The traffic noise of San Pablo Avenue subsides when you pull into the Dias Plaza shopping center location of Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center. The spacious converted storefront is outfitted with hardwood floors, a large stage, recording studio, and instructional booths, all with a Mexican motif. Providing music and dance instruction to residents of San Pablo and outlying areas since 1989, the nonprofit is now a nationally acclaimed after-school program dedicated to deterring Latino youth from negative behavior with arts and culture.
On the heels of receiving a “Coming Up Taller Award” from the Presidential Committee on Arts and Humanities, Los Cenzontles will be recognized this fall as one of the top ten youth programs in the country. From grassroots beginnings at San Pablo’s Maple Hall to recording with Los Lobos on their 1994 Grammy-nominated children’s album, Papa Lalo’s Dream, founder Eugene Rodriguez — aided by staff, parents, and community members — has jumped numerous hurdles to gain permanent space for the school, the only one of its type in the country.
“We now have this center. It’s not a dream anymore,” says Los Cenzontles’ executive director Rodriguez. “Our program has grown and gets more profound as the years go by. One of our goals is not to get bigger, but to keep making the educational experience deeper by involving young people as administrators, producers, choreographers, and teachers too.”
This Saturday at the Alice Arts Center in Oakland (8 p.m., 510-233-8015), house band Los Cenzontles (“The Mockingbirds” in Aztec) presents “Son Con Son,” an exploration into the son (pronounced sown) traditions of Veracruz, including — direct from Mexico — the neo-folk groups Mono Blanco and Son de Madera. The former, led by Gilberto Gutierrez, is credited with igniting a son jarocho revival that has spilled over to Spanish-language rock. Much like 1960s British blues revivalists seeking out elder blues masters, artists like Cafe Tacuba, Molotov, and Manu Chao searched out Mono Blanco and involved them in recordings and performances.
“My whole inspiration came from Gilberto and his work in Veracruz,” explains Rodriguez. “When he started his group in 1979, the fandango was almost dead. Young people thought it wasn’t cool. So he set up workshops throughout the countryside in instrument building, dancing, and playing, and a renaissance occurred with groups like Los Cojolites, Son de Madera, El Chuchumbe, and others. He created a path that I thought we could replicate here.”
Through grants, Gutierrez has been an artist-in-residence with Los Cenzontles. One of his students was program coordinator Lucina Rodriguez, who started with the center eight years ago at age twelve. The maintenance and development of the organization has now become her career. Considered one of the best zapateado heel dancers in the United States, she took up teaching and became a pillar of the group’s performances. Currently, she is transitioning to an administrative post, fully aware of the challenges of keeping the LCMAC going.
“It’s more of a responsibility now,” Luciana says, “but it helps us to be more disciplined and professional at what we do. Not only in terms of working in the office but also in performance. We have a lot of people who have joined Los Cenzontles because they’ve seen the group perform. It’s brought pride to this community.”