By Carmella Padilla
Stepping onto the sprawling campus of the National Hispanic Cultural Center in late spring 2021, a visitor expects little has changed since a nearly year-long pandemic shutdown emptied the Center’s public spaces and ground its cultural and educational programs to a halt. Yet on this hot June afternoon, in the season of New Mexico’s re-awakening, it’s clear the NHCC never slept.
Just beyond the parking lot, at the site’s northeast edge, a new Welcome Center slants into view. At once squat and angular, plain and nondescript, the 1,700-square-foot structure rose on the grounds with few witnesses during the pandemic, though its construction had long been planned. As the Center marked its twentieth anniversary in 2020, it was time to finally set into brick and mortar what its staff has been doing for two decades: welcoming the world into the art, culture, and humanity of the Hispanic, Chicano, and Latinx communities of New Mexico, the greater Southwest, and beyond.
Today, the New Mexico Mutual Welcome Center connects to the site’s signature Torreón, whose elegant watchtower form soars skyward, and whose interiors boast Frederico Vigil’s world-class buon fresco, Mundos de Mestizaje, depicting the Hispanic diaspora. The new building conjoins the concave Torreón as if always meant to be there. Practically speaking, its purpose is to provide visitor information and space for ticket sales to art exhibitions, performing arts events, and other public programs. Text panels along the corridor leading into the Torreón offer an introduction to the fresco as well.
Narratively, the new structure and the old one form a kind of exclamation point on the NHCC’s architectural journey, which for over two decades has been an evolving work-in-progress—one that even a global pandemic could not stop from moving forward. Even as museum-goers, literary arts lovers, students of history, and performing arts buffs momentarily disappeared, the Center stood its local and global ground across a 20-acre network of buildings that root the campus in an extraordinary sense of place. This structural backdrop, where visitors experience, express, and imagine Hispanic life, art, and culture, reflects the diverse communities it was built to represent.
Because of that diversity, the site’s architecture “isn’t just one thing,” says National Hispanic Cultural Center archivist Anna Uremovich. Her exhibition, ¡Mira! Nuestra Arquitectura: An Architectural Journey, charts the Center’s history of design and construction through the institution’s archival collections, including sketches, blueprints, maps, photographs, dioramas and other documentation. The twentieth-anniversary exhibition debuted during the pandemic at the Center’s outdoor Bosque Gallery, an open-air gallery space that follows the adjacent Bosque Trail. This fall, the exhibition has another run inside the History and Literary Arts Building, where it is on view through December.
“The exhibition tells a story of the Center’s buildings,” says Uremovich. But ultimately, she adds, “It’s a story about people and place.”
From the Torreón to the Art Museum, the Performing Arts Center, to the History and Literary Arts Building and beyond, the story is ambitious, dramatic, and rarely follows a straight line. Its chapters chart the NHCC’s lifetime of hope, growth, and challenge, of milestones and mistakes, of commitment, and always, change. The plot is bigger than the Center’s birthplace barrio of Barelas, or the city and state where the institution has been raised. Yet for all its worldliness, and the culture whose centuries of history it holds, its personality is still so very hometown.
On January 29, 2000, ten months before the NHCC opened its doors to hundreds of revelers, including Prince Felipe de Borbón of Spain (now King Felipe VI), Vice President Al Gore, and other celebrated dignitaries, an equally momentous event occurred on site: 80-year-old Adela Martinez died in her beloved Barelas home. Her family had occupied the small plot of land on Manuel Avenue Southwest since the mid-1920s, when she was four years old. She had grown up between the cottonwood-shaded Bosque and the railroad tracks in an area then known as West San José, where a historic schoolhouse would be built by the Works Progress Administration. She lived close to her parents, and after she married she raised her children to love Barelas.
By the time Martinez passed, two green stucco houses tucked into a small yard were all that remained of the old neighborhood. Some fifty other families had once lived in the area, but after decades of development, all had migrated elsewhere. Some left during the first wave of change in the 1970s, when an urban renewal project tore down parts of the old barrio for an industrial park. Others left in the early 1990s, when the plan to build the NHCC brought a court-imposed act of eminent domain. The plan called for property owners to be compensated so that their land could be converted to public use. Martinez held out.
