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La Liga de Las Americas

Joe Balderas: Redefining community activism


By Alan Abrams

La Prensa Senior Correspondent


Last Friday, Joe Balderas, the executive director of the Sofia Quintero Art and Cultural Center, Inc., Toledo, sat down for a wide-ranging conversation with La Prensa. The South Broadway landmark is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year and has created a unique 16-month pictorial 2007 calendar as a fundraiser.


The Center opened at a smaller location directly across Broadway in 1996 and moved to its current location next door to the Farm Labor Organizing Committee international headquarters in 2000.


“I remember that the move was made around the time of the celebration of Pechanga in 2000. That also marked the start of my involvement in the community,” says Balderas, who eventually became the Center’s fulltime director.

Under his tutelage and direction, the Center has grown at a tremendous rate, with numerous cultural functions held throughout the year, such as the annual Día de Los Muertos


Balderas’ goal is to make the Center “a 24/7 operation.” The Center’s art classes are already attended by a cross-section of the community, and the Center’s partnerships with the Toledo Museum of Art and now the Toledo YMCA are a vote of confidence by the greater community.


But who is Joe Balderas and what makes him tick?


He was born in Toledo 55 years ago, the son of José María and Cruz Balderas.  “My father was kind of an orphan,” recalls Balderas.  “Some friends took him in and came up here for work. My father came up with them. They would come back and forth and eventually my father found a steady full-time job here. He went back to Texas, got married, and brought my mother up here. The first place that I remember we lived at was in Stony Ridge on a farm with my cousins.


“I was the oldest of my siblings. My sister, Teresa, who now lives in Adrian [MI], was the youngest. I have two brothers, Arthur and John/Michael. Although he has one name, people always call him by the other.


“We moved to Perrysburg Heights when I was still very young, and after several years we moved into Perrysburg. That’s where I went to school,” says Balderas.


“My first job was at a company that doesn’t even exist anymore, it was called Crown Cork and Seal.  Working there, I was able to buy a house in Northwood for my family. My wife Pat and I have been married for 25 years. I got married late in life. I was 30 when we were married. We got married on May 29 so we would have the long Memorial Day holiday weekend for our honeymoon.


“We have one daughter, Taylor. And Pat has a daughter, Darla, from her first marriage.” says Balderas.


Sojourns to Guatemala and México

During the last few years, Balderas has made several trips to Guatemala and México to work with those less fortunate. “I made my first trip to Central America in 2002. That came about because of the folks at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church of Maumee, where Pat and I go on Sunday with friends. They were organizing a mission and, I suppose because I am Latino, they tried to persuade me to participate,” recalls Balderas.


One of the most unforgettable sites he visited was the nursery where workers at the Guatemala City municipal dump drop off their children while they go to work.


“I’ve made four trips, and I also want to go back to México. I first went to México in 2005 where I was able to work with one of the indigenous Indian tribes. I’m planning on returning in 2007,” said Balderas.


Having already established his goal for the center, we asked Balderas to name his personal goal. His reply was simple, “To have my daughter succeed in whatever she does.”


Taylor Balderas, a BGSU grad, served a brief term on the Toledo City Council this year. At 22, she was the youngest councilwoman in Toledo history.


Her father conceded he seriously thought of making his own run for a seat on the Toledo City Council after then-incumbent Bob McCloskey’s decision to seek an at-large seat. “Taylor was on board with my decision,” recalls Balderas.  “One evening, she had a chance meeting with Mayor Carty Finkbeiner [Toledo] at a function. He told her that he wanted to talk to her some more, and invited her to his office to meet with him on the next day.


“When they met, Carty told her she should be on Council.  He explained that his choosing her was related to his concerns about the brain drain and young people staying in Toledo. After I heard the news, I never approached Carty about my own plans. I would not interfere with my daughter’s ambitions,” says Balderas. He pauses, and then adds, “I guess blood is thicker than water.


“I would like to see her make another run (for office),” says Balderas.  


Imagenes Mexicanas

This reporter first met Balderas through the Imagenes Mexicanas folkloric dance troupe, in which Taylor participated for many years. Joe Balderas served as the dance group’s   manager for almost 11 years.  During most of that time, he worked at Supreme Bumpers, now also defunct.


But it was through working with the talented kids in the dance troupe that Balderas became involved with many of the greater issues that face the Latino community.


Says Balderas, “Take our Latino kids, so many are just dripping out of school and failing. What makes that doubly tragic is that our kids now need the skills to compete in the world market.  They are no longer competing for a job with the kid next door or on the next block.  They’re competing with kids in India or Bangladesh.  The $14-15 hour jobs that they used to be able to get here are now being filled by those kids in other countries who are happy to get $17 a week.


“Our education system is failing. Latinos must take responsibility and say it is our fault. Any parent who lets their kid fail or not attend school is only helping to create the next generation of welfare and food stamp recipients.  Our kids are dropping out of school, our daughters are getting pregnant at a young age, and the job market is shrinking. There are no fast food jobs as a last resort for our kids. They’re all hiring older workers,” says Balderas.


“And politically, it is time for us to say we have met the enemy and the enemy is us.


“We had the greatest opportunity.  We could’ve had two Latinos on Council and we blew it.  We have no one to blame except ourselves.  I looked at the precinct sheets on election night. Out of 700 names that were registered, only 12 voted. 


“If politicians see they can get elected without even have to campaign in our neighborhoods, we won’t even see them when they come through before Election Day to try and get our votes,” says Balderas.


“It was sad. For every Latino that is elected, an Anglo or African-American is displaced from office. Being an elected official gives a person income, power, and influence. When will we ever get a chance like this again?


“Our community is not taking forward steps. We’re making backward leaps,” says Balderas, who has one other goal—to see Toledo’s Latino community stand on its own.


“If every Latino in the greater community gave only $5 year per household, we could create our own Latino United Way,” says Balderas.


It is no surprise that Balderas and the center are among the six key South Toledo players in the Strategic Alliance of Greater Toledo. The group’s next meeting will be held Wed. Dec. 20 at Cornerstone Church.


Editor’s Note: The 2007 Sofia Quintero Art & Cultural Center Calendar features color photography by Arrturo Quintero, Greg Albers, and Millard Stone. Copies are available only through the Center. They are priced at $7 each or three for $20. To order your copy, call the Center at (419) 241-1655.  Proceeds help support the Latino Arts.





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