We had the good fortune of connecting with Lilia Gonzales Chavez and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Lilia, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
I do not think of myself as a risk taker. I do not gamble, and I don’t engage in skydiving or mountain climbing because of the risk involved. Yet, risk has been present in many aspects of my career. I think of it as the only way to advance. Whether it is changing jobs or developing a new program a degree of risk is always present. Calculated or unexpected, risk exists. It is how you approach it and limit your exposure that make the difference from failing or succeeding. Being flexible, able to shift thinking and adjust to doing things a different way and adapting to that new way helps to minimize the possible negative impact of risk taking.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
Understanding that I am not that different than others and always looking for our commonalities may be what sets me apart. When I look at how I have pieced together my career I realize that many working women who choose to raise a family have cobbled together their profession to allow them to be Mom and professional, just not all at the same time. I have taken part time employment that allowed me to spend more time with my daughters, to be the Room Mom, go on field trips and take the cupcakes to school for birthdays. It meant for me (my choice) that I had to slow down my professional trajectory and redirect my skills. As I did this I found myself nurturing new projects that grew along with my children. My style has been to look for what is missing and try to create it.
In 1978 I observed that more Latinos were moving into professional positions that allowed them the disposable income to support their children’s development. That realization led me to co-found a dance company that teaches Ballet Folklorico (Mexican Folk dance) to children. We started with only 5 students. I was a dancer and had the skills and time to commit, while I am no longer involved, it feels good to know that the company is doing well and now has 150 dancers.
In 1987 I joined with others who had an interest in establishing a Latino Cultural Arts Center in Fresno Ca. where Latinos today are 53.8% of the population. I eventually became Executive Director of the Center and under my tenure we went from a small storefront facility to an 18,000 square foot facility with a one acer adjoining plaza. The Center houses gallery space, classrooms, a gift shop, and industrial size kitchen and outdoor performance art venue. Thousands have benefitted from this space and I feel proud to have been part of it’s beginning.
In 2011, I left a good paying position with a Community Foundation to become the Executive Director of the Fresno Arts Council. All my prior experience led me to this place. The Council had just finished its last round of grant funds and was on the chopping block because of no projected source of revenue and a consultant who reviewed the organizations viability, recommended we close. Today the organization is thriving with five payed staff and programs in the community, schools, and correctional institutions. We provide earned income opportunities to over 20 teaching artists and are constantly looking for ways to “enrich peoples lives through the arts”.
Each of these projects were riddled with challenges and no easy answers, but none were unsurmountable. I like to create five year plans, doing that allows me to break things down into short term goals which give me the time it takes to grow a project. A positive attitude, with an ear to the ground to learn the direction of politics and community, keep me grounded in what is possible. It is also important to align with good people, who are willing to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work to launch a project and see it to a point of sustainability. Every day is a learning experience that can move you closer to your goals. For me, knowing that I have goals, thought them out, and begun to percolate them into projects, helps me use those daily learning experiences as opportunities that get me closer to completing a project.
Surrounding myself with good people is one of the things I deliberately seek. No one really accomplishes anything alone. It takes a team of people with various strengths and talents to get things done. One of my greatest strength has been identifying the strengths in others and helping them develop. As they improve so does our entire team. I am always looking for new opportunities for the community to access the arts. The arts strengthen our spirit, provide us with the opportunity to see the world through someone else’s eyes and heart, expand our world view and provide the catalyst for us to feel compassion for others.
I hope to leave a legacy of good deeds. Deeds that have made the world a little better than I found it. And if I am remembered at all, I hope I am remembered as someone who loved to dance in the kitchen and served her community well.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Food is a very important part of any vacation. If someone was my house guest for a week I would definitely plan a couple full breakfasts of huevos con nopales, ( scrambled eggs with cactus.) and a tortilla española, ( an egg torte with potatoes, onions and a side of avocado. We would also plan dinner out to Craked Pepper restaurant, they make a wonderful eggplant Napoleon, Oggie’s Italian restaurant for mushroom focaccia and Tabachines Mexican restaurant for their short ribs. Outings would include a day trip to Yosemite. In town visits to Arte Américas the Latino Cultural Arts Center, the Fresno Art Museum, a performance of the Fresno Philharmonic, a visit to the Shin Zen Gardens in Woodward Park, the Fresno Chafee Zoo and the must see, underground gardens. Depending on the time of the year a drive to see the beautiful orchards in our area when in bloom, and a visit to the Farmers Market. Fresno County has the best produce in the world. We have an extended family of friends who are related to us because of the sharing of a religious sacrament. We call them Compadres. These are some of the finest people I know and would happily host a party in my home to bring us all together for an evening of good company and more good food.. Her artistic talents while not formally developed were evident in the posters she created to advocate for social justice, her knowledge of traditional food ways and cultural traditions gave me a wonderful grounding for all that I have done. The League of Mexican American Women is a community service organization that was a safe place to practice and develop organizational and leadership skills. I joined this group as a young college graduate and now help to bring others along through the League. The women of this organization demonstrate a commitment to community with hard work to raise funds for scholarships and leadership training activities that raise up the next wave of Latinas.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
My mother Nellie Arriaga Gonzales, a stay at home mom who had her finger on the pulse of the community and its needs. She shared with me a love of my ethnic heritage and importance of giving to community. Her artistic talents while not formally developed were evident in the posters she created to advocate for social justice, her knowledge of traditional food ways and cultural traditions gave me a wonderful grounding for all that I have do. The League of Mexican American Women is a community service organization that was a safe place to practice and develop organizational and leadership skills. I joined this group as a young college graduate and now help to bring others along. The women of this organization demonstrate a commitment to community with hard work to raise funds for scholarships and leadership training activities that raise up the next wave of Latinas.