Anjee Helstrup-Alvarez is the executive director of Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana, better known  as MACLA. She places a high value on artistic creativity in making an impact on San Jose’s future. Located in the SoFA district, MACLA is a hub for downtown creativity, with a vision to use art as a way to start civic dialogue and social equality.

How long have you lived/worked in San Jose?

Long story short, I grew up in San Jose, Milpitas and Wisconsin because my parents were separated. I grew up in the Bay Area and loved it, so in my adult life, I have been living in San Jose since the ’90s. I went to graduate school in San Francisco and moved back here in 2003.

At what point did you decide to stay in San Jose and pursue your career?

I went to San Jose State for undergraduate school, and some people I knew from MACLA encouraged me to pursue a position here. Since that time it has been great to see the transition in the city. From the time when I was a child living in San Jose and seeing orchards and fields and seeing the  transition from an agricultural community to the community we see today—it’s a big transformation. In downtown San Jose we’re seeing the renaissance with San Pedro Square and here in the SoFA District. I think it’s pretty phenomenal.

What do you like most about San Jose?

There are so many things. One is the diversity of people. You can meet people here who were born from all over the world. That’s a great aspect—it makes me feel like we’re living in a global community. We also have a lot of beautiful public outdoor space. The county parks are really great, Guadalupe water trail is also a nice one. You can ride bikes, walk and explore nature. I feel like our outdoor spaces are one of our best kept secrets.

What is one thing you would change about San Jose?

I’d love to see more density, especially in downtown, as well as having bold architecture. Up until recently, architecture has been beige or more standard and we’re starting to now see, like other cities, bold, dominant architecture. If you look at the Children’s Discovery Museum, it being purple, that was a bold design at the time it was built. Or the Tech Museum: its bright orange walls make it a stand-out architecture among the more beige buildings. I would like to see the other architects be bold with their designs. I would like San Jose to be a place where people who are visiting want to walk through downtown San Jose because there are so many interesting buildings.

What San Jose event do you most look forward to every year?

The Jazz Festival is always a favorite of mine. It comes to the top of the list, but also newer events like the Taco Festival in History Park and the related Sriracha Festival at St. James Park. I think San Jose now has a lot of fun, interesting events. I also think C2SV is having a lot of good conversations about the future and what’s happening now. We need more of those conversations, quite frankly.

How do you hang out when you’re not working?

Since I have two young children, free time is often at parks.

Who is the most interesting person you know in San Jose?

I would have to say one of the most interesting is Kim Walesh, deputy city manager and director of economic development for the city of San Jose. She is such a good cheerleader for the city. She is very smart and collaborative. She is one of the folks in government who asks good questions, like how do we make San Jose interesting or a good place to raise a family or have fun.

What are your favorite programs at MACLA?

I always start with the youth digital media lab. I’m always so inspired by the songs teens write and the music they record. It’s really about talent and a very honest look at the world from their perspective, and how they tell their story. Our visual arts gallery with artists from local to international is also one I enjoy. There’s always something new and when we take art down I get a little sad as we return it to the artist. The performance programs with theater music and dance also resonate with me. I love all the programing equally but for different reasons.

What is one memory that stands out in your work at MACLA?

For us, it’s about the future. Two years ago, one of our students who was a senior, Vanessa, would come almost twice a week for three years. She would come and work on her portfolio in the digital media lab and she created a powerful video about not texting and driving. Her work here was powerful but almost equally important was that she was the first to go to college in her family. She received a $60,000 scholarship from Adobe based on her portfolio to go to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. That’s important to me, because it showed the effort of one student who was dedicated to working in her art form. Here it’s important that students see a menu of opportunity for themselves.

Who are some of your favorite artists?

There are so many, but one of them is Pilar Agüero-Esparza. She is very  talented and started doing paintings and printmaking. Now she’s in mixed media work, sculpting or installation art, and its powerful work that resonates with a lot of people. Sam Rodriguez is another one of my favorites. He’s one of the artists that LinkedIn has commissioned to do work for them and other tech companies. He’s a fabulous painter, a San Jose esthetic, bringing all these different pieces together. He could be living in one of the art centers of this country, like New York, but he’s chosen to be with his family here in San Jose and I feel like he’s one of our local gems here.

What’s your favorite part about working in the SoFA District?

I love working in SoFA because there’s so many dedicated, talented people trying to bring more visibility to arts and culture. It’s an exciting time to be here and fun amenities like the SoFA Market are also great to see. I love the fact that people running things in the SoFA District are small business owners who are really passionate about what they do. When you meet someone who is excited about what they do, you can’t help but feel that energy.