As her son Orlando Lujan Martinez recounted in Barelas, Mi Amor, an undated essay published on the website of the Office of the New Mexico State Historian, Martinez’s wealth was in her memories: “No, a million dollars is not enough. Not now, not ever,” she said, “I won’t move.” Martinez sued to stay—and won. In the end, her son wrote, “Government and the courts met their equal in Adela because they did not know that God was on her side.”
Martinez’s experience was undoubtedly harrowing. It was also heroic, perhaps the perfect metaphor for aspects of the greater Hispanic experience that the Center was built to express. Martinez’s land, her faith, and her family meant everything. Manuel Avenue was long gone, but Martinez remained to represent the local culture. In doing so, she not only upended the Center’s architectural plan; she became part of it.
Today, Martinez’s property can’t be missed. Her two houses, where her current family members live, sit between the main parking lot and a large adobe wall built to separate them from the institution. There are cars in the front drive and a pickup out back. Santos, tools, and other signs of daily life are scattered about, testaments to the humanity of Martinez’s fight. The NHCC looms large above her family’s homestead, but as her son wrote, “Adela’s house of memories is still there.”
The idea for an Albuquerque-based Hispanic cultural center dates to the early 1980s, when the Hispanic Cultural Foundation was established to preserve and celebrate New Mexico’s Hispanic heritage. Edward Lujan, Foundation co-founder and National Hispanic Cultural Center chairman emeritus, says the Foundation seeded a dream to create a place whose “programs and buildings were designed with the culture in mind.” But translating that broad term culture into a tangible—and affordable—public space would not be so simple.
Early documentation is spotty, but grassroots support quickly emerged, making clear that various individuals shared the dream. Informal discussions involved the types of programming that might reflect the unique histories of Hispanic New Mexicans. Antoine Predock, an internationally known Albuquerque-based architect, was consulted to consider how the Center might, architecturally, represent the cultural landscape. Questions of funding soon led organizers to city leaders and state legislators. As local and state powers warmed up to the idea, the vision bloomed. Hispanic culture involved art, history, food, education, performance, and more. The Center would have to embody a range of experience.
By the early 1990s, the state Legislature was on board to appropriate funding to launch an architectural design competition for the NHCC’s design, at that time envisioned for a site in Martineztown in central Albuquerque, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. In addition to Predock, it drew such major international names as Mexico’s Ricardo Legorretta, James Stewart Polshek of New York, and Argentinian-U.S. architect Emilio Ambasz. Predock invited Sofia Márquez, a rising young talent, to be his associate in creating the Center’s design. Márquez had worked for Predock while a graduate student at the University of New Mexico School of Architecture. Márquez not only was born and raised in Northern New Mexico, but in a remarkable twist of fate, had written a graduate thesis on a proposed National Hispanic Cultural Center designed for 18th and Mountain in Albuquerque’s Old Town. The thesis paved the way to Márquez’s architectural career.
“Antoine was aware of my thesis, which I had started to develop when I was in undergraduate school,” recalls Márquez, whose company, Architects Out West, is now based in southern Colorado. “Growing up in New Mexico, there were museums for everything—history and Native American museums and American art museums. As a Hispanic, I sometimes felt very unwelcome. Even then, I saw a need for celebrating the culture.”
Predock and Márquez understood that “culture” is not a singular subject; it comprises a continuum of history, identity, and experience at once individual and collective. Add “Hispanic” to the word “culture,” and the architectural equation grows more complex. The state’s competition guidelines designated a range of programming disciplines that the design would need to accommodate on the Martineztown site. In 1993, Predock and Márquez won the competition with a plan that reflected those guidelines. As soon as the contract was secured, the two set out to refine the designs, inviting stakeholders statewide to voice their vision for the NHCC.
