Thursday, May 7, 2020

Danza - The Timely Power of Collective Culture

In the age of social media, culture can often be reduced to a glance or gesture to attract maximum, momentary impact. it is certainly not the optimal platform to share a Mexican danza, especially as practiced by young students. Danzas are reverential, lengthy rituals practiced traditionally throughout Mexico. They are aimed at honoring a greater power, not the ego of the individual. Their intention is humility, participation and reverence, not performance or competition. 

In 2002, master folk artist Julian Gonzalez SaldaƱa, from Jalisco, Mexico, taught our student dancers and musicians the many movements of Danza de los Copetones in its entirety. He oversaw the creation of the costumes for which each dancer decorated their own copete, or headpiece, for which he cut bamboo that he found at the entrances of local freeways. Our teachers Marie-Astrid Do-Rodriguez, Lucina Rodriguez, and Tregar Otton taught our students to express the meaning and nuances of the costumes, dance and music. And we presented the danza to initiate one of our annual festivals at the San Pablo Civic Center. 

This video is unlikely to be viewed in its entirety, given its length, repetition, and imperfections. And that is ok. This was not it’s intention. Rather, we hope that people might scan through the video and consider the deeper intention of this collective effort and the earnest, dedicated student attention required for its preparation, rehearsal and presentation. 

Our recreation of Danza de los Copetones was not about attracting attention to the individuals involved. It was about honoring our collective spirit with humility - something that many of us are trying to practice today in the era of Covid-19. For that reason, I decided to finally edit this footage in full and share it. 18 years later. To remind ourselves that the power of cultural art, like the power of nature itself, is much greater than any one of us. And that only our collective spirit can light our path forward. 

Monday, November 5, 2018

Poverty, Shame and the Power of Cultural Resilience

In our society, driven by raw power and the incessant shriek of marketers, the humble are largely invisible. But they live, contribute, and create in spite of bearing the brunt of our most cruel inequities.  In our working class neighborhood, the high price of housing forces our families to share small fragile homes, sleep in garages and living rooms, creating unhealthy conditions. Health care, if available, is inconsistent, exacerbating illness and cutting short lives. Neighborhood schools offer the minimum to students most in need of quality education. Our children grow up barraged by political messages that mock our heritage, brand them as carriers of infestation and their immigrant parents as 'enemy invaders'. These are realities faced daily, and directly, by many of the staff, children, families and artists at Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy, in San Pablo, California. And this is nothing new. 

To understand the deepest impact of Los Cenzontles' cultural work requires an understanding of the corrosive and insidious impact of shame that is imposed upon people living in poverty and those from poor countries. Shame makes us deny, and be ignorant of, our family histories and cultures. Shame deprives us of recognizing the values, contributions and sacrifices of our parents and grandparents. Shame robs our children the guidance and nourishment of family support and connection. Shame infects and disables us from within. Shame renders us invisible and silent even to ourselves.  
Over the past thirty years, Los Cenzontles has set our authentic cultural traditions into the hands, voices, and homes of children; onto historically inaccessible stages; and into films, videos and albums. Typically, the stories and songs of the working class are told in third person and passed through filters intended to soften their rough edges and conceal the stigma of poverty. But it is precisely the direct strength of our stories and songs that embody the perseverance that we must reveal, celebrate and encourage. Our intention is not to romanticize poverty, but to recognize the fortitude required to lift oneself, and one’s loved ones, above the miseries of poverty. And to appreciate the powerful nuances and resourceful art strategies of people in struggle. This is what our children must connect to, and build upon.  Because it is cultivating our inherited resiliency that will console us, fortify us, and bring us joy throughout our lives. 
Neighborhoods such as ours are, by design, built upon instability. There exists a constant buzz of insecurity threatening one’s sense of well-being and safety, not only because of crime, but also because of political, institutional and societal neglect. Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy is a carefully cultivated space, a transformed strip mall storefront, designed to allow children and artists feel secure enough to take the kinds of risks that are necessary for deep learning, reflection and expression.  We thoughtfully created our unique pedagogy for today’s urban children from years of intensive learning with master artists, laborers by trade, who learned music and dance in family settings. 
At our Academy, rigor and connection are essential to releasing the power of art. We challenge children, beginning at four years old, to dance complex rhythms of Mexicanson. They loudly, and accurately, stomp percussive zapateado dance which develops balance, coordination, listening and confidence. Their teacher, also raised in our neighborhood program, understands, from experience, that demanding excellence from her students is an act of respect and empowerment. She requires them to listen carefully to the accompanying music and engage in improvised rhythmic conversation. 

And for us, the cultural arts are most transformational when connected to social context and personal expression. Timid teen girls, who speak in cautious hushed tones to strangers, belt out popular ranchera songs in full chest voice with surprising power. Parents reveal that their children, who previously wanted little to do with their ancestral culture or language, proudly sing with their grandparents at home. Young men who listen to rap with their friends grab ancient Mexican instruments and play with the intensity of hard rock – as practiced for centuries by Mexico’s hardest workers. Children quietly reflect on deceased loved ones with their peers as they create ofrendasfor our Dia de los Muertos altars. Students of mixed heritage, and those who don’t speak Spanish, discover and nurture the languages of art to connect to that part of their themselves. 

