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.