Up and Coming: Soledad Nuñez

SAN BENITO — For Soledad Nuñez, the Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center isn’t just a job.

Since she was 2, it’s filled much of her life.

“It’s a big part of who I am,” said Nuñez, the center’s coordinator. “It’s something I’m very passionate about.”

In 1991, her father Rogelio Nuñez co-founded the arts center, naming it for Narciso Martinez, the master accordionist from La Paloma known as the father of conjunto music.

Last year, Soledad took over as the arts center’s coordinator, overseeing operations and lining up events.

A 2007 graduate of San Benito High School, she holds a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from Our Lady of the Lake University and a master’s degree in bi-cultural studies from the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“It’s got a very strong foundation,” she said of the arts center. “I’m trying to build on what’s there.”

The center showcases the rich culture born along the Texas-Mexico border.

“We do really great quality cultural programming — music, poetry, film, theater and art exhibits,” Soledad said. “Our mission is to develop, promote and preserve a lot of the different cultural arts aspects.”

Nuñez said the arts center also helps her and younger Mexican-Americans connect with their roots.

“From my experience in the public school system, you don’t get exposed to too many cultural arts — the culture gets lost,” she said. “This is a part of who I am — part of my identity. It’s taught me to appreciate that I’m never going to be American enough for Americans in this country and I’m never going to be Mexican enough for Mexicans.”

The center offers accordion classes that help teach younger Mexican-Americans to play the conjunto music many believe was born in the cantinas of San Benito.

“That’s a good way to bring in our youth,” Nuñez said.

An average of about 10 students fill the classes.

“A lot of our students get the basis of the music here and go on to form their own bands so it helps keep the music alive,” she said.

Every year, the center’s Conjunto Festival features traditional music showcased by the Smithsonian Institution in its recording of a 1998 concert released in a CD titled Taquachito Nights.

Now, Nuñez is preparing to host the center’s 25th Annual Conjunto Festival, set for Oct. 21-23.

Each year, the Valley’s only conjunto festival draws as many as 6,000 fans, making it one of San Benito’s biggest events.

“We are a big source of economic development,” she said.

This year, the festival features the genre’s rising stars along with pioneers such as master accordionist Gilberto Perez.

“We try to do a good mix of the new generation and the old generation,” Nuñez said. “We like to get the most popular bands as well as bands not so well known to give them a chance to have their music heard.”

In the United States, the festival draws fans from as far as California, Chicago and Michigan, she said.

With social media such as Facebook, she’s reaching younger audiences.

“Facebook is very neat because it looks at demographics,” she said. “It plots where your audience is coming from.”

Now, Facebook is helping her reach fans as far away as Japan, England and Spain, she said.

“It’s an important genre of music,” Nuñez said. “It’s a traditional form of music — the music of our people. It tells the story of the Mexican-American people.”