In Latin American circles, “El Mano de Dios,” (the hand of God) usually refers to Argentine superstar Diego Maradona’s only slightly illegal fisting of the ball into the English net en route to victory in the 1986 World Cup.
Closer to home, however, one can seemingly observe God’s right paw on Shattuck Ave.
Atop La Peña Cultural Center’s incredibly eye-catching and colorful mural, a larger-than-life hand descends from the heavens to strum an equally gargantuan guitar. Except this is not the hand of God – it is the hand of Victor Jara.
“He was a Chilean singer, songwriter, professor, theatrical artist and musician, and he brought Latin American music to the world. He traveled extensively throughout Europe, and even spoke at U.C. Berkeley in the late ’60s and early ’70s,” explains La Pena’s longtime financial manager Laura Ruiz. “He was loved by the world, but he was one of the thousands incarcerated after the (Chilean) military coup. And he actually met a very cruel and gruesome death.”
At the outset of the Pinochet regime, Jara and others were marched into a large soccer stadium, tortured and executed while thousands looked on. Before his execution, Jara was allegedly forced to play his guitar, even after guards had severed his hands. It was as a result of this incredibly repressive environment that, thousands of miles away, La Peña was born.
“Back in 1975, a small group of North Americans and Latin Americans decided they wanted to have a place similar to the peñas in Chile and Argentina,” explains Ruiz. “Essentially, peñas were gathering places for people, places where people could gather and exchange music and art over food and drink. A place where everybody was welcome. Largely as a result of the overthrow of the Salvatore Allende government, people came together and formed the idea to begin such a place in Berkeley.”
So what started as an informal meeting place where folks primarily stayed abreast of Chilean issues has grown into an incredibly broad, complex nonprofit organization. La Peña puts on over 150 musical and theatrical performances a year, operates a restaurant, houses resident artists, offers classes, heads educational programs in local schools and provides meeting space to numerous other organizations. And like so many Berkeley nonprofits, La Peña is wondering how 25 years went by so fast.
“Saturday we’re going to throw an all-day party for the community and people of all ages,” says La Pena’s development director Sylvia Sherman. “There’ll be Venezuelan music, Eastern Caribbean percussion, an Andean ensemble, Cuban songs, salsa music, flamenco and, of course, a huge birthday cake.”
The musical diversity of the big party is truly fitting for an organization that emphasizes A. diversity, and B. music. Long before the current rekindling of popular interest in Afro-Cuban music, La Peña was fighting to obtain visas for great Cuban musicians, promoting their concerts and helping produce their records. Scores of Cuban artists – including legendary pianist Chucho Valdez – have graced La Pena’s 180-seat theater.
And the cozy theater – along with the rest of the 3105 Shattuck Ave. complex – really are La Pena’s. One of the reasons the nonprofit has lived to be a quarter century old is because, unlike other organizations, it doesn’t have to eke out the perilous life of a renter.
“Given the current real estate situation, if we didn’t own this building we could easily be out on the street,” says Sherman. “There was tremendous community support to help La Peña purchase the building (in the late ‘70s). Something that has been true over the years is that in the key moments the community really has come out and shown us the support that allows us to take the next step and keep growing.”
Case in point: In 1995, the situation looked grim when it was revealed that La Pena’s home base was in dire need of retrofitting. The community rallied, however, raising over $100,000 to help pay for the repairs. And, on an everyday basis, a number of dedicated volunteers keep the center running.
“We’ve hosted artists from Spain, North Africa, theater artists from Australia, a women’s chorus from the Balkans and a wide array of artists from Mexico, Central America, France and England,” says Ruiz. “I think that’s what we’re really proudest of. We’re a space open to all walks of life. The programs span so many peoples and cultures. People come to La Peña and keep coming back. They’ve found a home, a cultural center that very much reflects who they are.”
Visit La Peña online at www.lapena.org