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Nestled in the East Side Mayfair neighborhood lies San Jose’s very own hidden cultural gem, the Mexican Heritage Plaza. Inside the plaza walls, the School of Arts and Culture was created to cultivate the next generation through arts and culture based education. Executive Director, Tamara Alvarado, oversees the school by securing funding for the program as well as establishing the school’s visibility.
Alvarado was raised in the San Diego area in the city of Escondido by two Mexican immigrant parents. Her father was a musician and her mother at the time worked at a commercial laundry mat. The two met in east Los Angeles in the early 1970s. As a child, Alvarado recalled her struggle of being part of a society in which her parents tried to bring their cultural norms from Mexico while raising children with American cultural norms. Growing up in a traditional Catholic household, Alvarado and her sister were taught to speak in Spanish. She said they were raised biculturally and bilingually, something that was emphasized in the household.
At the age of 18, Alvarado left southern California to pursue her undergraduate education at Stanford University. She graduated with a degree in Spanish Literature with an emphasis in Chicano Studies. Alvarado chuckled when she recalled that she only has an emphasis in Chicano studies because at the time the major was not offered. Years later the students would protest demanding Chicano Studies be offered in the curriculum.
In her first quarter of studies, Alvarado debated leaving the university unsure if she wanted to continue her studies there. She found solace in Stanford’s Latino community: Casa Zapata, the Latino culture themed dorm and El Centro Chicano. It was there that she also met two of the most influential people in her life: Tony and Cecilia Burciaga. The Burciaga family who became the parental figures for Stanford’s Latino community were the resident fellows at Casa Zapata. Alvarado credits the Burciagas, Casa Zapata, and El Centro Chicano for retaining her because she was able to see students, professors, and administration with whom she identified with.
It was also at Stanford that Alvarado was exposed to MEChA Movimiento Estudantil Chicano de Aztlan). Her involvement with MEChA gave her a sense of identity as well as spark the philosophy of giving back and servicing the community.
Throughout her career, Alvarado’s jobs were focused on culture and community. She has worked with the Washington United Youth Center, which lead her to later become the program director for San Jose’s MACLA Movimiento de Cultura y Arte Cultura Latino Americana. MACLA eventually lead her to work for 1st Act Silicon Valley. Through 1st Act Silicon Valley she was able to obtain the position she currently holds at the School of Arts and Culture.
Although Alvarado has held many positions with cultural connections, there were instances in which she struggled professionally. The source of her struggle came from often being the only Latina, person of color, or only woman inside meetings where decisions were being made. She felt the pressure not only to represent the Latino community but all communities of color. Now with more experience under her belt, Alvarado feels she is able to speak up and let decision makers know that there are many leaders within the community. This experience lead Alvarado to co-create MALI (Multi-Cultural Arts Leadership Institute) which helps the professional development for leaders of color in the arts,culture, and entertainment sectors.
Alvarado’s profession is surrounded by culture. This culture even translates to her personal life. She is a 14-year Aztec dancer who currently dances with Calpulli Tonalehqueh Danza Azteca. Her dance group holds one of the largest Mexica New Year celebrations in the country at San Jose’s Emma Prusch Farm. She even recently returned from a trip to Mexico to learn more on the subject of dance as well as attend an annual ceremony to honor the last Aztec ruler. Although her dancing started with the Washington United Youth Center, as a child her family would take her to Chicano Park to instill the cultural value inside of her. Alvarado continues those values with her own family of 4 children and a husband.
Dancing is her the only interest. Alvarado sometimes serves as an MC for comedy events. Later this month, on the 28th, she will be MCing at a Ladies’ Comedy night at the Blackbird Tavern.
As for the future, Alvarado hopes to ensure that the school of Arts and Culture is establish as a long term institution that is beloved by the community it serves. For herself, she plans to continue to learn and grow.