Hildy Carrillo—a leader in Calexico and an Advocate for Culture

Hildy Carrillo, executive director of the Calexico Chamber of Commerce, shows some of the artwork that is such a critical part of her life.

Hildy Carrillo, executive director of the Calexico Chamber of Commerce, shows some of the artwork that is such a critical part of her life.

To walk into the office of Calexico Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Hildy Carrillo is to instantly recognize all that matters to her from the photographs of her family, including her new granddaughter, to the stacks of materials for the city’s annual Mariachi Festival, to her own artwork, a dazzling display of various mediums that have become a form of release and expression.

That office is very much a microcosm of her life—a balance of roles that co-mingle in a way that is both business like and eclectic but always with an eye toward what is best for the city, the chamber, family, friends and the culture she holds dear.

As a chamber executive, she is in charge of marketing local business and building, maintaining and serving a membership in the unique and challenged environment of a border city, but she also finds herself in charge of special projects like organizing an event that has become a celebration of Calexico’s and the Valley’s culture—the Mariachi Festival Sin Fronteras.

She is a leading voice promoting all that is good about the city, and she is a constant at what has become the nearly weekly events—many of which she helps organize—that prove Calexico is a hub of cultural and social activities, from art and music events to mixers and wine (and tequila) tastings.

Right now, as she is interviewed for this story, her clear focus is the 25th annual Mariachi Festival Sin Fronteras, which starts May 9 with a series of nightly events at the Carmen Durazo Cultural Arts Center and culminates with a concert with an array of professional Mariachi musicians and dancers on May 14 at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish Hall.

It is not an easy event to put together—nor is it inexpensive and since the chamber took over the event in 2001, she has been at the lead of organizing the festival each year, including as the chief fundraiser.

“Even if it kills me, it has to go on because this is a good thing for the community,” Carrillo said. “This is about an element of our culture. Young people today who only know the latest trends need to be shown their culture.”

Culture and community mean a great deal to Carrillo.

She was born and raised in Calexico, and she is quick to acknowledge the education she received growing up here is what has prepared her for the kind of leadership role she has had as the city’s longtime chamber director. She was appointed in 1999.

Born in 1952, she was the first class to graduate after attending all four years from what was then the new Vincent Memorial Catholic High School. Carrillo was part of the class of 1970. It was while attending Vincent, that she developed her voice as an outspoken leader and fundraiser.

“I was the speech team,” she said. “They sent me everywhere.”

Carrillo became involved in fundraising for the school, wrote a school column called “View Point”, served as year book editor, and started the cheerleading squad. She even was the spark behind developing Vincent’s mascot name—The Scots. She loved Irish kilts and the image of a Scotty dog on a skirt.

“Everything I used to do at Vincent got me ready for what I do today,” Carrillo said. “It was the perfect training ground.”

She went on to attend Imperial Valley College, focusing mostly on art—something she loved from her childhood.

Marriage and family became her focus. She has two adult sons, Ryan and Eric, both highly regarded professionals—Ryan who works for the Arkansas Insurance Department, and Eric who works for the Arkansas Department of Education.

Carrillo left college to raise her family, but the qualities she had developed—a strong voice and an ability to promote and fundraise—would guide her toward a career of service to the community of Calexico.

She served as special assistant to then dean of SDSU, Imperial Valley Campus, David Ballesteros. In that role she led marketing and fundraising programs for the university’s Calexico campus.

From that role, she went on to become the managing editor of the Calexico Chronicle until 1999 when Fred Knechel, the chamber executive director for years, retired. Carrillo was hired to the position and has led the chamber ever since.

She credits Hector Lopez, who served on the board and was vice president for student services at IVC at the time, for convincing the rest of the board she could lead the chamber. Carrillo, as an IVC student, had worked with Lopez on visits to high school campuses to promote the college. He knew how outspoken she was and how that could help the chamber.

“I remember it so well,” she said. “He told them ‘I have known her since 1970. She is exactly now what she was back then.’”

For nearly 20 years she has guided the chamber through times of success and challenging periods. In a community heavily dependent on commerce from Mexicali shoppers, the chamber and its membership are stronger when the value of the peso is high; the economy lags when the peos loses value—like now.

She was at the chamber’s helm when a massive earthquake struck the region in 2010. Calexico was hardest hit with portions of downtown shuttered for repairs or demolition. Carrillo was there to help the membership through that difficult period. She, as she is known to do, raised her voice to shed hopes of recovery.

Then, of course, there has been her work on the Mariachi Festival Sin Fronteras. Founded 25 years ago by Valley resident Hellen Lopez, the festival was first held at the Imperial Valley Expo (then known simply as the fairgrounds). Eventually, the Imperial Valley Arts Council led the festival until it disbanded.

That’s when Carrillo chose to have the city of Calexico pursue the event.

“Every city has to have at least one major event, like the Carrot Festival or Cattle Call,” she said. “It made sense to hold the Mariachi Festival in Calexico.”

Hellen Lopez agreed to the change, and in 2001 the chamber became the lead agency for the event. For years, the concert has been held in Crummett Park. This year, the venue has moved to Our Lady of Guadalupe’s Parish Hall based largely on available funding for this year’s festival.

Securing funding this year has been difficult, but nevertheless, the event—even if in a smaller location—had to happen, she said, for the good of the community.

“This is about reconnecting with our roots,” she said. “It’s not just about coming together for a tequila tasting or to listen to music, there is an absolute cultural aspect to it, and I think sometimes that is missed.”

This year’s concert will continue to showcase professional talent, including Oscar Cruz, winner of season one of Mexico’s version of the The Voice—La Voz Mexico—and Los Viajeros, a group of professors from Univesidad Autonoma de Baja California in Mexicali who perform Mariachi, singer Leslie Lugo, Mariachi Estrellas de Chula Vista and Ballet Folklorico.

“I feel really attached to do this because it is so important,” she said of organizing the festival.

That Carrillo is able to balance the needs of the chamber and the organization of the festival has everything to do with the one release so important to her life—her artwork, and no story about her would be complete without a nod to the experimental ways she expresses her love of art.

Inspired by works of Frida Kahlo, whom Carrillo has felt a connection with since the first time she saw Kahlo’s art during a documentary shown at SDSU, Imperial Valley Campus, and by her love of The Beatles, her art surrounds her.

She uses a number of mediums, including Sharpies with which she creates abstract art, to her use of black ink on a white canvas, to her experimentation with mannequin heads and round table tops, her art is meant to please herself. If others enjoy it, that’s a bonus.

Carrillo said she has always loved art.

“I was always this way. Always imaginative,” she said, adding that parents need to recognize the artistic side of their children and help them to express it. If a child is drawing on a wall, she said, don’t yell at them. Recognize and celebrate their potential.

For her, that art form as a youth came through coloring in the decorate designs on napkins. She would be scolded for “ruining” the napkins, but to her it was art. The start of her artistic interest.

“This really my one getaway. My relaxation. It is about expression and release,” she said.

Her other release comes from the time she has spent with her new granddaughter, Isabella, whom she looks forward seeing this summer when she takes a little time to travel to Arkansas.

In the meantime, Carrillo will be where she is every day. In the city of Calexico working to promote the city she loves—work that on any given day can have her involved in issues that cross a very wide spectrum for a chamber director.

“I tend to get involved in things that maybe I shouldn’t, but why not if it’s helpful to others,” she said.