By Dennis Taylor
Photos by Claudia Melendez Salinas
Salinas was “a beautiful place to grow up” for Javier Tamayo, but the streets of his Alisal neighborhood, on the east side of the city, weren’t where he wanted to spend a lot of his time as a youth.
Between 1994 and 1998, when Tamayo attended Alisal High, the city recorded 83 homicides — one of the worst per-capita murder rates in the United States — attributed mostly to rampant gang activity on the east side. Any kid without alternatives was potentially vulnerable.
“I was an active child — okay academically, but a little easily distracted,” he remembers. “Fortunately, I was able to channel a lot of that energy into music, and music is what helped me stay off the streets.”
He graduated with Alisal High’s Class of ’98, earned an associate degree from Hartnell College, and moved on to CSU Monterey Bay for a bachelor’s degree in human communication, with a concentration in history and social science.
The power of art
Over the past 20-plus years, Tamayo has worked tirelessly as a teacher, writer, community activist and organizer — mostly as a volunteer — to make his community a better and safer place. Now executive director of the Alisal Center for the Fine Arts, he inspires, educates and empowers young people through the arts.
“I love what I do. It’s beautiful and exhilarating to see young people grow in their chosen discipline,” said Tamayo, one of four people who will be celebrated Saturday as “Champions of the Arts” at the 17th annual fundraising gala of the Arts Council of Monterey County.
“Javier has been an activist for the arts for many years, especially in East Salinas,” said Jacquie Atchison, executive director for the Arts Council. “His objective is to make the Alisal Center for the Fine Arts a welcoming place, where artists feel comfortable expressing themselves.”
Other honorees at the sold-out event will include internationally-acclaimed Carmel sculptor Steven Whyte, visual artist Kati D’Amore, a North County resident, Jan Harkness, founder of Monterey County Dance Theatre in King City, and Juan Sanchez, executive director of Palenke Arts in Seaside.
A touring musician
‘Music was always part of my life, but I never got an opportunity to learn an instrument until I was in my late teens — a difficult time for me because our community was challenged with a lot of gang violence,” said Tamayo. Though he was almost entirely self taught, he was able to tour the U.S. and Mexico as a musician.
“I saw wonderful things happening at all of the festivals where we played, and then I’d come back to Salinas and see that there was very little opportunity for youth here.”
That void inspired Tamayo to become a community volunteer, teaching percussion classes to children, sharing the knowledge he had acquired through practice and organically from musicians he’d met on his own journey.
He also taught social science to grades 7 to 12 before settling into the nonprofit world as a teacher, program director and executive director at the Alisal Center for the Arts.
An oral history
For Tamayo, the past two decades have been an ongoing study of the community where he grew up. He captured that history in a project in which he and others interviewed 40 locals to create an oral history of “The Alisal.” His subjects included war veterans, doctors, lawyers, boxers, professional musicians, dancers, and business professionals
“It was our effort to change the narrative and by highlighting a lot of the very successful people who came from our community,” he said.
“Unfortunately, when people speak of ‘The Alisal,’ their focus often is on the gang violence, or other negative social determinants on our side of town,” Tamayo explained. “Those of us who live there are very proud of ‘The Alisal.’”
Strength and resilience
Tamayo’s studies and experiences have taught him that people of East Salinas have been strong and courageous in the face of racial inequity.
“We are resilient, hard-working people, with a lot of heart, and we all want and deserve a better life,” he said. “I’ve learned that the problems we’ve faced didn’t just fall from the sky: There were systematic impacts, some of which can be traced to the people behind the development of the city.”
Tamayo’s ongoing quest is to inspire and empower young people in his community through programs offered at the art center. The center currently offers seven classes in dance, four in music and one in visual arts, most of them conducted at the Breadbox Recreation Center at 745 N. Sanborn St. More than 100 young people are involved.
Paying it forward
‘It’s beautiful to see these kids grow up and acquire an education, become professionals, do positive things with their lives, and often return to our community and work to fill in the gaps that still exist,” said Tamayo, who believes he has seen significant progress in recent years.
“One example is at Alisal High, where the principal and the majority of the staff are alumni,” he said. “Their graduation rate now is one of the best in the city, and a lot of that is due to the young professionals who got an education and came back to make our community a better place for future generations.”
‘It’s needed everywhere’
As the ACFA’s executive director, Tamayo dreams of a day when every area of his city has its own version of Alisal Center for the Fine Arts, and more youth have access to different opportunities.
“We serve a large population, and we’re very proud of that, but my aspiration is to provide these program opportunities citywide, and even countywide,” he said. “What we do is needed everywhere.”
The honor he’ll receive Saturday from the Monterey County Council of the Arts is humbling, he says, but also an award he shares with his staff, his students and his peers.
“We all work hard, and I wouldn’t be able to accomplish any of the things we do without a great team of people who have their hearts and minds in the right place,” he said.
Tamayo also serves as coordinator of the Otter Cross Cultural Center at CSUMB, his alma mater.
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