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Here’s How Two Local Youth Music Programs Are Keeping Traditional Mexican Music Alive

From son jarocho to mariachi, Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy in the Bay Area and the Mariachi Heritage Foundation in Chicago are preserving and keeping traditional Mexican sounds alive through music programs and young musicians.

The importance of cultural preservation, specifically sounds that aren’t considered mainstream or don’t get much radio airplay, is what motivated Eugene Rodriguez (founder of Los Cenzontles) and Cesar Maldonado (Mariachi Heritage Foundation) to launch their music programs.

“It was a way of connecting my Mexican side to my American side,” says Rodriguez, a musician and educator. “And it just became so natural for me to want to keep this music alive and to see younger people engaged and excited about, makes me happy.”

“Mariachi is the music of my parents and grandparents, it’s always been a part of me,” adds Maldonado, who like Rodríguez has moved all music classes to online learning due to the global pandemic. “It’s important to me to help preserve the tradition with new generations, which is why Mariachi Herencia is so important. The group is making mariachi music cool and relevant again.”

Get to know more about Los Cenzontles and Mexican Heritage Foundation below.

Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center

Location: Northern California

What they’re all about: Founded in 1989 by Rodriguez, Los Cenzontles is a nonprofit organization, performing group, and production studio creating roots music and cross-cultural projects. Students learn to dance, sing and how to play an array of instruments and sounds like son jarocho and mariachi. “Our classes went from 200 to about 75 kids a week because of COVID-19,” Rodriguez says. “Since we began our music program, our curriculum has evolved by adding more regional styles to match the demographics of our community. For example, in the past few years we began adding music from the Huasteca region because many of our students come from there.”

Meet the students: Sisters Divina, 16, and 13-year-old Camila Ortega, along with their other three sisters, have all attended Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center since they were 4 years old. “We wanted to know more about where our parents come from and its sounds. It’s a way to connect with them,” Divina says. “Now that us five sisters are playing instruments and singing, our family is always asking us to play for them. Music has brought us together.”

Multi-instrumentalist Monzerrat Ledesma, 16, is now learning to sing in different languages/dialects and writing verses in zapotec and nahuatl. “Were adding positivity and joy to this world when we’re hearing so many negative things. It excites me to be part of this group,” Ledesma says.

New release: Los Cenzontles featuring David Hidalgo (Los Lobos), “El Colas” is a traditional son jarocho, which is an Afro Mexican musical genre from Southern Veracruz, Mexico. The members of Los Cenzontles (The Mockingbirds) sing, stomp dance, and play traditional Mexican instruments such as jarana, pandero and quijada in the song recorded following social distance guidelines. Rodríguez and Hidalgo are frequent collaborators and have been working together since 1994. “He’s always been very supportive of us performing at benefits for us.”

Vision for the remainder of 2020 and beyond: “Our vision for the remainder of the year is to continue to find ways to engage our students deeply and express ourselves through digital media in as many creative ways as possible. Music videos, poetry books, documentaries, art projects, virtual altars,” Rodríguez says. In June, they launched The Front Porch Sessions with the Academy taking the studio outdoors to film families singing, playing, and dancing together in front of their homes.

Mariachi Heritage Foundation 

Location: Chicago

What they’re all about: Founded in 2012, the Mariachi Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit organization, aims to celebrate and preserve the cultural heritage of mariachi music and other Mexican heritage arts. Currently, the music program teaches 2,100 students across Chicago in partnership with the Chicago Public Schools District. “Our mariachi program is taught as part of the school day and integrated into the general curriculum of the school,” MHF founder Cesar Maldonado says. “Some schools also have after school programs for performing ensembles.” The Latin Grammy-nominated Mariachi Herencia de México was formed in 2016 with 75 percent of the musicians come from the in-school program.

Since its inception, “the mariachi curriculum has evolved tremendously,” Maldonado says. “While most music curriculum includes a variety of unrelated compositions, MHF’s program makes a unique contribution to students’ learning — they learn how music represents a culture. So, instead of learning about tempo and tone with any music, the students become proficient musicians as they listen to, sing, and play the music of Mexico.”

Latest release: The mariachi’s cover of “Amor Eterno” is included in their fourth studio album, Esencia, Vol. 2., released in May. The set includes 13 songs with arrangements by award winning composer and musical director Rigoberto Alfaro. The album was recorded by the 18 musicians that make up Mariachi Herencia de México in the middle of a pandemic. While mariachi instruments are usually recorded by section, on this album they had to record each of the young musicians individually, in order to abide by the COVID-19 guidelines.

Meet a student: 17-year-old trumpet player and singer Marco A. Villela stepped-in as musical director for their latest album as Alfaro was unable to travel due to the global pandemic. Born and raised in Chicago, Villela joined Music Heritage Foundation’s mariachi program in 2016. “I decided to join because I wanted to learn more about different styles of music to be able to connect to my Mexican roots. What a better way of doing that than through the culturally beautiful music of mariachi,” says the CPS student, who grew up listening to “a lot” of regional Mexican music. “I’ve loved music ever since I was like four years old. As a mariachi musician now, I feel great pride to represent our culture and sounds.”

Vision for the remainder of 2020 and beyond: “I consider [the pandemic] just a standstill, a moment of pause, and once things get back to normal, I look forward to getting back to teaching [in-person] and [continue] making mariachi music,” Maldonado says.

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