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Update on the situation at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center

Anyone who attended the May 25 meeting of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center board and saw the five board members in attendance laughing and chatting with one another might have thought, for a brief moment, that all was well at the GCAC.

Yet, in the hallway outside the theater, a handout belied the board’s cheerful demeanor. Next to the sign-up sheet for guests wishing to speak at the board meeting, a single leaf of paper listed the rules of engagement: Disruptive people, and those making specific, negative statements about the Guadalupe or its staff, would be found out of order and their presentations terminated.

A paranoid welcome at best from a board that has been under continued attack for the GCAC’s steady loss of funding, cancelled programming, increased tuition, and decreased attendance. Its president, R. Bret Ruiz, is under investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for racial discrimination against and sexual harassment of one GCAC employee, and has been accused of wrongfully terminating another. `See “Culture war” Feb. 8-14, 2006, “Party Lines” Mar. 29-Apr. 4, 2006, “Guadalupe Theater director resigns,” Apr. 19-25, 2006.`

Still, board chairman Juan Aguilera agreed to let Adriana Garcia, a longtime GCAC volunteer and contractor, invite concerned community members to an “open dialogue” that evening. (The meeting, however, opened with Garcia and Aguilera suggesting to move the dialogue to mid-June, in part because only one-third of the board showed up.)

As it turned out, only one community member had signed up to speak: Guadalupe Olguin handed the board a letter in which he said that GCAC staff, without explanation, had excluded his family from volunteering at the Conjunto Festival. “I have volunteered at the Guadalupe with my family for 13 years,” Olguin told the board. “So why were we blackballed after thousands of hours of service? I want the board to tell us why we’re being treated with such disrespect. I want some answers.”

Aguilera says fewer and fewer people are showing up to speak at the board meetings. “Quite honestly, certain people were using misinformation as a tactic to get people to the meetings,” said Aguilera. “Now, I think people are starting to see that they were given some wrong information.”

Garcia says concern has not died down; the decision to have the open dialogue was made the previous day, so Garcia was only able to give the community 24 hours notice. During the meeting, she surveyed the board, which has been accused of being unresponsive to community concerns, asking each member if they would support ongoing discussions.

Mary Ponce said open dialogues with the community are critical to the board’s service to the community and to bringing clarity to the outstanding issues and problems. “Something needs to be done,” Ponce said. “I just don’t know when, or what the format should be.”

Ismael Chavez-Hernandez, board vice-chair, said he was opposed to an open dialogue and would entertain only those willing to pay. “For example,” he said, pointing at Garcia, “you, Adriana, you don’t have a membership at the Guadalupe. You work with us, but you are not a member. Everyone who speaks to the board should at least be a member.”

“That’s absurd,” Garcia — who has worked for GCAC as a volunteer, a set designer, and a co-director of Grupo-Animo — later told the Current. “You don’t have to be a member to be affected by an arts organization, especially if membership doesn’t benefit you.”

If complaints continue to fall on deaf ears at GCAC, the same is not true elsewhere. Dolores Murff’s EEOC complaint accuses Ruiz of sexual harassment and racial discrimination, and alleges that, after her initial complaints to the board, Ruiz retaliated by denying her compensation for her job as public-relations and marketing manager, from which she was never formally fired.

This week, Murff was notified that the EEOC has assigned a federal investigator to the case; if the investigator finds legal grounds for her complaints, which could take up to 6 months, Murff says she will sue the board and Ruiz (her attorney is Amy Kastely, who represented Esperanza in its successful discrimination suit against the City of San Antonio in 2000).

Aguilera said the GCAC board has not heard from the EEOC, but earlier this month the board published an open letter denying tuition rate hikes, upholding the termination of Mary Jesse Garza, and finding Murff’s harassment charges without merit. “We want to do a better job of communicating, a better job of the programs we’ve created,” Aguilera said. “Anything we’ve done has not been calculated to minimize the community or hurt the Guadalupe. In fact, we are trying to make it better.”

The board, Aguilera said, is developing criteria for Ruiz’s six-month review, which has been delayed because “of all the different issues that have come up.” The evaluation will look at Ruiz’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as at the health of the organization, including its financial standing. “If there are shortcomings, people are placed on a performance schedule to remedy the issues,” Aguilera explained, “but I would hate for anyone to think we are evaluating Bret Ruiz so we can fire him; that wouldn’t be fair to Bret or anyone else.”

Ruiz would not comment on the EEOC investigation, or his upcoming review. “Those are matters of the heart, to deal with at the board,” he said. “I’d rather deal with the future. The Conjunto Festival went smoothly, the Teatro Fest is coming up. I’m just excited about the things we have going this summer.

“And I would just encourage anyone who thinks there is not a lot going on at the Center,” he added, “to come take a class or see a show — they are sold out to standing room only, so there’s plenty of activity at the Center.”

Not everyone is so confident. “A dream for me,” said Barbara Renaud Gonzalez, a freelance writer who has followed the Guadalupe’s issues extensively on her blog, “is that the board should resign en masse. They have proved to be irresponsible financially and in terms of human capital.

“Nobody wants to criticize the Guadalupe — it’s like criticizing your mother in public,” she added, “but if you love the Center, you can’t stand by and let it fall apart and, at this rate, there won’t be a Guadalupe by fall, and they’ll be shutting down next year. I believe there are people in the community with the experience to bring it back.”

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