Los Cenzontles does not impose identity upon youth. Nor do we wish to join the noise of relentless marketing. We provide choices, awareness and discipline. In our fast moving, complex world of multiple, ever connecting, cultures, empowerment is not about confining oneself to, or reacting to, narrow stereotypes, but to use all of who we are to inform our voices. Amidst the din of social and political intimidation, one of the most difficult, bravest, and empowering things we can do is to be ourselves. In all its fullness, and without shame. 
Folk, vernacular and popular arts were not originally intended to be practiced with delicate, arms-length, reverence, but with directness, focus and energy. Their power is tied to their relevance and connection to social context. And these are the qualities that forged our country’s cultural identity. This is why working-class culture has contributed disproportionately to America’s national heritage - a contribution that is almost always unreciprocated. 
So, when the members of Los Cenzontles teach, perform and document our authentic traditions from within our community – and connect them to others - we do so with purpose and humility.  We work to activate our living heritage as our way to contribute the best of ourselves to our children and to our society - in honor, and with gratitude, to all those who did the same for us. 

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Surviving a Myth

Why is there such stubborn, irrational defense of Donald trump’s corruption, ineptitude and betrayal? Because an ancient myth that has guided the western world for centuries is being threatened by changed demographics and culture. It is the myth of the omnipotent white man taming the natural world and its colored inhabitants. He is branded an entrepreneur rather than a predator; an investor rather than a plunderer. A romancer, rather than a rapist. And his counterpart, the enlightened liberal, is the guardian of our natural world; the arbiter of justice; the protector of us, the white man’s burden. Two sides of the same coin. White men move history and roam the world. To the Right he brings development, culture and enlightenment. To the Left he wrecks exploitation and destruction.  Either way he moves history. We, colored people, may only react. 

Why was Barack Obama’s presidency such a profound threat to this myth? Because he was nuanced, thoughtful, humorous, and cultured.  He did not confine himself to one of the two prescribed stereotypes that male leaders of color are allowed – the deified martyr or the revolutionary menace. He dared to be fully human. Worse of all, the daughters and wives of old white men voted for him and admired him – the same dynamic that got countless men lynched throughout history. 

And is true that plenty of women and people of color protect this myth as well to maintain whatever advantage they have found by its well-worn rules. 

There is a pivotal scene in the 1967 film In The Heat of the Night when black big city homicide detective Virgil Tibbs, played by Sydney Poitier, returns a slap to the face by a Southern plantation owner – who, horrified by this unimaginable act of defiance, sends his men to kill Tibbs. Reportedly, Donald Trump decided to run for president when he felt publically humiliated by Barack Obama’s roast at a Washington Press Corp dinner. This was the spark that inspired a movement of old white men to ‘fight back’ and regain the world order they feared they were losing. 

But what of our new world where leaders of all levels of business, education and civil society are increasingly women and people of color? The old myth is crumbling by necessity due to the reality of demographics and time. Even we were to fully adopt an Apartheid system, these old men, the mass of trump supporters, are dying. So, clearly we must adjust our consciousness and evolve our myths to reflect our changed world. 

During my thirty plus years of working with Mexican American youth I have always encouraged them to see themselves as complete individuals, leading their own narratives. I have worked for them to see that their family cultures are not mere reactions to white oppression, but complex and connected as they have always been. Tragically, we have often contorted ourselves to fit within the great white myth.  But the myth was always a lie. And now, in its death throes, we see the lie on a massive, absurd, and dangerous scale. It is our urgent duty to bury it. 

Why I Love Old Traditions

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Give Me Love

We have criminalized poverty, migration, work, and hope.

Only the most vulnerable element of our corrupt and exploitative system of underground labor, the workers, are disproportionately punished and branded as villains and illegals, while businesses, homeowners, consumers benefit.

This new video features powerful images taken of migrants in Mexico and the US Mexico border by photo journalist Ken Light over the past four decades. They are painful to watch. but important to see, as they reveal a reality for many today, and the family history of many living among us. The music is our Mexican son version of George Harrison's classic song Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth) that we recorded with David Hidalgo.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Thoughts About Walls

Of all the walls designed to keep Mexicans and Mexican Americans in our place, trump’s is the least clever and would be the least effective. It’s symbolism, though, reinforces the barriers that actually keep us invisible, unheard, under represented, under resourced, maligned, stereotyped, dismissed and segregated. The actual walls are so complex and entrenched in American culture and politics that they are barely discussed or challenged. They protect the myth of an America within which we are illegitimate, where we are are strangers in our own land, and where our work and contributions are diminished as opportunistic and negligible. Those walls are protected by rigged rules and systems, biased language, and dominant political ideologies within which we are treated as marginal and token. 
So, trump’s wall, like trump himself, is a brutish, ugly manifestation of what has always existed in America. It is both a distraction and an opportunity to identify and address the real barriers that we should be discussing and dismantling. But we aren’t.

