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 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Being Visible - Huapango

Culture is what has provided working class Mexicans the resilience to sustain themselves through centuries of neglect and abuse. The fortunate immigrant communities in the U.S. are able to maintain and continue traditions from their specific ancestral regions. Traditional culture involves active participation from all ages and connect generations as families negotiate dramatic changes to their lives and navigate their future. 

This brief video provides an intimate glimpse of a traditional huapango (musical dance) held at the Marin City Recreational Center hosted by members of the community from a region of Guanajuato, Mexico, with a rich tradition of huapango arribeño and son huasteco. Thousands of people from this region have settled in the Bay Area since the 1970’s and began producing regular community dances in the past seven years. 

This song features Bay Area based group Tradición de la Sierra with elder troubadour Pedro Sauceda Diaz visiting from San Luís Potosí. These events often raise funds for causes related to their pueblo of Xichú, Guanajuato, or to support community members in need. This event raised funds for Los Cenzontles Academy at which many of their San Pablo, Richmond and San Rafael Canal District based children have attended for many years. 

The musical form presented here, almost unknown to people from outside the region, is called huapango arribeño (highlands huapango) that are played in three parts and can easily last 15 to 20 minutes depending on the poet and the dancers. The instrumentation is two violin with two folk guitars - the jarana huasteca and the huapanguera

This video, created by our production team, features Don Pedro reciting three decimas (ten line poems) out of the five that form the first part of the song – in other words, just a small part of the entire piece. But we wanted to share this glimpse into this community gathering to demonstrate the power of living cultural traditions that unify and fortify our diverse, and often invisible, Mexican communities. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Why my Mexican grandparents were more "American" than Donald Trump (and his ilk).

Why my Mexican grandparents were more "American" than Donald Trump (and his ilk).

1) My grandparents lived and built their American dream. Unlike Trump, who inherited wealth and privilege, they knew the value of work beyond a line item. In a new land, they moved themselves from fieldworkers and seamstresses to business people and homeowners. They were pioneers who adapted to their new country with humility and optimism. 

2) My grandparents invested in people. They ensured that their children received a quality education and supported their extended family, community and church. When Trump talks about investment he refers only to a financial world of winners and losers. Bankruptcy and job loss are simply costs of doing business.  America fails to properly invest in its people at its great peril. 

3) My grandmothers were grateful for the opportunities this country provided them. Both became U.S. citizens at an advanced age. After they blessed us with “Dios Lo Bendiga”, they would add “God Bless America”. The staggering sense of entitlement and shortsightedness that pollutes our society is disgraceful and dangerous. Without a sense of our history of progress, gratitude for our good fortune, and sense of collective responsibility our society will slide into increasing fear and hopelessness. A powerful country overrun by fear is a recipe for tragedy of global proportions. 

Work hard, invest in people and be grateful. 

Friday, July 3, 2015

Tradition and Independence

Mexico has a long tragic history of its folk culture being manipulated and its folk artists controlled by people who benefit from division.

These people and institutions create hierarchies of purity and wave banners and arguments about patriotism or revolution, religion or anti-religion, etc.

These cynical and destructive campaigns to control artists and culture play out here among Mexican Americans as well. Arguments about birthright, appropriation, colonialism and purity are flung around. 

But these efforts are power grabs disguised as causes to promote a select few. They are based on a false understanding of folk music and do a great disservice because they inhibit creativity and open collaboration by instilling fear and division.

We must not allow human expression to be controlled. Expression is an essential human right. We all carry cultural traditions within and they are ours to cultivate. And even if we cultivate them chueco - then so be it. Diversity of expression strengthens us. And our traditions are strong enough to survive and thrive regardless.

For those who claim to protect the integrity or purity of our traditions I say that in the end it is the pueblo that decides what thrives and what does not. That is the way it has always been.

Mexico’s campesinos have suffered 500 years at the hands of people and institutions who have tried to control their voices. It is time for us, the children and grandchildren of Mexico’s working people, to set ourselves free and fight for our independence of expression.

