Articles, Blog

Feed the “Birds of 400 Voices”: Cultivating Mexican Music Traditions in California

November 20, 2019


So much of society in this country, around the world, teaches us to devalue what is ours. Most of us Mexican Americans come from humble roots. We come from campesinos. My grandparents were. And so, what do we do? We need to go to school, or we need to make money, and we need to send our kids to fancy places, and that’s all good. but I don’t think we should do it at the expense of honoring where we really come from. We are here at Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy in San Pablo, California. It used to be a liquor store. It’s a storefront, and we turned it into a cultural center. We have classes for kids— music, dance, arts and crafts. The neighborhood’s always changing. As I said, when we first started it was mostly kind of teaching Chicano kids about Mexican culture. When it became more about immigrant kids, it was more about reinforcing and learning more about the culture they were already interested in. And now these many years later, we have the children of those immigrants again going kind of full circle, back to trying to get information about their ancestral cultures that they don’t know that much about. We’ll meet Lucina later. When I asked her to teach— because that’s how I started here. If we had teachers, we would use them, but if we didn’t have teachers, I would get the kids to teach! So the advanced students teach beginning students. It was weird! Yeah, it’s weird being on the other side of the room, giving instructions, and then having a whole bunch of faces just like staring at you, like, “Can you explain that again?” This place is really special to me. I’m always excited after school, always excited to dance and learn stuff, as much as I can here, and to me it’s like a family here. I just know that there isn’t any other place like Los Cenzontles. You cannot replicate all the work that has been done here. We don’t want to just preserve what is deemed traditional or old. We want to keep it alive, which means feeding it. I remember once we did a performance— we used to perform around the country a lot— and one of the audience members afterwards stood up. He was a serviceman with Latino background, Mexican American background, and he was crying! He was telling us that it was the first time that he felt pride in his heritage after having seen our concert. We have so many tears, so many older people saying “I haven’t seen this in decades,” and they were just so astonished that we were there from California, but so moved by it. In those same shows, we saw children in Jalisco say, “What is this? We’ve never seen this before.” A very painful moment for us in 1994, when there was a local 15-year-old girl who was raped and murdered at a local elementary school where a lot of our kids were going. What I saw was kids expressing grief in very inappropriate ways, you know, graffiti and all that, but not really talking about it. So I put together about 12 of the friends of this young girl, her name was Ceci Rios, and we did a corrido workshop. Gilberto Gutierrez was with me at that time, and he basically got them to tell their stories about Ceci, who she was, and they wrote this corrido together. Corridos are not romanticized. It’s not therapy. It’s really a chronicle of what happened. It’s the way we do things. A lot of Mexicans don’t talk their feelings through, but they do deal with things in a different way. So to me, this was kind of the act of using cultural arts as a very, very relevant tool to deal with something that was happening right at that moment. So that and just a million other examples of how music has transformed kids, personally, but also the community at large. You get connected to yourself, you get connected to your family members, connected to your heritage, and, you know, push comes to shove, they can take away your house, they can take away your car, but they can’t take away your heritage.

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