25 Years of Crossing Barriers and Building Bridges
Los Cenzontles is a California non-profit that started with the idea that connecting young people to art and their cultural roots provide them a foundation from which to grow and thrive. Today Los Cenzontles is a cultural academy that offers music, dance, arts and crafts classes, and workshops to children throughout the state and beyond. It is also the name of the touring band whose members share the vision of Los Cenzontles founder Eugene Rodriguez with the broader world: that young people empowered as artists and teachers can build upon the past to create a better future.
Los Cenzontles reaches this important 25th year anniversary at a time when Latinos are approaching 40% of California’s population, and nationwide the Latino population is nearly 70% of Mexican-origin. Yet Los Cenzontles remains unique among non-profits nationally in demonstrating the potential of Latino cultural programming and production to transform individuals and communities from within.
Instead of remaining tied to traditional arts as a fixed cultural import from Mexico, Rodriguez and his staff have remained true to the deeper functions of folk music by amplifying these roots to fit needs and interests of folks locally. Over the years, the academy has served immigrant children, third-generation Mexican Americans as well as children who are mixed and from various ethnic backgrounds. The band has recorded songs that capture the poetry of the indigenous Purépecha language and composed music aimed to inspire and rally the community toward empowerment and engagement and against contemporary injustices. The band has traveled across the U.S., Mexico, and Europe, all the while proudly representing Mexican-American culture.
Indeed, while engaging in transnational revivals of Mexican “roots” music, the non-profit has also been a leader in fostering creative cross cultural collaboration with masters of blues, bluegrass, zydeco, rock, and Irish “roots” musicians.
Los Cenzontles has broadcast its journey via its documentary series, web-based video shorts, and “digital scrapbooks” aimed at capturing the first person stories of resilience by Mexican American music- and cultural-makers. These media productions combine music videos and interviews to highlight themes of inclusion, education, and social justice.
Los Cenzontles has demonstrated that artistic quality and accessibility to the arts can and must co-exist in working class, ethnic communities to ensure the democratization of American identity. For that reason, non-profits across the country have looked to Los Cenzontles as a model of successful arts education. Of course, the students, many who come from disadvantaged backgrounds economically, are the immediate beneficiaries. But by inspiring creative engagement by the America’s Latino population, the work of Los Cenzontles stands to benefit the entire nation.
Lorena Oropeza, Associate Professor, University of California, Davis and
Los Cenzontles Board President