Tradition is a doorway, not a wall.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Taco Day at the Museum

In an era when Mexican Americans are embarrassingly underrepresented in the field of arts and culture, Los Cenzontles has thrived for twenty five years – doing quality, groundbreaking pedagogical work, roots reviving, cross cultural collaborations, media creation etc - all planned and executed by our homegrown young artists, educators, producers and administrators. 

The young people who do the work at Los Cenzontles are from a neighborhood like many others in California and around the country – working class communities that are subjected to substandard education and plagued by low expectations. But in spite of the disadvantages, our young leaders are doing nationally recognized work because of the rigorous training and support they receive at Los Cenzontles made possible by a different kind of vision - a vision of shared ownership and responsibility - with the support of enlightened supporters who help us survive a piecemeal, fickle funding environment. 

When I was a kid in the 1960’s and 70’s there was barely any Mexican American representation on television or in films. When society became a bit more aware of the need for more cultural representation, many schools, businesses, government offices and organizations responded by instituting cultural awareness days that consisted of the cafeteria featuring ethnic food. Taco day. The later rise of multi-culturalism allowed us to make some headway toward visibility but almost always we were relegated to narrow and prescribed roles – stereotypical bit parts in someone else’s narrative.
Meaningful representation requires that we include people who actually represent American demographics in all levels of decision making and execution. But what we see in the arts, culture and entertainment (including news) sectors is a thin veneer.

Too little meaningful investment is made into working class communities - the same communities who have contributed so much to American cultural heritage in the first place. And often, when working class culture is integrated into educational curriculum the pedagogy is radically changed to accommodate ‘mainstream’ (read middle class) audiences. This usually changes the aesthetic and meaning of the art forms, rendering them unrecognizable to the communities that created them.

Every day at our cultural arts academy, the members of our  team professionally engage in intensive cultural work: cultivating a vibrant learning environment; teaching community children; training teens; rehearsing; composing and choreographing; researching and adapting traditional pedagogy and practice; producing, shooting and editing CDs and videos; performing; touring; organizing events and much, much more. It is at this sustained level of detail that cultural arts work bears fruit. Cultural arts engagement develops skills of critical thinking, expression, resilience, problem solving, teamwork and leadership in our children that prepare them to engage with and contribute to a vibrant democratic society.
But somehow our society has decided that these skills are to be cultivated mainly in privileged communities.  Arts education in working class communities is, at best, inconsistent, remedial and considered an unnecessary luxury. This in spite of the fact that America's cultural heritage has come largely from working class and immigrant communities - contributions that are sometimes acknowledged in words but barely reciprocated through proportionate resource investment.
So, why is the Los Cenzontles example more than a inspiring but aberrant success story in a beleaguered community? Because these young people belong to one of the fastest growing demographics in the nation that already comprises the majorities in many American cities. These first and second generation working class Americans are our future consumers, tax payers and voters. Los Cenzontles has proven, time and time again, that these young people are capable of, and hungry for, creative excellence and rise to the challenge of sharing their values and vision with our larger society. This is what a democracy is, after all. We neglect to properly education such a huge segment of our population at society's peril. 

So, what will it take to activate the untapped talent of our working class communities? It will take real representation, not tokenism; real conversations, not slogans; and real partners who actively address the opportunities and challenges from a position of mutual benefit. It requires that we as a society recognize that all American young people require a complete education, including arts and culture, to fully inform and renew America's ever-evolving identity and innovative spirit.

Taco day at the museum will not suffice.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Dreamer

I wrote this song with Jackson Browne about the Dreamers, the young people whose futures are stuck in limbo because of their immigration status. Many in America see immigration as a simple issue of law and order. They say these young people must face the consequences of their parents’ choices, and must not be allowed to live and dream here, in what is often the only land they know. 

But “law and order” is far from simple.

People migrate in response to economic and political conditions far bigger than themselves. Global economic trends, government corruption, political intransigence and misplaced ideology are all at play. And there is a great amount of money at stake.