Monday, December 18, 2017

A Message About Dreamers

False and distorted notions about immigrants in the United States, and about American identity itself, have set the stage for the current tumult surrounding immigration and the young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers. 

I am a third-generation Mexican American. I believe in law and order. Only through the just application of law can we thrive as a free nation of justice and opportunity. And only through clear and honest analysis of our problems can we forge lasting and sustainable solutions. 

But our conversation about immigration in America is anything but clear and honest.

Undocumented immigrants are just one part of a broadly accepted system that has long benefited the American economy, provided consumers with affordable products and services and offered immigrants a chance at economic advancement. If work were not available, people would not risk their lives to come here. Those jobs are everywhere, offered by big, medium and small business as well as individuals.

To punish only the most vulnerable in this economic arrangement is an unjust application of law. If we were to punish wrongdoers equally, we would condemn as “illegal” the businesses that hire “illegal” workers to grow, pick, butcher, cook and serve our food. We would punish these businesses as harshly as the workers they hire. And we would drastically disrupt the lives of “illegal” homeowners who hire “illegal” workers who care for their homes and children, and the sick and elderly.

But we don’t. We brand only the workers as illegal.

It’s one thing to hold people accountable for their legal transgressions. It’s quite another to dehumanize people with terms like “illegal” that invite division, bigotry and persecution. Clearly there is something going on here besides law and order.

I have directed a non-profit Mexican American cultural center in the East Bay area of San Francisco for nearly 30 years. During this time our community, like many others, has been fundamentally transformed by immigration from Mexico. The change was so dramatic that our programming became largely focused on the challenges and opportunities created by this demographic shift. As traumatic as culture clash and acculturation can be, they also create enormous social energy and possibility.  But in order to focus and cultivate that energy, we must make social investments in the people most directly impacted - the workers, both native and immigrant, and their children. Of course, as a nation, we have neglected to do so.

Our organization, Los Cenzontles (The Mockingbirds), provides rigorous cultural arts education to young people. We connect them to the heritage that has provided resilience to Mexicans and Mexican Americans for generations. Our performing group is dedicated to exploring, expressing and sharing these cultural roots and connections. And our media productions tell stories of people in our community who built and fought for our country, but have long lived in history’s shadows.

While certain media outlets focus exclusively on negative stories about immigrants, dwelling on crimes and violence, all of the undocumented immigrants I know are just trying to live their lives. Many embody what it is to be a model American – hard-working people who take enormous risks to care for their families.

While some insist that the targeting of “illegals” is not about bigotry, many U.S.-born Mexican Americans and legal immigrants will tell you that we are also often treated as the unwelcomed “other,” even though we are as American as anyone. Many of our families have been here longer than those who demean us.

Three of my grandparents arrived from Mexico almost one hundred years ago. The fourth was born in Arizona before it was even granted statehood. I grew up in a Mexican American family with a strong work ethic, commitment to community and faith in the American dream.

Yet, recently, a drunken neighbor assaulted me in front of my own home when I came to the aid of a woman he was abusing on the sidewalk. Before he hit me, he called me an “illegal,” almost as if that gave him permission to attack. Raised to take responsibility for my community, I made sure that the man was arrested and charged. Too many Americans quietly accept the false myth that this is a white country and those who are not white are secondary. That has never been true. The best of America's legacy and promise is built not on race or ethnicity, but on the unifying values of hard work, sacrifice, vision and faith in one another.

The Dreamers that I know are regular young people doing their best to study and work. And they are all around us.  Most people would not even be able to distinguish them from other Americans. This is the predicament that the demise of DACA — the Obama administration’s program to protect Dreamers from deportation — forces America to confront: Who are we?

For nearly 30 years, Los Cenzontles Academy has demonstrated that our children are as capable as any others given training, support, opportunities and raised expectations. And I know of no other youth more committed to their futures, and appreciative of their opportunities, than the children of immigrants and the Dreamers.

Because of its economic benefits, politicians on both sides of the aisle have long protected our malfunctioning system of underground immigrant labor and broken laws. Reasonable people have long called on Congress and the President to overhaul the laws to conform to reality and decency. But they have failed to do so, prolonging a situation that provides political opportunity, invites scapegoating, exacerbates social tension and prolongs uncertainty for millions of hard working people, while jeopardizing social order and public safety.

This stalemate has also unearthed historic undercurrents of bigotry, distorted notions of who contribute legitimately to American society. These notions represent the worst of America’s legacy and provide no path forward.

We have delayed honest conversations about economics, immigration and identity for much too long. Dealing justly with the Dreamers and the issue around undocumented labor provides us an opportunity to address many of our big and pressing issues.  These include fair wages, class disparity, bigotry, and the unique value that an inclusive American identity provides.

And we must refocus our commitment to invest meaningfully in our most valuable resource: our youth. And they include the Dreamers. They are us.

The Dreamer - Jackson Browne feat. Los Cenzontles