Márquez recalls “a very intensive few months of brainstorming meetings, where we interviewed artists and craftspeople, musicians and playwrights, activists, and other recommended names from people in the world of arts and culture in New Mexico. We got very specific about space and programming needs and developed a full-bodied plan. The dynamics were over the top.”
The group represented the range of unique identities among Hispanic New Mexicans, from strict traditionalists steeped in old-time ways of life and art, to politically progressive Chicanos committed to an Indo-Hispano heritage embracing Mexican identity, to what Márquez describes as “the puros españoles, we’re-from-Spain types.” The series of dialogues also included politicians throughout the state. Some pushed to fund the project. Others pushed back.
“Antoine wasn’t particularly interested in playing politics, and neither was I,” Márquez recalls. “But we were sort of the diplomats caught in the middle, or entrapped if you will, to try to bring all of these artists and politicians from different perspectives together on some common ground.”
By 1993, however, the actual ground where the NHCC would stand had become a point of contention. Martineztown was scrapped for a smaller site in Barelas, where the City of Albuquerque had identified developable land. It bordered a riverside stretch of the Bosque governed by the Middle Río Grande Conservancy District, which was willing to provide access to Bosque acreage as part of the Center’s programming. The site was smaller, but already, there were funding concerns. Predock and Márquez scaled back aspects of their competition-winning design.
The team’s revised plan for Barelas was complete by 1995, by which time Adela Martinez had won her bid to stay in her home. The team was now directed to incorporate her property into the design scheme. Rather than embark on a redesign, Predock walked away from the project. Márquez, as Predock’s associate, departed by default.
Despite Predock’s withdrawal, the push for the NHCC had engendered too much support to abandon. The state Office of Cultural Affairs (now the Department of Cultural Affairs) was on board, creating its own Hispanic Cultural Division. Significant legislative funds had been appropriated and spent. The potential for federal funding signaled a move to make the Center even more national in scope. Unlike Predock, Márquez wasn’t about to let politics get in the way of her long-held dream.
“I said, ‘Wait a minute, this is an important project. There’s got to be a way to make this work,” Márquez recalls. “I went directly to the cultural affairs director and said, ‘I know more about this project than anyone else in the state. Is there a way I can do this?’”
The director said yes—with conditions. The state had already spent the majority of the architect’s fees. Márquez would have to work with the remaining funding and keep Martinez on-site. Márquez agreed and assumed the role as project architect. As associate, she hired Santa Fe architect Lloyd Tryk. Márquez recalls their immediate challenge: “How do we salvage the majority of the drawings? It felt like an impossible task.”
Not entirely. The existing design for the land on the corner of 4th and Bridge (now Avenida Dolores Huerta) placed primary buildings, including visual arts and performing arts, facing north. A large parking lot was to the south. Márquez and her team devised a “flip” of the design scheme, placing the parking lot on the north end of the site. This would accommodate Martinez’s home, and save some beautiful old cottonwoods to boot.
“We flipped it 180 degrees, mirroring the original design,” Márquez says. “We altered a few windows to take advantage of the sun, and made a few other changes to salvage 90 percent of the drawings and adapt to the new orientation. Everything fit.”
The backward nature of the NHCC’s redesign offers another apt metaphor for a place whose subject matter flows back in time to move forward into a contemporary cultural landscape. The Center would serve the people of modern-day New Mexico, but the architectural vision was borderless. As Predock originally described it, “The campus design was meant to showcase the Center’s disciplines in an eclectic expression of architectural styles.”
More specifically, says Márquez, “We drew from multiple sources, from Spain to Mesoamerica, precolumbian, Indo-Hispano, Spanish Colonial. Then, we modernized it into an interpretation of all the above.”
Disciplines reflective of the culture’s journey through time—visual arts, performing arts, and history and literary arts—inspired some of the most distinctive structures. The Art Museum communicates airy and elegant Old World references from Spain’s El Escorial, including an interior colonnade supporting barrel-vaulted ceilings. Both the Art Museum and the Performing Arts Center take inspiration from the soaring pyramidal shapes of Mesoamerica, a culturally rich and significant route of Hispanic migration. Indo-Hispano architectural traditions, melding Puebloan and Spanish Colonial materials and forms, ground the History and Literary Arts space solidly in New Mexico through the lens of the remodeled Barelas schoolhouse. Features include buttressed adobe walls, a flat roof, and exposed viga ceilings.
