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.