Jessica Paz-Cedillos broke through poverty to lead MHP arts school

Jessica Paz-Cedillos owes it all to her community.

Paz-Cedillos in March becomes the new executive director for the School of Arts and Culture at the Mexican Heritage Plaza.

Paz-Cedillos brings with her an extensive background in community organizing and an impressive history of fundraising. But she says she wouldn’t be in the position she’s in today without the help she’s had throughout the years.

“You are only as good as the people you work with,” Paz-Cedillos said. “The only reason I’m here is because of that support net.”

Paz-Cedillos’ dedication as a public servant has roots in her upbringing. She and her two siblings were raised in East Oakland by a single Salvadoran immigrant mother.

To provide the opportunities she knew her children deserved, Paz-Cedillos’ mother turned to the community around her. Paz-Cedillos remembers her mother searching for a dojo to teach her children taekwondo to protect themselves. After searching Oakland and Hayward with no success, she finally found an instructor willing to train them at a discounted rate.

“We grew up in a violent environment, and she couldn’t afford to send all of us to lessons… He charged her for the first year, and after that, it was free,” Paz-Cedillos said. “Now, we’re all black belts.”

Since then, Paz-Cedillos has dedicated her life to the public sector.

After graduating college, she worked with Community Chest in Nevada, where she cut her teeth fundraising, before moving back to the Bay Area to work in San Jose at the Bill Wilson Center.

In 2015, Paz-Cedillos was hired as the director of resource development at SOMOS Mayfair, a nonprofit organization focused on providing services to families in East San Jose. Here, she nearly doubled the organization’s annual revenue and raised more than $10 million during her tenure.

She plans to do the same at the Mexican Heritage Plaza.

Much like SOMOS Mayfair, the School of Arts and Culture is dedicated to community outreach and providing a public space for those living in East San Jose with a focus on innovative experiences. Paz-Cedillos believes that an open, common area rooted in celebrating the humanities is central to establishing community identity and solidarity.

“For me, arts and culture is a catalyst for critical and creative thinking, better academic performance and an inspiration for youth to do better, exposing them to something new,” Paz-Cedillos said.

Photo courtesy of Mexican Heritage Plaza

Paz-Cedillos joins the Mexican Heritage Plaza during a unique time in its history.

The school’s board of directors recently formulated a five-year plan to strengthen its position and establish future priorities. The board wants to build social unity through creativity, establishing the Mexican Heritage Plaza as a creative hub in the city and ensuring continued access to the school’s programs.

The board has also identified five core values that epitomize the School of Arts and Culture: creativity, heritage, inclusion, place and service. Paz-Cedillos plans to build on the trajectory of her mentor and predecessor, Tamara Alvarado.

“There is more that we can do even if [the School of Arts and Culture is] doing an amazing job already,” Paz-Cedillos said. “How do we make sure that the Mexican Heritage Plaza is seen locally, regionally or nationally? How do we make sure that the School uplifts our core values?”

Alvarado met Paz-Cedillos in 2015 during a leadership training program called On The Verge.

Alvarado developed a mentorship with Paz-Cedillos, and the two often collaborated between SOMOS Mayfair and the School of Arts and Culture. The women have reciprocated support and grown together, even as Alvarado hands the mantle to Paz-Cedillos.

“She’ll bring rigor, a different perspective and a great respect to the School of Arts and Culture,” Alvarado said. “She’s inspired by the strength and creativity of the community, especially the legacy of Mayfair.”

Despite dedicating her professional career as a public servant, Paz-Cedillos’ goals are personal. She wants to give her daughter the same support her mother provided when they lived in East Oakland.

“When I think of my own community that I was a part of when I was growing up, it’s a very similar community to East San Jose,” Paz-Cedillos said. “Because I had people and programs that helped break that cycle of poverty, I want to do the same for the community here.”

Contact San José Spotlight intern Yale Wyatt at yalewyatt1@gmail.com or follow @yalewhat on Twitter.

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