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
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.
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.
"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.
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.