Outdoor spaces expand the landscape, with plans originally including an open-air amphitheater and a charreada lienzo (rodeo arena). The Plaza Mayor, Márquez says, “is as important as any of the buildings,” its imposing stepped backdrop calling to mind ancient Mesoamerican cities of ceremony and gathering. The plaza was designed for everything from outdoor exhibitions and performances to lowrider shows and other community gatherings.
“An architect not only creates buildings; we create the entire landscape,” Márquez continues. Patios, portals, and courtyards thus extended the options for experiencing the outdoors. The proximity of the river and the Bosque influenced elements of design. A carved log canoba, a form that traditionally is used as an animal trough, translated to a tall, rustic water feature that splashes into a circular pool below. A raised concrete water channel inspired by the state’s acequias cuts a serpentine track across another portion of the site.
Inside and out, the plan fleshed out a fuller expression of the culture. Although it was justifiably far-reaching, the funding was not. Over time, such costly features as the amphitheater and rodeo arena disappeared. The plan was divided into the most affordable phases, with Phase 1 aimed toward the NHCC’s 2000 opening. The only new building to survive Phase 1 was the Art Museum.
A brand-new History and Literary Arts building was replaced with a less expensive but practical solution: the renovation of the WPA-era schoolhouse. The 1937 elementary school had all the elements of the Spanish-Pueblo Revival Style, and though the building had been expanded decades before, a core portion was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its vernacular expression was inherently historic, rooted in the history of Barelas and the state, though parts of the building were in extreme disrepair. The remodel, Márquez recalls, was minimal but important, not only for the sake of the programs the building would house—including a genealogy center, library, and archive—but for the dignity of the building’s legacy in Barelas.
“We restored what was there and added portals to create exterior circulation,” Márquez says. “We gave this old, gorgeous, hand-built adobe honor again.”
Both the Art Museum and the History and Literary Arts buildings would boast other important local reference points. Funding was allocated to commission a range of decorative handmade arts and crafts, including ironwork, woodcarving, tin lighting fixtures, benches, and more. Incorporating the works of New Mexican artists into the architecture put another spotlight on how Hispanics in New Mexico have created a sense of place through the centuries.
Though vastly reduced from the original plan, Phase 1 was in Márquez’s hands. Between work on the master plan, the Art Museum building, and the schoolhouse renovation, Márquez spent a total of nine years on the project. Before construction, Márquez visited Martinez and asked for her blessing. She gave it, freeing Márquez to build an institution that strived to rise above individual and political division and celebrate what unifies the Hispanic peoples historically and today.
According to Márquez, initial dialogues around the project had involved passionate discussions about the Spanish colonization of Indigenous peoples in Mexico and New Mexico, as well as the Hispanic land-grabs by Anglo-American arrivals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The stakeholders acknowledged these and other disturbing histories should be subjects for programmatic exploration. But, architecturally speaking, Márquez says, “The bottom line was to create an all-encompassing venue to celebrate what is good about this culture. To demonstrate how the culture spread through Spain and Mexico into New Mexico and deposited all of these methods and traditions of creativity and living. All of that became the emphasis.”
To be successful, the architecture would have to prove instructive for a range of visitors, not just New Mexicans. “An architect has to be a storyteller,” Márquez says. “How do we tell the story of Hispanic culture with no words? We do it with shapes and forms that are reminiscent of the people and places that came before. We put those shapes and forms before people’s eyes to bring them into the present.
“A person doesn’t have to be from the Southwest or have an education in architecture to know, intuitively, that there is meaning in these buildings,” Márquez continues. “It’s not about being literal, it’s about evoking the spirit of this place. When all of these pieces come together, you experience feelings of ascension, magnificence, transformation. That’s a celebration.”
