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.