Eugene Rodriguez didn’t start out with any grand plans. Clutching a newly minted degree from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the guitarist figured he could do some good by teaching Mexican-American kids in the Richmond area about their cultural roots via mariachi, fandangos and Caribbean-inflected son jarocho.
A quarter century later, the institution he founded and directs, Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy, is a creative powerhouse with international reach. The organization celebrates its 25th anniversary Saturday, May 30, with a family barbecue benefit featuring dance, raffles, a silent auction and a performance by the Los Cenzontles ensemble with Los Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo (one of many high-profile musical supporters who have collaborated with Los Cenzontles over the years).
Demographics and conditions in west Contra Costa County have changed since Rodriguez laid the foundation for Los Cenzontles (which means “the mockingbirds” in the indigenous language Nahautl), but he feels that the original mission is more crucial than ever. The first wave of kids who came into his orbit in the late 1980s were working class Mexican-Americans who grew up speaking English, “and then we had an immigration boom, and we dealt with that in real time, looking at the deeper functions of culture and tradition,” he says.
In many ways, Los Cenzontles was baptized in crisis. The organization traces its roots back to a 1989 California Arts Council artist-in-residency grant. In the early '90s a crime wave that took the lives of several Richmond teenagers lit a fire under Rodriguez, “particularly the rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl Cecy Rios, who was friends with a lot of people at the center,” he recalls. “At the same time I was producing this record for Los Lobos, Papa's Dream, and those two events made it clear to me I needed to do more, and that's why I incorporated the center as a non-profit. It opened the door to more kids and styles of music. Mexican music was becoming more popular with banda, and nobody else was providing vernacular musical training.”
So with the storefront cultural center in San Pablo serving as home base, Rodriguez built an arts academy. Many of his original students, who now make up the acclaimed Los Cenzontles ensemble, went on to become teachers at the center. Regular trips to Mexico connected Los Cenzontles to masters of various regional styles, traditions that were in danger of fading away due to neglect at home. A series of documentaries by Mexico City-based director and editor Ricardo Broajos captured the growing bonds between Los Cenzontles and older Mexican musicians, particularly the great Veracruz son jarocho ensemble Mono Blanco in Fandango: Searching For the White Monkey.
Back in the U.S., Los Cenzontles has collaborated with a dazzling array of artists, from Linda Ronstadt, Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal to zydeco wizard Andre Thierry and iconic Irish band the Chieftains. But it’s the relationship with Los Lobos that’s proven to be the most enduring. The first collaboration, the aforementioned 1995 children’s album Papa's Dream, earned a Grammy nomination. Produced by Rodriguez, the album paired Los Lobos with a children’s chorus from the cultural center and legendary Chicano artist/activist Lalo Guerrero.
Various members of Los Lobos have supported and collaborated with Los Cenzontles ever since, joining forces on a number of albums, including 2012’s Regeneration. Co-produced by Hidalgo, the album was recorded partly at the cultural center, and features guest artists such as Jackson Browne, Raul Malo and Elvin Bishop. The connection between the great East L.A. band and the East Bay cultural center is undergirded by a shared commitment to communities whose culture is often undervalued and overlooked.
“Los Lobos has always been about staying true to who they are,” Rodriguez says. “It’s that commitment to keeping the voice real. And David Hidalgo in particular loves coming up to the Bay Area. He’s got that spiritual affinity for Jerry Garcia. He always wants to jam, and knock down the barriers between genres.”
So where does Los Cenzontles go from here? The organization is an exciting new phase, consulting with other community arts groups looking to replicate their model. In much the same that the ensemble is largely built upon former students who grew up at the cultural center, Los Cenzontles has a small but savvy corps who know how powerful it can be to turn a community on to its cultural patrimony.
Rodriguez isn’t resting on his laurels, but he is taking a minute to “look back on what we’ve done with a lot of pride,” he says. “We’ve involved so many families and kids and artists. We’ve acquired all this knowledge and created this model. It’s not an anonymous community conservatory. The place has been a second home for working class Mexican-American families, people who don’t necessarily feel comfortable in other places. They are the hosts and core leaders of this center, which is now renowned nationally.”