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The Power of Cultural Reconciliation

(We could definitely use one in Mendocino County. — Ed)

To effectively address social, political and economic injustice suffered by working class Mexican Americans requires an understanding of the deep and corrosive impact of shame. Shame, rooted in colonial mechanisms of social oppression, has been enforced by every institution in Mexico since the Spanish conquest so effectively that it is woven inextricably into the social fabric and individual psyches.  And it does not evaporate when we immigrate to the United States, a society based on a dramatically more individualistic and combative model of social negotiation. For Mexican Americans with family histories born of poverty, 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 keeps us from advocating for our needs. Shame renders us invisible and silent even to ourselves.

In the US, a society driven by raw power and the incessant shriek of marketers, the humble are largely invisible. However, they live, contribute, and create, in spite of bearing the brunt of our most cruel inequities.  In working class Richmond and San Pablo, California, where I work and live, the high price of housing forces our families to share small fragile homes, often in unhealthy conditions, with loved ones sleeping in garages and living rooms. Health care, if available, is inconsistent, exacerbating illness and cutting short lives. Neighborhood schools offer the minimum to, and expect little from, students most in need of quality education and challenge. Our children grow up barraged by political messages that mock our heritage,  branding them as carriers of infestation and their immigrant parents as enemy invaders. These are realities faced daily, and directly, by many of the staff, artists, children, and families of our non profit organization Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy. And this is nothing new. Because culture has long been an effective tool to enforce oppression, I believe that it should also be a tool of liberation.

Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy is a carefully cultivated space, located in a transformed strip mall storefront, designed to allow children and artists to feel secure enough to take risks necessary for deep learning, reflection and expression.  I created a youth arts pedagogy from our studies with folk master artists, laborers by trade, who learned music and dance in humble family settings. And while most community institutions approach low income neighborhood within a deficit model, staffed and programmed from the outside, our faculty, artists and media production team are program alumni. We teach, perform, curate and create, in first voice and with a deep sense of place.

We set our authentic cultural traditions into the hands, voices, and homes of local children; onto historically inaccessible stages; and into films, videos and albums. Typically, working class culture is told in third person and passed through filters intended to soften their rough edges and conceal the stigma of poverty.  In the attempt to make them more broadly socially palatable, they gentrify them, which results in stripping them of their power and connection. But it is precisely the direct strength and relevance 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. We aim to foster appreciation for the nuances of working class culture and draw upon the lessons of the resourceful cultural 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.

Once, after a Los Cenzontles Touring Group concert in Boise, Idaho, a young Latino introduced himself as a US Marine. With great emotion, he revealed to us that our performance evoked cultural pride for the first time in his life. After our documentary Pasajero, A Journey of Time and Memory was broadcast on a PBS pledge drive in Fresno, California, a record number of first time Mexican American subscribers contributed. They credited the film's accurate portrayal of our rural cultural roots, rarely seen on Public Television. My own aunts and uncles, themselves distanced from our family history that is rooted in poverty, cried at seeing people in the documentary who resembled their elders, people who rarely appeared in photographs, much less films.

At our Cultural Arts 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 Mexican son. They accurately, and loudly, stomp percussive zapateado dance steps, developing balance, coordination, listening and confidence. Their teacher, also raised in our 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 with their fellow musicians and dancers in improvised rhythmic conversation.

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 hip hop with their friends grab ancient Mexican instruments and play traditional music with the intensity of hard rock – as it was originally practiced for centuries by Mexico’s worker/ musicians. Art students talk with their peers about their deceased loved ones as they create ofrendas for our Dia de los Muertos altars. Students of mixed heritage, and those who don’t speak Spanish, develop the languages of art to connect themselves to that part of their roots.

Los Cenzontles does not impose or preach identity upon youth, audiences or viewers.  To our students, we provide choices along with skills of awareness and discipline to implement them. To our audiences we present our songs and stories, that although numerous, are rarely told. In our fast moving, complex world of multiple, ever connecting cultures, empowerment is not about confining oneself to, reacting to, or repeating narrow stereotypes, but to use all of who we are to inform our voices. Amidst the din of social conformity and political intimidation, one of the most difficult, bravest, empowering, and consequential things we can do is to be ourselves. In all its fullness, and without shame.

The qualities of working class culture forged our country’s identity and have contributed disproportionately to America’s cultural heritage. We must ask ourselves why this contribution is almost always un-reciprocated. We proudly claim gospel, country, rock n roll, blues etc as our national heritage, but we deprive the communities that created them resources and support.

For as formidable as shame is in enforcing negative social barriers and allowing inequitable social investment, it is mostly invisible to people outside the working classes. And this is what gives shame its most insidious power. It festers silently within the people that it mutes - adding to the many other factors that dissuade struggling people from investing in, and advocating for, themselves.

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 great purpose.  The impact of our work, and that of many other programs embedded in communities, is typically misunderstood and undervalued. But we commit ourselves to our mission 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. 

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