Featured Supporter: Lilia Gonzales-Chávez

A young Lilia Gonzales-Chávez listened as her teacher announced that three in her third-grade class would be in the school’s talent show. With only three students performing, she wasn’t surprised when her classmate who took ballet lessons or another student who had taken piano lessons was chosen. 

“But then the teacher said I was going to be in the talent show,” said Gonzales-Chávez. “And I didn’t know what talent I had!”

Her teacher told her that voice was her talent and she would sing “Do-Re-Mi” from the Sound of Music. 

“We often don’t know what talents we have until someone points them out for us.”

While Gonzales-Chávez would go on later in life to express herself through dance and other creative outlets, she recognized her talent show experience as pivotal in her development.

“That provided me with a vehicle to be comfortable in public settings, to present, to do public speaking, to have a certain level of confidence about myself that I don’t think I would have developed otherwise.”

She hopes to duplicate this type of experience as an advocate for access to the arts. She sees art, in all its forms, as a way for people to develop the skills necessary for success – as a way for humans to grow. And as the experience of art connects with more people, a way for society to flourish as well.

“I recognize that not only is art important for personal growth, but it’s also important as an aid to engage the public,” said Gonzales-Chávez. “I see that arts are so very important in economic development and economic stability of the community. When large businesses look for places to put a new establishment, they look for places that have enrichment opportunities for their employees. They look for places that have arts and humanities.”

Gonzales-Chávez is an alumna of Fresno State with a B.S. in human development. As a student, she danced in Los Danzantes de Aztlán, Fresno State’s folklórico dance troupe under the direction of Professor Ernesto Martinez. 

In 1978, she and Martinez founded Los Niños de Aztlán, a ballet folklórico dance company for children. She was the first instructor and taught there for about ten years.

Chavez sitting inside a diner as the windows reflect the passing traffic.
Chavez sitting inside a diner as the windows reflect the passing traffic.

Seeing the need in 1987, she co-founded the Latino cultural arts center, Arte Américas, and served as the executive director for ten years. 

“When I looked around our community, there weren’t a lot of places for Latino children to see beautiful images of themselves. We had two major art institutions at that time:  the Fresno Metropolitan Museum and the Fresno Art Museum. But they maybe did an annual exhibition that would touch on the Mexican community in Fresno County.”

Arte Américas started in a storefront office at the Warnors Theatre. Through a Community Development Block Grant, it was later able to purchase its current building in the Mural District north of Downtown Fresno.

Gonzales-Chávez is proud of what Arte Américas has become and how it welcomes underserved communities in Fresno. 

“While they engage in cultural arts in a family way or a traditional way, they didn’t feel welcome in other cultural arts institutions,” she explained. “When I go to Arte Américas, I see people from all walks of life present.”

While she is still involved in Arte Américas, her daughter Arianna Paz Chávez was recently chosen as the new executive director.

Gonzales-Chávez moved on to serve on the board of the Fresno Art Museum, but at the time realized that she wanted to focus on creating a fund for the arts for Fresno. At the time she was also on the board of the Fresno Arts Council and felt that organization was the best engine to realize her goals. She decided to give the Fresno Arts Council her full attention and In 2011, Gonzales-Chávez was appointed executive director.

“I needed to focus my attention on the Fresno Arts Council because that was the place that was going to allow me to [create a fund for the arts],” said Gonzales-Chávez. “Both as an executive director of Arte Américas, then board member of the Fresno Art Museum, it was painfully apparent that without some stable source of revenue for the arts, our programs were just going to continue to lumber on, and our community deserves better.”

Under her leadership, the Fresno Arts Council found stable funding sources, allowing it to grow from a one-and-a-half-person operation to five members. They have developed programs in corrections, developed a teaching artist program that recently partnered with Fresno State, created the poet laureate program, and most recently established “Art Haven,” a program for the unhoused. The Fresno Arts Council also runs the Art Hop every  1st and 3rd Thursday. The program began before Gonzales-Chávez’s tenure in 1997, but continues to have a huge cultural impact on the city.

In 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom appointed Gonzales-Chávez to the California Arts Council. A year later, she was elected to chair the council through December 2022. She remained on the California Arts Council until her term ended earlier this year. While on the board, she worked to secure funding for arts programs in Fresno and other underserved areas of California. 

With the recent passage of Measure P,  Gonzales-Chávez is on the verge of seeing permanent, stable funding for the arts in Fresno. The three-eighth-of-a-cent sales tax measure, approved by voters in 2018, provides funding to improve parks and trails. However, 12 percent of the fund goes to expanding access to arts and culture. 

“The fund is already being collected, and we are just waiting for the cultural plan to be adopted,” said  Gonzales-Chávez. “Once that plan is revised and adopted, we will be able to establish the grants program.”

Gonzales-Chávez is also affiliated with the Chicano Alumni ClubCalifornias for the Arts and the League of Mexican American Women, which awarded $50,000 in scholarships to students this year. 

Gonzales-Chávez has been a member of the Art and Humanities Advisory Board (AHAB) since 2017 and a donor to the Dean’s Council. The Arts Council also helps fund the Young Writers Conference.

“Everything is driven by the resources they have available. Our institutions need resources to produce the outcomes that we want them to produce,” said Gonzales-Chávez. “We have an excellent College of Arts and Humanities, and I believe that as a member of this community and someone who is an advocate for the arts, it’s important that we support it financially because otherwise, we may lose the wonderful jewel that we have.”

Gonzales-Chávez says she feels a warm sense of personal satisfaction when she gives to help students – a feeling of paying forward the gifts she has received in her life.

“I believe we are called to make this world better than when we found it. If we support students to be the best that they can be, they will go forward in whatever way they identify, to make our world better.”

Posted by

Fresno State College of Arts and Humanities Communication Specialist

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