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Transformative new funding sources will help Arte Américas expand staffing, programs and repairs to historic building

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Soreath Hok/KVPR
Entrance to the new Día de Muertos exhibit at Arte Américas

The cultural arts center Arte Américas is preparing to celebrate Día de Muertos - or Day of the Dead. The center, the largest Latino cultural institution in the Valley, has something else to celebrate too: It’s about to receive a state grant of $7 million - the largest infusion of funding in the center’s 35-year history.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Alex Delgado was one of a few volunteers rolling and cutting streams of orange crepe paper at the Arte Américas center in downtown Fresno.

The volunteers were making paper Cempasúchil, or marigolds. It’s the iconic flower used to guide spirits for Día de Muertos, Delgado said. “The marigolds are placed on the ground so they know where to walk and then they’re placed around their altar, that way, they can see their altar.”

Volunteers were rushing to make thousands of these paper flowers for the upcoming Día de Muertos exhibit, set to open on Oct. 6 and run through Dec. 1.

Executive director Ruth Saludes showed off a small pile of finished flowers. “You roll them and and you squeeze them,” she said, twirling a flower in her hand.

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Thousands of paper Cempasúchil, or marigold flowers were made for the Día de Muertos exhibit.

The flowers are just one component of the upcoming exhibit at Arte Américas, which Saludes said will be larger than the center’s previous Día de Muertos celebrations. One space will be transformed into a symbolic cemetery with tombstones and artists have been busy preparing a traditional Aserrín, a carpet made out of dyed sawdust, similar to a sand painting, that will spread out before a large altar.

The 6-foot tall altar being made for the celebration will hold photos, flowers, candles and other traditional items to honor the dead.

In Latin culture, Día de Muertos is a holiday rooted in indigenous culture and traditionally aligned with the celebration of All Souls’ Day on Nov. 2 to honor deceased ancestors and other loved ones. During this celebration, cemeteries in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America come alive with loved ones gathering to pray, sing songs, share food and bring gifts to the departed.

“This year we're celebrating all the lives. We're celebrating even the lives of our ancestors and everyone's life, we're celebrating here,” Saludes said.

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Executive director, Ruth Saludes points to altar being built inside the community gallery.

Arte Américas hosts Latino art exhibits throughout the year. It also organizes events and performances, along with community art workshops. All of it is a big undertaking with just two paid staff members, Saludes said. “It’s nothing short of a miracle that we’re doing these things without the funding, honestly. And we’ve done them for 35 years.”

Arte Américas now plans to add staffing, expand activities and more, thanks to $7 million from the state’s General Fund secured by Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula. Saludes hopes to add another four paid staff members.

The funding will be transformative for the nonprofit center which has operated on an annual budget of about $300,000 - $400,000 and relies on grants, memberships and donations. In addition to staffing and new projects, the new funds will pay for repairs to the 111-year-old building.

Saludes walked around the center’s second floor and pointed to dusty light fixtures.

“There's the electrical problems because you can see that most of our lights either don't work or they're old-fashioned. They need to be upgraded,” she said.

The structure was first built as a private home in 1910, but has been through many transitions: a church, department store and most recently, a Bank of America before Arte Américas took over in 1996.

“This was a colonial building, believe it or not, colonial style and very beautiful,” Saludes said, gazing around the main gallery.

A walk through the building reveals different floors, hallways, doors and even a hidden top floor.

“You're now entering the ghost room,” Saludes said with anticipation. Switching on a hand lamp, Saludes revealed a dark wooden room, now used as a storage room stacked with boxes and bags from old exhibits. It’s called “the ghost room,” she explained.

“Some people have heard noises and things up here,” Saludes said with a smile.

The “ghost room” used to have skylights. When this building was a home, there was no floor here, leaving the skylights open and visible from the bottom floor.

“Look at the ceiling, look at the woodwork. Look at everything that’s done here,” Saludes said as she looked up at the heavy wooden panels and intricate wood carvings. A mass of real, thick cobwebs hung from the ceiling panels, making this better than any store-bought Halloween decoration.

Saludes sees a lot of potential throughout the building; areas that can be transformed into community rooms, or more spaces to rent out and create added revenue for the center.

In addition to the $7 million in state funding, Arte Américas is waiting on more than $400,000 in American Rescue Plan Act dollars to come in from the City of Fresno - money that has been earmarked for building improvements.

And Arte Américas hopes to access additional funding next year. Right now, the City of Fresno is figuring out how to spend part of the revenue generated by Measure P, a 3/8 cent sales tax passed in 2018 that’s projected to generate millions annually over the next 30 years. The public is being asked to weigh in on how to spend the money that’s been accruing for arts and culture in the City of Fresno.

The public can offer their input on the cultural arts plan by taking part in community meetings through December and participating in a survey that will close on Oct. 21. The city will need to develop and approve a plan before any of that money can be released as non-profit grants.

The Measure P funds will accrue “until we have the plan done and the grant program put in place,” said Aldi Ramirez, assistant director of the PARCS Department

Measure P has been collecting revenue since 2022. In Fiscal Year 2022, the measure collected $35,613,564. For Fiscal Year 2023, it’s projected to collect $58,344,000. Each year, 12 percent of that revenue is saved for cultural arts funding. Ramirez expects the city council to approve the plan by May 2023. By then, she said Measure P is projected to generate $10.5 million for grants.

“I'm really excited. I know that the community has been so eager to be able to access the funds,” Ramirez said.

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Dolly Arredondo, 89, a longtime volunteer at Arte Américas.

Until the funds kick in, Arte Américas remains primarily run by volunteers, many of them longtime helpers like Dolly Arredondo, who works in La Tiendita, the store where center visitors can buy colorful art prints, shirts, blouses and fabrics.

“This is my second home,” she said with a laugh.

Arredondo has been a volunteer here for 27 years, since shortly after she retired. She’s part of a larger group of longtime women Arte Américas volunteers who call themselves the “Comadres” - a Spanish term for a close-knit group of women.

In November, Arredondo will celebrate her 90th birthday and the party will be at Arte Américas, she said. “You know, I ask my daughter, ‘why here?’ and she says, ‘Mom, it’s so you!’”

As a Mexican-American woman born and raised in Fresno, Arredondo said it’s a place she celebrates with pride.

“Culture-wise, I mean, it's the closest thing to my heart to see us have such a beautiful gallery to begin with,” Arredondo said.

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Día de Muertos altar being built inside the community gallery.

The Día de Muertos celebration at Arte Américas opens Oct. 6 and runs through Dec. 1. It’s free to attend on opening night during ArtHop, Thursday Oct. 6. Regular admission is $5 for adults and $3 for kids. Admission is free every first Sunday of the month.

Arte Américas is open Thursday-Sunday from 12pm-5pm and located at 1630 Van Ness Avenue in downtown Fresno.

Soreath Hok is a multimedia journalist with over 16 years of experience in radio, television and digital production. She is a 2022 National Edward R. Murrow Award winner. At KVPR she covers local government, politics and other local news.