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Kyle Potter, Published June 01 2013

Local Latino residents fight to save Hispanic community center

Moorhead - Members of the local Latino community are fighting for Centro Cultural de Fargo-Moorhead, a Hispanic community center that has been in shambles for the past few years.

Founded here in the early 1990s by a group of migrant farmers from Mexico, Centro Cultural has all but fallen apart since 2010 due to inconsistent leadership and funding woes.

In that time, the group’s facility at 1014 19th St. S. has served more as a rental facility rather than the active, open-door community center it once was. And the recent events and programs Centro has sponsored haven’t been geared towards the Latino community – a departure from its founders’ intent.

Though the Latino community has grown into the largest minority population in the region, Centro Cultural is the only remaining Hispanic organization – at least in name.

“White kids have got many safe spaces to go to,” Leane Guerrero said at a May 19 meeting to discuss the future of the organization. “Centro could give my children a safe place to learn about their heritage, their culture. That’s what this was made for.”

In its heyday, Centro Cultural helped community members find work or housing, sponsored after-school programming for children and hosted cultural events such as an annual Cinco de Mayo party.

But on Cinco de Mayo this year, a handful of community members protested outside the building. Their message: Get Centro Cultural running at full steam again.

Trouble at Centro

Centro Cultural has not filed its forms with the federal government for tax-exempt status since 2010, or its charitable organization paperwork with the state since 2011. It’s also fallen behind on tax payments to the city for special construction projects, according to Clay County property information.

The organization lost out on more than two-thirds of a $120,000 multiyear grant it received from the Otto Bremer Foundation in early 2011.

Christine LaCoursiere, chairwoman of Centro Cultural’s board for the past three-plus years, acknowledged there have been issues during her tenure. Since the organization’s last steady executive director left town in 2011, Centro Cultural “went from functioning with ambitious goals to a skeleton crew in a matter of months,” she said.

Since then, it’s been difficult to recruit board members with enough time and even harder to keep them around, she said.

“Things went through the cracks because there was no one to be there to answer phones,” LaCoursiere said. “There was no one to be there.”

Cindy Gomez-Schempp, a local activist, is calling on Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson to remove LaCoursiere and the few other remaining board members.

Gomez-Schempp wants to hit the restart button on the organization so she and others can rebuild it.

“For the past three years, there’s been nothing for us,” she said. “That’s a big concern, and that’s why we’re fighting so hard to save it.”

Gomez-Schempp and several others told The Forum that Centro Cultural’s organizational struggles have caught the eye of the attorney general. A spokesman for Swanson’s office could not say if Centro Cultural is under investigation

LaCoursiere said she’s ready to step down from the board and is excited Latino community members are looking to get more involved at Centro Cultural.

But she said Gomez-Schempp’s approach to “take over” the organization hasn’t been productive.

“She doesn’t speak for the whole Latino community,” LaCoursiere said.

Resource for Latinos

Centro Cultural began in 1993 as the “Hispanic Community Center Project,” the brainchild of a group of Mexicans – primarily workers in area beet farms – who wanted a resource to help fellow Latinos in the region. After years of meeting in members’ homes, the group opened a community center near Moorhead’s Romkey Park in 1999.

Evangelina Lopez started working there almost immediately as an administrative assistant, running Centro Cultural’s food pantry and helping anyone who walked in the door. She loved it. Then, around 2010, things started to change.

Lopez said Raul “Papo” Fernandez, the organization’s last steady executive director, and the board changed Centro Cultural’s mission to serve the greater community on social justice issues, rather than focusing primarily on the Latino population.

Fernandez fired Lopez before leaving town abruptly in 2011. Several people involved with the organization said Centro Cultural has struggled ever since.

“That’s supposed to be a Hispanic center,” Lopez said. “They want to make it into something else.”

Those troubles have come at a cost to the Latino community.

Centro Cultural is the only dedicated organization in the Red River Valley for Latinos, who make up 2.5 percent of the region’s population. Mujeres Unidas, a group for Hispanic women, has been defunct for several years.

At a recent open meeting to discuss that change and the organization’s future, LaCoursiere said the board decided in 2010 that Centro Cultural “needs to become more than a Hispanic community center to address the current conditions of our community.”

Lately, that meant allowing YouthWorks, a local nonprofit that helps at-risk teens, to use the space.

“We didn’t lose sight of that mission vision. It wasn’t as active or as vibrant as what the community wanted,” LaCoursiere told The Forum.

Moorhead City Councilman Mark Altenburg said his top priority for Centro Cultural is providing a safe space in Romkey Park, which sits in his ward. He said while Romkey Park was once a magnet for area Latinos, it has since become more diverse.

Altenburg said Centro Cultural’s failure was not in broadening the organization’s mission but in failing to communicate with the community about that change.

Several people were upset at the May 19 open meeting that their space had been “hijacked.”

Vicious cycle

On a recent weekday afternoon, Centro Cultural’s doors were locked, its insides dark and its lawn overgrown. A section of fence on its west side was broken in, and a stretch of its east wall was covered with graffiti.

Between an overhaul of its sprinkler system and other, smaller repairs, Centro Cultural needs thousands of dollars in improvements.

Funding problems in the organization have created a vicious cycle: Not only is there little money for repairs, but there’s no money to pay staff, who in turn help fill out paperwork and secure more funding.

After getting an initial $25,000, Centro Cultural lost out on the remainder of a $120,000 grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation because it couldn’t raise the necessary matching funds.

Altenburg said Centro’s board struggled to stay above water for the past 18 months.

“Perhaps we didn’t throw out a big white flag and say we’re going under because that was not our view at the time,” LaCoursiere said. “This progressively happened.”

The fight to get Centro Cultural back on track has been at times personal, verging on nasty. Lopez said she hopes the two sides can work it out – and soon.

“I hope we can get Centro back for the Hispanic community in Fargo-Moorhead, and welcome everybody else,” she said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Kyle Potter at (701) 241-5502