Strolling through the NHCC on a June afternoon, across the simmering Plaza Mayor, amid towering cottonwoods and blooming flames of red roses, the poetry of Márquez’s perspective sinks in. Around every corner, one is struck by a different mood. A Veteran’s War Memorial. A tile-inlay fountain honoring a late, longtime Center supporter. Walls splashed in hot pink and purple hues. The great plaza, even abandoned, is an event in itself. Though largely devoid of visitors, the site vibrates with the color and energy of a space—and a people—ever in motion.
Back at the Welcome Center, archivist Anna Uremovich fills in a few blanks of the NHCC’s growth and development over the past two decades. Phase 2 featured the addition of the long-anticipated Roy E. Disney Center for the Performing Arts in 2004, a signature feature of the original plan. Overseen by Albuquerque architect Alex Griego, it added three performance theaters, a movie theater, and rehearsal hall to the programmatic mix. By 2007, the dream for an International Building to house education and culinary arts programs had fallen by the wayside for lack of sufficient funding. Phase 3 instead took shape solely as an education center named in honor of the late U.S. Senator Pete Domenici. Designed by Studio Southwest Architects, the building opened in 2009. Today, it is home to the Spanish language programs of the Instituto Cervantes, a nonprofit project of the government of Spain, and also hosts programs in the culinary arts.
One feature that was not lost in the shuffle from the project’s inception was a plan for a Torreón. Indeed, not one, but two torreóns were originally planned for the site—one intended as an exhibition space, another providing the interactive experience of a lookout. In its original function, this iconic representation of Colonial New Mexico would have served as a watchtower from which to defend against enemies and intruders. While its traditional form was retained, its function was re-interpreted. “The Torreón’s placement was meant to be a welcoming point,” Uremovich says.
By the time of the 2000 grand opening, the Torreón had been erected near the NHCC’s north entrance, though it debuted in a naked, unstuccoed state. In 2009, the Torreón debuted again—this time with Frederico Vigil’s 4,000-square-foot buon fresco, Mundos de Mestizaje, gracing the interior of its concave walls. In a brilliant swirl of color, symbol, and form, the fresco depicts thousands of years of Hispanic and pre-Hispanic history, highlighting the diverse cultural connections between people and places from the Iberian Peninsula to the Americas.
The Torreón would quickly become a celebrated feature of the Center’s narrative of Hispanic culture through time. It’s a natural starting point for a visitor’s exploration of the programmatic offerings throughout the campus, one made even more significant now that it adjoins the new Welcome Center. “The Welcome Center is, literally, the fulfillment of what the Torreón was meant to be,” Uremovich says.
The first new construction in over a decade, designed by Living Designs Group Architects, the Welcome Center ushers the institution into the next decade of its archi-story. Finance and circumstance will undoubtedly continue to impact the NHCC’s architectural progress, but Uremovich feels certain this newest building won’t be the last. She says her exhibition research led her to believe the NHCC benefited from the added time, bringing a range of thoughtful minds to important matters of function and design.
“It took a lot of people, a lot of talent, a lot of fortitude to see this vision come to life, to physically make the Center a full expression of our programming,” she says. “The first word that comes to mind to describe this journey is ‘tenacity.’ My hat’s off to the Center’s designers.”
During her research, Uremovich compiled a file she called “Buildings that were not to be.” One project she still holds out hope for is the long-stalled International Building. As recently as 2016, she says, conceptual development discussions about the building were underway. Among other things, the space is slated to host a coffee shop.
“Why we don’t have coffee on the campus—that’s a question I get asked all the time,” she says. “A coffee shop in the International Building. I think it will happen someday. That’s the tenacity of the NHCC. We may be slow-moving, but we hold on to our dreams.”
Carmella Padilla is a Santa Fe writer who frequently explores intersections in art, culture, and history in New Mexico and beyond. Her books include El Rancho de las Golondrinas: Living History in New Mexico’s La Ciénega Valley; Low ‘n Slow: Lowriding in New Mexico; and The Chile Chronicles: Tales of a New Mexico Harvest. She is a recipient of the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.