Cristina Balli climbing ladder in Latino arts world

HARLINGEN — Cristina Balli credits her work with San Benito’s Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center for helping her climb to the top of Texas’ Latino cultural arts scene.

This week, Balli took over as executive director of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, a national leader in Latino arts programming.

“I feel very honored,” Balli said yesterday. “This is a very special institution.”

Balli, former executive director of Texas Folklife in Austin, cites her work with the Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center for helping her land her new job.

“I know what prepared me for all this was my work in San Benito,” Balli said. “The Narciso was modeled under the Guadalupe.”

As the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center’s executive director, Balli will oversee programming and fundraising.

As part of the job, she’ll run the Tejano Conjunto Festival, the oldest and largest festival of its kind in the United States, and the CineFestival, the nation’s original and longest-running Latino film festival.

Tomorrow, Balli will help lead the arts center as it celebrates the 25th anniversary of its Ballet Folklorico.

“This comes with a big sense of responsibility,” Balli said of the job. “This place has a big legacy. It’s important to keep that up.”

Raised in Brownsville, she and her family traveled to California, where her parents worked in the fields, until she was in fourth grade.

A 1989 graduate of Hanna High School, she received a social work degree from Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio in 1994.

In 2002, Balli’s job as operations manager at KMBH-FM in Harlingen opened the door to cultural programming.

Two years later, she took a job at the Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center, where she developed programming and ran the center’s annual Conjunto Festival.

On the job, she became involved with the Freddy Fender Museum, the Texas Conjunto Hall of Fame and Museum and Texas Folklife.

In 2007, she took a job with the city of San Benito, working as its tourism and fund development coordinator.

Later that year, she led the drive to open the museum that houses the Freddy Fender Museum, the Texas Conjunto Hall of Fame and Museum and the San Benito History Museum.

In 2009, Balli took a job as program director for Texas Folklife, launching the Big Squeeze accordion contest, a statewide competition that spotlights young accordionists who hold on to Texas’ diverse cultural roots.

In 2012, Balli was named Texas Folklife’s executive director.

In January, she resigned to pursue cultural arts projects.