Los Cenzontles

Los Cenzontles, founded by Eugene Rodriguez and Berenice Zúñiga-Yap in 1989, began as a community project designed to create a space for youth to learn and explore traditional Mexican music and dance.  Eugene earned his master’s degree in music from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in classical guitar performance, but ultimately embraced traditional Mexican music with its community-building practices. According to Eugene, the goal of Los Cenzontles is to provide a rich cultural foundation to inspire confidence and pride in future leaders and insure that Mexican art forms are preserved. Los Cenzontles Art Center—which is located at Dias Plaza in San Pablo, California— currently reaches over 200 students in classes that are held five days a week.

Along the way, Eugene has encountered “little kids that come to classes who are ashamed to say their own names”[1] because of the turmoil of the current immigration situation in the United States and the racism that children encounter in their daily lives. The program works to counter this shame and empower children by teaching them about their roots through different forms of traditional art because “culture gives people strength and resilience.” Eugene also believes the arts could give children a unique outlet to express their feelings. Indeed, it was the tragic death of one of Los Cenzontles’ students, Cicilia Rios, which prompted Eugene to make Los Cenzontles into a non-profit organization: he felt that the arts and their traditions could help youth express the grief they felt after the death of Cicilia. Another of the Art Center’s accomplishments has been to serve as a tool for community reconciliation between Mexican and Chicano youth, who have been able to find common ground at the Center.

Los Cenzontles formed a professional performing ensemble in 1994 when several students had advanced in their musical skills enough to be able to showcase Mexican folk music to larger audiences. The band currently consists of six members:  Fabiola Trujillo (voice), Lucina Rodriguez (voice), jarana, guitar, Cristian Rodriguez (drums, percussion), Eugene Rodriguez (guitars, requintos, vihuela), Emiliano Rodriguez (accordion, guitar, bass), and Mireya Ramirez (percussion, dance); five of the six members were students at Los Cenzontles Art Center. Los Cenzontles have released eighteen albums since 1995 and three film projects. They have also collaborated with musicians as varied as David Hidalgo, Taj Mahal, Bobby Black, Julian Gonzalez and Ry Cooder, and incorporated an array of diverse genres including son jarocho from Veracruz, pirekuas from Michoacan, banda sinaloense, Norteños, mariachi, corridos, blues, jazz, and rock n’ roll. Using their wide knowledge of multiple styles of music, they have been able to find a powerful new hybrid sound which creates a fresh Chicano voice for a new generation. Their mix of electric bass and drums, jarana, vihuela, requinto, and quijada creates a powerful contemporary sound that contains echoes of Mexico’s rural roots music. The band makes it their goal to dig deep into their roots to promote dignity, pride, and cultural understanding, which has helped inspired a revival of Mexican roots music in California. Their name, Los Cenzontles, means “The Mockingbirds” in Nahuatl; mocking birds have been cherished in multiple cultures for their ability to mimic the songs of other birds. As such, the bird perfectly symbolizes the bands’ talent at discovering and bringing back to life traditional forms of music as they were performed historically.

Los Cenzontles have performed at benefit concerts as well as written and performed songs that celebrate the immigrant community in order to educate the public about the issues concerning the daily lives of documented and undocumented Latinos in the U.S. In Los Cenzontles’ albums Raza de Oro and American Horizon, the band incorporates songs that deal with immigration and the personal struggles immigrants’ face while and after they leave their native lands. In “Voy Caminando,” the singer, a new immigrant making his way in the US, describes the heartache of leaving his loved ones and community behind as well as the risks he is willing to take in order to provide his family with a better life. The song begins with the sound of feet beating out a zapateado—a traditional Mexican tap dance-like genre—which seems to mimic the footsteps of the traveler, while capturing his steadfast strength and patient striving. Meanwhile, “Regresa Ya,” a corrido (ballad) with two different singers who portray a husband and wife, speaks about the deep sense of abandonment that families back home feel when their loved ones migrate to the U.S. The song displays the suffering endured by family members on both sides of the border when people immigrate to the United States in search of the American Dream. While these songs contend with difficult topics, the musical accompaniment is upbeat and projects the immense strength and determination of families who find themselves crossed by a border. Another very effective tactic the band has used is to incorporate the spoken narratives of migrants into their songs. “La Rutina” includes tracks of day laborers who describe, in detail, the long hours that they must work in order to survive. The song includes a cacophony of multiple voices and distorted guitar sounds, which perfectly capture the feelings of confusion and overwhelm that overworked day laborers experience in their daily lives. Similarly, in the blues-inflected “No Work,” which features the harmonica, we hear the spoken pleas of a day laborer as he searches for work only to be thwarted at every turn.

Reaffirming their commitment to advocate for immigrant rights in the United States, in 2010 Los Cenzontles took a strong stance against Arizonas’ state-sponsored immigration bill, S.B. 1070. In their song “Arizona, Estado de Vergüenza,” the band criticizes Arizona for passing the bill, a law which in their view dehumanizes the immigrant community. In this corrido, which is accompanied by guitars and sung in Spanish in a direct and sincere tone which connects the artists to the community and back to their roots, the singers demand change, asking the public to look at the reality of suffering in the immigrant community and to stand up against inhumane laws.  While the first version of the song was sung by Eugene, a later version features the sweet harmonies of Fabiola Trujillo and Lucina Rodriguez. The sparse texture of the musical accompaniment helps to call attention to the direct, sincere, and concerned voices of these singers.  Eugene says that he wrote the song “out of anger and frustration… [I was] trying to create a message that’s constructive.” Moreover, he feels while the nation is treating the immigration issue as a foreign problem, in reality it is also an American issue. Ultimately, he argues, S.B. 1070 is “offensive to the ideals of America and to the ideals of democracy.” In “Arizona, Estado de Vergüenza,” Los Cenzontles suggest that instead of Arizona “being known for [its] beauty, [it’s] now famous for racism and hatred.” The song argues that working people are the ones who suffer from such laws that separate families, and that the nation as a whole is a disgrace because it allows such ugly policies to pass and deface the great name of the nation. However, while criticizing the state and country, ultimately the song is patriotic in so far as it calls on the nation to live up to its highest ideals. The band’s embrace of Mexican styles of music and discussion of the problems that face Latino immigrants is not a rejection of U.S. culture, but rather, an attempt to infuse Mexicanidad (Mexican-ness) into U.S. society by affirming that Mexican-Americans are Americans, not foreigners. The band challenges us to build a society that can embrace all the diverse roots and cultures that contribute to the cultural milieu of the United States.

- By Jasmine Tovar, Occidental College Class of 2014

[1] Class visit to Music 385 “Performance and Politics of the U.S./Mexico Border,” Occidental College, Spring 2012.