Bird of Four Hundred Voices: A Mexican American Memoir of Music and Belonging

By Eugene Rodriguez

Bird of Four Hundred Voices, written by Eugene Rodriguez, chronicles the extraordinary journey of Los Cenzontles from a barrio youth group into an internationally acclaimed beacon of cultural preservation and education in San Pablo, California.

“In a society that tries, in countless ways, to convince us to devalue ourselves, the cultural arts can help our children build resourcefulness and resilience that can protect their sense of self,” says Rodriguez. As he candidly recounts, Rodriguez founded Los Cenzontles in 1989 seeking personal healing and cultural connection. Witnessing the group’s powerful impact on his students, he then recruited them to build a non-profit organization with a cultural arts academy, a touring and recording musical group, and multimedia production studio.

The book reveals the many challenges and guiding values of Los Cenzontles’ 35-year trajectory within which they have trained thousands of community youth, revived lost Mexican traditions, and produced dozens of CDs and films. They have performed, recorded and composed with celebrated musicians including  Linda Ronstadt, Los Lobos, Jackson Browne, Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, The Chieftains, Flaco Jimenez, and Preservation Hall. By both “honor[ing] and upend[ing] traditional Mexican music,” Los Cenzontles has created “something completely new, and distinctly American,” as the New York Times wrote.

Against the backdrop of historic immigration from Mexico and a resulting political backlash, Bird of Four Hundred Voices candidly reflects on issues of identity, belonging and cultural engagement, offering a profound exploration of Mexican American culture and its historic imprint on the fabric of American society. This timely memoir not only narrates the struggle and resilience of an artistic community but also challenges us to reevaluate how Latino populations are viewed and supported in our society. Amidst growing discussions about inclusivity and the true meaning of democracy, Rodriguez’s story is a clarion call for decentralized vision for American identity.


Advance Praise for Bird of Four Hundred Voices

“Eugene teaches music to children for the right reasons, not necessarily to be performers but to explore their own joys and sorrows. And then some might become professionals. I wish I had studied with him when I was growing up. Read this beautifully written book about culture, identity and resilience, and you will know why.”


American Singer

"A son of so much: activism, history, art, pride, California, Mexico, the world. Each sentence, paragraph, page and story is a fandango for the soul."


L.A. Times columnist and author of Taco USA

“Firmly rooted in tradition and activism, Eugene Rodriguez's Bird of Four Hundred Voices brings us the extraordinary trajectory of one of the most renowned traditional Mexican dance advocates and attests to the tremendous power of cultural affirmation and celebration.” 


Author of Dancing Across Borders

"Los Cenzontles is a factory of culture."


This glorious memoir is unlike other ethnic memoirs I have read because, by eschewing politics in favor of Mexican popular culture, Eugene Rodriguez recollects his own growing appreciation of the play of Mexico within himself. For centuries Mexico has withstood political failures by means of the gathering festival—the union of old and young, the living and the dead, wit and romance, the sombrero’s bow and the wise smile of the skull. In hardscrabble San Pablo, California, Eugene Rodriguez records his life's work first as student then as teacher: He has taught young men and women and children to dance and sing with the dead. 


Author of Hunger of Memory

Bird of Four Hundred Voices published by the renowned Heyday Books will be available August 6th, 2024

Click here to pre-order!