‘Hosts in Their Own Home’: True Interculturalism at Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy

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‘Hosts in Their Own Home’: True Interculturalism at Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy

Eugene Rodriguez, Founder, Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy


Performing in Sonora, Mexico. Photo: Bill Steen.

Mexican Americans are underrepresented in the field of arts and culture. This fact is not alleviated by calls for diversity and anti-racism, because Latinos are not a race but an ethnicity. Even though we have lived on this land since before there was a United States, we are viewed as outsiders, and our cultures are mocked. Despite these gaping blind spots and chronic under-resourcing, Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy has thrived for 33 years because it has relied on the sweat equity of a homegrown team of young people who have always done the work. Our secret has been to recognize that our young people have names, cultures, and as much capacity as any other child in America.

Children’s rhythm class. Photo: Los Cenzontles.

The young people who do the work at Los Cenzontles are from working-class neighborhoods that are like many others around the country: built to be unstable, from fragile home construction to poor public education, from inadequate social services to the scourge of low expectations. And yet, since 1989, these young people have consistently done nationally recognized work in cultural reclamation, performance, composition, production, and education, because Los Cenzontles provides a different kind of vision—one of shared ownership and responsibility. At our Arts Academy, Mexican American youth are not invited scholarship students but hosts in their own home. We have never waited for sufficient resources, or permission, to do our work. Rather, we take the initiative to address community concerns, learn from our elders, teach our children, sing our songs, and tell our stories with unbridled pride and purpose.

When I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s, there was barely any Mexican American representation in television and film. I learned that Anglo men drove society and history. People like me were relegated to bit parts, typically buffoons and criminals. As I began my career teaching Mexican music to children, the advent of multiculturalism promised increased representation but actually delivered narrow spaces that forced us into stereotypes, akin to Taco Tuesday at the cultural center. So I began to practice interculturalism, within which we took control of our own self-definition and expression. We studied our traditions from within and created direct bridges to people of various cultures.

Los Cenzontles collaborates with Preservation Hall Jazz Band in New Orleans, Louisiana in 2018. Photo: James Hall.

Recognizing that American culture was born of working-class communities, we created our own pedagogy that did not attempt to gentrify the cultural arts, as is typical in institutional education, but respected our art forms and their native modes of transmission. Our children first learn to play by ear, which teaches them to listen and engage without unnecessary visual filters. They become better collaborators in this way, as evidenced by Cenzontles performances with Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Ry Cooder, The Chieftains, Taj Mahal, David Hidalgo, and Preservation Hall Jazz Band—none which involved notation.

We insist on providing individualized education to our students in an environment where many music programs for working-class children provide music education ‘at scale,’ which is often code for teaching large numbers of children with minimal personalized artistic impact. But the arts require sustained, long-term personalized contact, something our society treats as a right for privileged children and an unnecessary luxury for working-class children. Too often, those children are typically reduced to reciting self-aggrandizing slogans rather than receiving an actual, rigorous arts education, providing them nothing of lasting value.

Los Cenzontles teenagers sing ‘El Corrido de Cecilia Rios’ in 1995.

The lessons of Los Cenzontles are not trivial. Students like ours represent one of the fastest growing demographics in the nation, forming our future voters, taxpayers, and consumers. In a multicultural democracy, cultural participation is as important as voting. We neglect properly educating all our children at our peril.

So, what will it take to activate the untapped talent of our diverse working-class communities? It will take real representation, not tokenism; real arts education, not slogans; and accepting that America is, and always has been, a fully diverse country. Taco Tuesday at the museum will not suffice.


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