News / Americas

Classical Musician Spearheads Mexican Folk Revival in US, Mexico

Eugene Rodriguez's modest after-school program blossoms into major cultural center

Los Cenzontles students traveled to Mexico to better understand the roots of the folk traditions
Los Cenzontles students traveled to Mexico to better understand the roots of the folk traditions

Multimedia

Audio

Leading a Mexican folk music revival was the furthest thing from Eugene Rodriguez's mind while growing up in a white middle class suburb of Los Angeles. The third generation Mexican-American earned a master's degree in classical guitar at the San Francisco Conservatory. But, just as Rodriguez was about to embark on his career in classical music performance, an unexpected family crisis made him rethink his plans.

"Our baby was born but he ended up having a heart defect and died in surgery. It required a lot of soul-searching. It's a sign that life is very short and you need to do what is most important to you." Rodriguez enjoyed playing classical guitar, but admits it felt isolating. "It was a lot of practice and little opportunity to be on stage connecting with people."

Connecting with young people

The Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center sits in the middle of a strip mall.
The Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center sits in the middle of a strip mall.

So, in 1989, with a grant from the California Arts Council, Rodriguez started what became the Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center in San Pablo, an impoverished town northeast of San Francisco plagued by poverty, drug dealing and gangs. It soon became a safe place for local kids to hang out, do their homework and learn about Mexican culture. Los Cenzontles means "the mockingbirds" in Nahuatl, the ancient Aztec language of Mexico.

"I have seen many, many young people fall through the cracks," Rodriguez says. He and the center's teachers have tried to intervene in many cases but are not always successful. "You see people dropping out and there's really nothing you can do about it. It's sad and it's heartbreaking. But you work with the ones who stay and you try to create more and more success to create a stronger magnet for others, for the up-and-coming kids."

Every week, hundreds of young students attend Los Cenzontles classes in dance, voice, guitar and arts and crafts, in a safe haven away from the town's crime and violence.

Hugo Arroyo began studying at Los Cenzontles when he was 8 and now teaches there.
Hugo Arroyo began studying at Los Cenzontles when he was 8 and now teaches there.

Over the past 20 years, that effort has cultivated dozens of young musicians and music teachers. "Many of our musicians have been here for a great deal of time. We have a 15-year-old girl who's performing with us now who started when she was four. We have 30-year-old teachers who started with us when they were eight years old," says Rodriguez.  

A new musical mission

Students from Los Cenzontles have visited parts of Mexico where the music they're learning originated. Rodriguez says they learned that many of the indigenous folk traditions - corridos, rancheras, and old-style mariachi music - were dying out and are no longer being played by Mexicans themselves.

So Rodriguez's mission now includes revitalizing old musical styles by teaching them to young students and then performing them in Mexico with the Los Cenzontles touring band.

Rodriguez plays with a member of the indigenous Mexican band Mirando al Lago
Rodriguez plays with a member of the indigenous Mexican band Mirando al Lago

"It was something extraordinary. The older folks remembered and were so emotional to see something that they had not seen in decades. The young people were just absolutely curious as to what this was because they didn't know what it was. They didn't know it was their heritage," Rodriguez recalls. "It is really a testament to how important it is for people to cultivate their own local culture and not just give it up when popular culture is everywhere and kind of consumes the local culture."

Bringing traditional music to a new generation


Every year, the band performs in different venues around the United States and in Mexico. The ensemble is made up of the center's current and former students. In class, they learn to play instruments, read and write music, and work in a professional recording studio.

Students have recorded CDs with well-known bands like Taj Mahal
Students have recorded CDs with well-known bands like Taj Mahal

Rodriguez says Los Cenzontles opens a door. "It provides a way for children to learn about their strength and the beauty that's inside of them. And the obligation that they have to themselves and their families and to society to contribute. It provides what I think this society should provide. And the sad thing is there aren't enough places like this."

The Los Cenzontles band has now produced nearly 30 recordings, attracting widespread attention in the music industry. Now, Rodriguez wants to replicate the Los Cenzontles model in other communities around the country, to foster similar arts and culture programs for the next generation. 

You May Like

Ukraine Purges Interior Ministry Leadership With Pro-Russian Ties

Interior Minister Avakov says 91 people 'in positions of leadership' have been fired, including 8 generals found to have links to past pro-Moscow governments More

US Airlines Point to Additional Problems of any Ebola Travel Ban

Airline officials note that even under travel ban, they may not be able to determine where passenger set out from, as there are no direct flights from Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone More

Nigerian President to Seek Another Term

Goodluck Jonathan has faced intense criticism for failing to stop Boko Haram militants More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukrainei
X
Al Pessin
October 25, 2014 4:21 PM
Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukraine

Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Smugglers Offer Cheap Passage From Turkey to Syria

Smugglers in Turkey offer a relatively cheap passage across the border into Syria. Ankara has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters who want to join Islamic State militants fighting for control of the Syrian border city of Kobani. But porous borders and border guards who can be bribed make illegal border crossings quite easy. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.

All About America

AppleAndroid

More Americas News

US Coast Guard Rescues 33 Cubans at Sea

Because the overloaded boat did not make landfall, those rescued will be returned to Cuba
More

Search Underway at New Site in Mexico Missing Students Case

This week marked one month since the students went missing after clashing with police in mysterious circumstances
More

Public Transport in Latin America, Asia Most Dangerous for Women

Thousands of women and gender experts were questioned to create the listing
More

Kerry Lays Wreath for Slain Canadian Soldier

World has been witness to Canada's strength in face of tragedy, he says
More

Crowds Gather for Funeral of Canadian Soldier Killed in Ottawa

Corporal Nathan Cirillo, 24, was shot dead in last week near Canada's parliament building in attack allegedly carried out by convert to Islam
More

Mexico Makes New Arrests in Student Disappearances

Attorney General says four more gang members from the Guerreros Unidos cartel who 'organized the disappearance' of the teacher trainees are in custody
More