserving, developing the Latino arts and culture, all within a multidisciplinary, multicultural approach.”
A commitment to Latino arts and culture is something that Rodriguez hasn’t only had for the last 25 years, but an entire lifetime.
Originally from Santurce, Puerto Rico, music and dance have been the artistic threads that have connected her family for generations. Her grandfather was a classical musician on the island, a passion he passed onto Rodriguez’s father. Her father also immersed himself into the musical world of Salsa, because as Rodriguez put it, “You can’t live on classical music alone in a Latin American country.”
When her father was hired by the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriquena, he traveled all over the island, accompanying the various artists visiting Puerto Rico. Rodriguez shared on those travels.
But being the daughter of a working mother meant that she was also exposed to the music of her caretakers. From them, Rodriguez was introduced to the music of Mexico and Argentina. That nuanced understanding of Latino culture is something that she would bring with her when she arrived in the United States.
Rodriguez and her late partner, Manuel Enrique “Quique” Dávila, set foot in San Francisco for the first time in 1979. The Boricua couple worked for the Latino Family Alcoholism Counseling Center in the Mission District, where Rodriguez was an outreach worker. But when Davila was accepted to do his Masters at Harvard, the couple moved to Boston, Massachusetts. Welcoming her first child, Rodriguez found community in running AREYTO, a musical program of the Boston-based organization, Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción.
Rodriguez and her young family would briefly return to Puerto Rico, before being presented with an opportunity to move back to the city she and Quique fell in love with.
Back in the Mission, Rodriguez worked with several community organizations and started up her own business. She did interpreting and translating for a law attorney, and was a pioneering force in teaching Latinos computer skills such as word processing and desktop publishing. She and Quique even wrote a computer column in the New Mission News. They published the Puerto Rican Network newsletter, were members of the 24th Street Merchants Association, and worked with the 24th Street Revitalization Committee.
But when approached about applying to be MCCLA’s executive director and jumping into the deep end of the cultural non profit world, she waited.
“I kind of hesitated for a couple of months,” she said. “But the position was still vacant. And after 12 years in business, I jumped into the nonprofit world.”
After sorting MCCLA’s drama and stabilizing the organization, the programming returned. Events commemorating Carnaval and Día de los Muertos became a staple, as were the summer programs and weekly classes for youth. The center hosted everything from art exhibits to ‘Mole’ contests, and provided a space for unconventional artistic expression and conversations.
“We try to be very diverse. To give a taste of a little bit of everything…with the intention to make you take it to another level,” Rodriguez said. “I think that that’s so attractive. That we consider that everybody is an artist. They can all come and try it out. We embrace things in a very holistic and ample way.”
And during all of that time, Rodriguez never forgot to nurture her inner artist.
For the last 27 years, she has danced in San Francisco’s annual Carnaval. And alongside Quique and her two sons—Manolo and Pablo—the family formed a band, Los Pleneros de la 24. Together, they played bomba and plena for incarcerated Puerto Rican political prisoners, including Oscar López Rivera.
“For me, music is the most important artistic discipline, because it’s a discipline where you don’t have to speak. You just listen to it and it conveys what it has to,” Rodriguez said. “For me, music and dance, it’s sacred.”
Soon, Rodriguez hopes to return to the place where it all started and be alongside her mother. “I’m sure her years are coming to an end pretty soon,” Rodriguez said of her mother in Puerto Rico, who is bedridden and has Alzheimer’s. “And I would like to at least be able to go once more and be there.”
But Rodrigez isn’t ready to say ‘goodbye’ to the city she fell in love with more than 40 years ago.
“I’m not thinking about retirement. I think that’s an ageism. I think I have plenty of years before me, to keep contributing and moving in another path. We owe it to ourselves to move on, and other people shall come and will continue to do great things too,” she said. “I’m leaving with immense love and gratitude for the opportunity that I’ve had all of these years to serve in something that’s been so near and dear to me—arts and culture. And I’ll be around. And I hope that MCCLA will continue to be my preferred cultural center.”