Yet the immigrants, the most vulnerable pieces of this enormous puzzle, are condemned as the transgressors – the “illegals.” No one brands corporations, politicians, small businesses and homeowners as “illegal” for perpetuating and profiting from undocumented labor.  The immigrants themselves are the scapegoats in an unjust system with no shortage of the complicit. 

This is because they are perceived, wrongly, as “the other.”

At Los Cenzontles Cultural Academy in San Pablo, Calif., we have witnessed beautiful, motivated American children, our students, forced to return to Mexico because a hard-working mother or father was deported.  We know talented, committed, culturally American young adults whose vast potential is cut short because as small children they arrived to the United States without papers.  In any other time, these young people would be deemed ideal American youth.

They are not the other. They are us. 

The Dreamer

Just a child when she crossed the border
To reunite with her father
Who traveled north to support her
So many years before

Left half her family behind her
A crucifix to remind her
She pledged allegiance to this land
And does the best that she can do

A donde van los sueños (Where do the dreams go)
Nacidos de la fe y la ilusión (Born of faith and hope)
Donde no hay camino ni huella (Where there is no road nor footprint)
Solo deseos en el corazón (Only desires of the heart)

Eagles fly up on columns of the wind
Fish swim currents of the sea
So people's lives glide through rivers of their dreams
In their desire to be free

Today she just got the order
They're taking steps to deport her
Her heart is trembling with the fear
That she can't make it anymore

We dam the waters around us
Pollute the air that surrounds us
But the walls we build between us
Cement the walls within our hearts

A donde van los sueños (Where do the dreams go)
Nacidos de la fe y la ilusión (Born of faith and hope)
Donde no hay camino ni huella (Where there is no road nor footprint)
Solo deseos en el corazón (Only desires of the heart)

Friday, April 26, 2013

Vivir - Celebrating Dia del Niño

We celebrate el Dia del Niño, the Day of the Child, with a new video of a song composed by Lucina Rodriguez. Lucina is a core staff member at our cultural center and has been a part of our performing group since the age of 15, a few years after she immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico. Her song Vivir (“To Live”) speaks of life’s difficult moments and our need to superarse, to rise above, and not merely to survive.

Why post such a serious song for Dia del Niño? Children are not immune to hardship. Balloons, candy and happy songs can momentarily brighten a child’s mood,  but they need more. Building our children’s resilience is what will give them the best shot at lifelong health and happiness.

Growing up can be tough anywhere, but the shock of emigration and acculturation can amplify these challenges exponentially. Relationships within a family and support systems around it are disrupted. The language, environment, food and most everything else are different. As young people struggle to cope at the most basic levels in their new lives,  they must also create new paths to resiliency. They must rise above survival.
Ideally, they will fuse the best of the world they left behind with the best of their adopted home. They will develop cultural fluency. Their identities  will add new depths and dimensions,  as they continue to rely on their families  for support while realizing an expanded future for themselves.

At Los Cenzontles Academy, we work with first- and second-generation families to prepare our children to thrive as fully formed individuals with a fluid yet anchored sense of self.  Tradition and culture arts are not taught as burdens that weigh us down, but as foundations that remind us of our stories, of the strengths that have brought us to where we are today.

We teach art   as a discipline that introduces and reinforces a strong work ethic, leadership and teamwork. Within a safe social environment, our students are encouraged and challenged to cultivate their creativity. To envision who they wish to be, and to express this vision as they navigate a difficult, ever-changing world.

Not many educational institutions raise expectations very high for immigrant and working-class students.  Those that do often fail to recognize  that their children are already well-equipped with familial cultural assets that can support growth. These children are typically asked to choose between two irreconcilable models, not to create their own. This is a grave missed opportunity that can easily result in the wasted human potential and lost dreams.

This not only occurs in immigrant communities. Most American children do not receive consistent creative-arts education throughout their school lives. They are our most valuable national asset, but the investment we make in their creative potential -- in their ability to sing and dance, to make music and art, to express beauty, to dream -- is minimal. It is precisely this investment that ensures an invested citizenry and a brighter collective future.

Survival is not enough. We must live -- as individuals and as a nation.