At the foot of trees, my Chicano students, alongside their Mexican counterparts, practiced instruments and dance of the son Jarocho, a tradition created from generations of cultural encounters among Europeans, Indians and Africans. During breaks between classes the kids played soccer in an open field. At night we slept in a small dormitory visited by goats and chickens.
My students, from disenfranchised neighborhoods in San Pablo and Richmond, Calif., spoke mainly English. The Mexican students were Indigenous Popoluca and Nahuatl, among the most marginalized people in Mexico, as well as Mestizo. Some spoke their ancestral languages. Most did not.
Each group initially reacted to the other with the shock of encountering the exotic: they were quiet and observant. When the students began playing and dancing, however, connections emerged. The musicians formed a circle around dancers who took turns rhythmically zapateando on a wooden platform. Lit only by a few bare light bulbs in a cement courtyard, the kids strummed, danced and sang, growing bolder and bolder by the moment.
Benito, one of our teens, discussing his lack of Spanish, said “I watch how they play. They watch how I play. That's how we start talking to each other.”
When the lights turned off at bedtime in the communal dorm, four languages, English, Spanish, Popoluca and Nahuatl, could be heard whispered from the giggling children until the eldest maestro shushed them to sleep.
Within a few days, the Chicanos were etching designs into the hair of the Mexican kids and teaching them to dance hip-hop. The local kids taught us to live in their world.
In the middle of rural darkness, this simply lit circle of young musicians and dancers was a poignant example of the encounter and negotiation of culture. Every movement and every sound made an impression and invited reaction. Everyone present was a participant. Everyone was an observer. No one was more or less authentic than the next. All were there to learn, share and to express themselves.
We often think of traditional culture as a fragile relic or pageant of a specific and special people etched in a specific point in time that we outsiders observe from a safe distance so as not to disturb its purity.
But culture is a much deeper and more complex continuum that moves through time, geography, and even heritage. The preservation of tradition requires that we keep alive the process of learning, encountering and sharing through myriad ‘languages’.
Just as the son Jarocho tradition is the result of cultural migration so our visit to that camp was part of a larger transference and evolution of culture. Nothing is static.
Today the village of Pajapan, now connected to paved highways, has joined the developed world. Because of the historic migration of people from Mexico to the United States, the master Mexican folk artist is as likely to live in a U.S. city as on a Mexican ranch. In our rapidly changing world many children are likely to lose their ancestral language, move from country to city and intermarry.
I do not mourn the inevitability of change, because it has always been so. Cultural traditions survive because they modify to stay relevant. Like weeds that poke through the pavement of city sidewalks, our need to connect is innate and durable.
What I find tragic is that in our grasping at the trappings of tradition we lose sight of its true power.
We all carry tradition within us.