Alice Valdez: Musician—Educator—Advocate

Access to and participation in the arts is a vital part of any community; and in a region as diverse as Houston, the arts play a crucial role in helping us see and understand cultures other than our own. And while Houston may be home to several world-class arts and culture organizations, not everyone in our region is able to participate equally — particularly Black, Latinx and economically disadvantaged residents. Despite 75% of Hispanic/Latino Houstonians saying they believe the arts are important, only 40% reported being able to attend an artistic event within the year of the survey. Fortunately, Alice Valdez and her team at MECA Houston are working to bridge that gap. 

Alice’s advocacy work started in the 1960s with her initial brush with social justice reform, after her first public encounter with institutional racism. Her high school was selected to join the Texas Orchestra—part of the Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA)—and invited to perform at the annual TMEA conference in Houston. A Black classmate of Alice’s was barred from sharing the same hotel and from eating at the same restaurants as the other students of the Texas Orchestra. Her orchestra teacher gave his students two options: attend the conference without the Black student or protest the TMEA and advocate for the student’s inclusion. Alice and her classmates chose to support their fellow musician and they succeeded in their efforts, allowing all students to attend the conference together. The incident left a lasting impact on Alice and taught her how the arts can bring people together, no matter their social circumstances. Alice went on to graduate with a Bachelor of Music Education degree from the University of Texas at El Paso and earned her certification to teach instrumental music at all grade levels in Texas.

When Alice moved to Houston in the early 1970s, many inner-city Houston schools did not offer music education; this was a stark contrast to her experience growing up in El Paso, where most schools had band or orchestra programs. After becoming familiar with arts education programs in Houston, Alice quickly realized that inner-city schools of color would only receive funding for arts education if they were part of magnet programs or arts-oriented schools like the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA). Recognizing this gap in art education services inspired and influenced Alice to get involved with community philanthropy at St. Joseph Catholic Church in the Old Sixth Ward.

To build upon the spirit of the community, Alice founded and organized, along with the Morin, Salinas, and Zermeno families, St. Joseph Fun ‘n Food Fest. Following on the success of the festival, Alice founded an after school arts program, St. Joseph Multi-Ethnic Cultural Arts. She described the incorporation process as “on-the-job training” and marked her first steps into nonprofit management. In 1991, the organization became Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts (MECA). The nonprofit remained at St. Joseph for nearly fifteen years, completing several public art projects, like the Resurrected Christ mural inside the parish, until settling in the historic Dow School building in 1993.

MECA fosters the growth and development of underserved youths and adults through arts and cultural programming, academic assistance, community building, and support services. The organization assists over 4,000 students and their families each year through their social support services, multicultural artistic performances and events, and arts education. The goal of MECA is to cultivate self-esteem, discipline, and cultural pride in their students. One of the unique offerings of MECA is that it is at the intersection of social services and arts education. With Alice’s guidance, MECA has provided participants and families with extensive counseling for alcoholism, drug addiction, and abuse as well as social service referrals. Alice recognized the need for such services early in her teaching career, as she faced many hardships balancing her family life and professional aspirations. MECA’s innovative approach to combine social services and arts education under one nonprofit is not typical for arts organizations, but Alice’s advocacy efforts have impacted thousands of Houstonians over the course of her remarkable career.

Under Alice’s leadership, MECA has received numerous awards and recognitions, including a Point of Light designation by President George H. W. Bush. Alice is also lauded for her contributions to the visual arts and community parks—namely, initiating the planning and directing the construction of the Old Sixth Ward Art Park in inner-city Houston, and has gone on to direct many major public sculpture and mural projects throughout the Houston area. Alice sees her nonprofit endeavors as a way of giving to her community.

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