NACO — A bi-national oasis has opened in the desert, a place where cultures can unite through art, language, music and a little coffee.
Welcome to El Centro Community Center in the heart of Naco, Arizona, just steps away from the Mexican border and Naco, Sonora.
The mission, said its founders, Lori Keyne and Seth Polley, is to strengthen the community by celebrating both cultures while at the same time teaching youth different skills through art, music, language and entrepreneurship.
El Centro — which means “the center” in Spanish — is also a place where people from both sides of the border can hang out and discuss whatever is on their minds, especially after the COVID-infused months kept people apart, said Polley, a history teacher at Bisbee High.
“In the aftermath of COVID, it’s good to be with each other,” said Polley, who is also former reverend of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bisbee. “We would like to have a space where people can come together for various activities, music, language, have a coffee, a place to hang out.
“It’ll be a place to connect.”
On Friday afternoon that “place” was starting to come alive as Polley and Keyne, a music teacher at Cochise College and the founder of Concerts Without Borders and the Bi-National Arts Institute, opened the doors of El Centro on Towner Avenue.
Keyne said her dream was to secure a space where youth from both sides of the border could gather, but also learn a few things while doing so, such as language, art, music and job skills.
“As part of the Bi-National Arts Institute, we worked with the Concerts without Borders for many years and we talked about how we could impact our community in an even stronger way,” Keyne said amid a flurry of activity going on behind her as Polley and a few of his students prepared for last Friday’s opening. “That looked to me like a bi-national music school.
“I thought, ‘a space.’ The idea (was to have) a community center to work with youth. That all started with the (Bi-National Arts Institute) board.”
The community center, painted in bright colors and located next to GSS Racing on Towner, includes a front room with several comfortable chairs and a bar/counter area where patrons can get a cup of espresso. Several back rooms will be set up for art, language and music lessons. A spacious side yard includes a tortilla-maker built by Polley and a picnic table.
At the moment, El Centro has enlisted three guitar instructors, one of them a local, Keyne said. Classes will be in person and virtually. Spanish and English will be taught through Polley’s Sonoran Language Institute.
Additionally, teens interested in becoming entrepreneurs can learn those skills by running the coffee shop, Keyne said.
Jesus Moreno, from Naco, Sonora, and a student at Bisbee High, was helping out at El Centro on Friday. Moreno, 17, was learning how to hook up the espresso machine along with his friends Saul and Paul Carillo, also Bisbee High students.
“I think this place is great,” Moreno said in Spanish. “People, young people, can come here and have fun, but it’s also a place where the two communities can co-exist.”
Rev. Rosa Brown, the associate for Hispanic Ministries at Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix who chairs the Bi-National Arts Institute board, said El Centro will be key in connecting with youth from both sides of the border.
“Our mission is education and we saw an opportunity in this building,” said Brown, who was at the opening Friday. “We’re trying to reach out to students, to youth.”
Brown, who was also involved with Concerts Without Borders, said El Centro is envisioned as a secure place where youth can share ideas. Its location, just a few feet from the Mexican border, is not by accident.
“It’s our reaffirmation of working with the two communities, its symbolic,” Brown said. We have a big wall there, but we see it as invisible. This side can give, but we can also receive from the other side.”
For now, El Centro is in its fledgling stage as Keyne, Polley and volunteers begin to set hours of operation, as well as schedules for music and language classes.
Anyone interested in volunteering at El Centro or donating resources of any kind is asked to call 520-678-9067.