A few blocks off the I-80 Freeway in the East Bay area of California, tucked in the middle of a small, ordinary-looking shopping center with an auto parts store, pizza place, grocery store, and Indian restaurant, is a nonprofit arts organization which is anything but ordinary. Founded in 1994, Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy took over the site of a former liquor store and turned it into what an NPR Morning Edition report called a “factory of culture.”
Why is it extraordinary? The story goes back to 1989, when Mexican American guitarist Eugene Rodríguez teamed up with Gilberto Gutiérrez of Veracruz, Mexico, to teach the son jarocho music and dance traditions of rural Veracruz. Gilberto was the unrelenting spark plug of a movement that combined documentation, performance, and cultural activism to return a once vigorous “people’s music” to new generations. He traveled the rural roads to find musical elders who languished in the shadow of pop culture. He learned from them and reconnected those artists in a public way to people in the region. Then he took them on tour to places further afield in Mexico and the United States.
His approach of creating social events for the learning and practice of the music and dance was enormously successful, winning the hearts and attention of young people in particular. When Eugene invited Gilberto for a residency in the San Francisco Bay Area, he was inspired to create Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy, a new organization tailored for urban Mexican American youth in the city of San Pablo and beyond.
Los Cenzontles was about teaching Mexican music and dance traditions, but it was also about much more. Poverty, youth violence, high school dropout rates, and urban rootlessness were a blight on the community. Eugene saw up close what reintroducing heritage traditions did for his young students.
“You get connected to yourself,” he says. “You get connected to your family members, connected to your heritage. They can take away your house, they can take away your car, but they can’t take away your heritage.”
His son, Emiliano Rodríguez, once a young student and today the organization’s production manager, restates the Cenzontles philosophical approach, similar to that of mentor-activist Gilberto Gutiérrez.
“We don’t want to just preserve what is deemed traditional or old,” he emphasizes. “We want to keep it alive, which means feeding it.”
They “feed” it through embracing roots, producing programs relevant to urban young people, encouraging creativity, and taking their music to the broadest public through multiple outlets. The longtime core members of the Cenzontles—Eugene, Emiliano, and teacher-performers Lucina Rodríguez (no relation to Eugene) and Fabiola Trujillo—explore the roots of Mexican traditions, traveling to Mexico to meet and learn from elder artists, and teaming up with oftentimes “invisible” master artists living in the United States. They then teach those traditions to young people—cultivating students as teachers along the way—and put on performances for the community.
From their documentation, they have produced dozens of albums and DVDs and have a powerful presence on social media, offering a constant stream of video productions at loscenzontles.com. Two albums can be found in the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings catalog, Con su Permiso, Señores and De una Bonita.
Looking back at the founding of Cenzontles in 1994, three events of that year mark the crystallization of the group’s DNA. One was the “cultural feedback” approach introduced by Gilberto. Another was the children’s music CD Papa’s Dream, made with Los Lobos and Chicano music pioneer Lalo Guerrero, which earned a Grammy nomination for Best Children’s Album. The third underscored the group’s strong social commitment driving its cultural work. When local fifteen-year-old Cecilia Ríos was brutally raped and murdered, Eugene and Gilberto organized a corrido (narrative ballad) writing workshop for a dozen of her friends with the purpose of offering a positive, creative outlet for their reactions to the tragedy.
“To me, this was the act of using cultural arts as a very, very relevant tool to deal with something that was happening right at that moment,” Eugene says. “That and just a million examples of how music has transformed kids personally, but also the community at large.”
More than a quarter century later, Los Cenzontles continues to grow in cultural reach and creativity. The breadth and direction of its work points to how appropriate the name is. Cenzontle is a shortened version of a word in the Mexican Náhuatl language meaning “mockingbird,” or “bird of 400 voices.” They embrace the songs and sentiments of many Mexican roots traditions, then make them their profoundly their own. And in doing so, they create a sense of purpose and belonging among their students and in their community.
As young student Tomás Velásquez puts it, “To me, it’s like a family.”
Many notable fellow travelers have joined them along their journey, including David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, bluesman Taj Mahal, Jackson Browne, Ry Cooder, Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz, and Linda Ronstadt. Ronstadt has been a longtime supporter and writes of Eugene, “He challenges us to engage in our traditions as living participatory heritage. In doing so, he has made an indelible mark on countless young lives in the community and in the way many regard the traditional arts.”
Eugene sums up his feelings about the value of embracing and “feeding” living heritage in a modern urban setting with all its complexities and challenges, saying, “So much of society in this country and around the world teaches us to devalue what is ours, and most of us Mexican Americans come from humble roots. We come from campesinos—my grandparents were. And so what do we do? Well, we need to go to school, and we need to make money, or 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.”
Daniel Sheehy is director and curator emeritus of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
This project received federal support from the Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center.
In 2019 we are celebrating the Smithsonian Year of Music, with 365 days of performances, exhibitions, and other music-related programming around the institution. Learn more at music.si.edu.