Local group Los Cenzontles proudly says, "Yo soy Mexico Americano"

Los Cenzontles. Photo courtesy of http://www.themockingbirds.info/

Living in the Bay Area means you have an endlessly diverse palette of cuisines to pick and choose from. San Francisco’s rich culinary scene means you can have a bean burrito for breakfast, dim sum for lunch, and chicken coucous for dinner.

And if you were in the mood for something like "carne asada rib pie dipped in white gravy with a side of refried greens," you should go to San Pablo in the East Bay. But you wouldn’t eat it -- you’d hear it, because those are the words that SF Weekly used to describe the sound of a local musical group there.

And that’s today’s Artery, cultural coverage that makes you go "Otra! Otra!"

Los Cenzontles is a unique musical group. Based in San Pablo, it's a band that usually performs usually performs and writes rock, latin fusion music. But Los Cenzontles is more than a band. It is also a community cultural center in San Pablo where kids are learning for the first time about their Mexican roots through music and dance.

Reporter April Dembosky went to meet Los Cenzontles to see how they came to embrace their Mexican American identities.

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MARISA BAUTISTA (singing): Mi, me, mi...

APRIL DEMBOSKY: Marisa Bautista started coming to the Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center when she was a little girl. She started with piano and dance lessons. Now she’s 17, and she sings and tours with the band Los Cenzontles and helps teach singing and dance classes at the arts center.

BAUTISTA: (singing in Spanish)

BAUTISTA: My mom’s mom, she used to mainly only speak Spanish. So, and I don’t speak Spanish. Here, I sing in Spanish and the music around us is in you know, a language that I don’t speak, but it was a way for me to connect to her and to understand my culture.

Marisa’s great grandparents came to the U.S. from Mexico. Her parents and grandparents were born in the U.S. She considers herself Mexican American, but that’s sometimes hard to define.

BAUTISTA: I’ve always struggled a little bit with the American side and the Mexican side. People want you to be Americanized. But then, Mexican people I meet that speak Spanish are native speakers, they ask me, "Well, why don’t you speak Spanish?"

The issue of Mexican American identity is one Eugene Rodriguez has watched evolve for decades, and it’s what inspired him to start the Arts Center back in 1994.

EUGENE RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, when I first started teaching in this neighborhood, most of the kids were Mexican American, primarily identified as American, English-speaking, listened to American rock and hip hop, and learned culture as side thing, maybe their parents wanted them to. And in the mid-90s, or the 90s, was when the big influx of immigrants came. Still Mexican American, but different, and that kind of put some pressure on the neighborhood in terms of conflicts between kids based on how they saw themselves and how they saw the other.

Those pressures resulted in social tensions and gang violence in San Pablo. In 1994, they reached a crisis level. 

RODRIGUEZ: It kind of culminated with the rape, murder of a 15-year-old girl named Cecilia Rios at a local elementary school. The tensions were very high because kids were talking about revenge and a lot of graffiti. What I noticed that the kids didn’t seem to have any constructive way to express their grief, and their anger and their shock.

So what we did is we assembled about 12 of her friends and we put together a workshop in corrido writing. Corridos are traditional narrative songs. They’re not sentimental songs, they’re not romanticized songs, they’re just, they’re chronicles. 

Many of them told us it was the first time that they had ever had an opportunity to express how they felt about her death. To me what this was was a sign that our traditions that have served us over centuries, still serve us today.

Now, 16 years later, the Arts Center has classes every day in piano, violin, guitar, singing, dancing, beading, and crafts. Instructors teach classical minuets and Mexican rancheras, traditional jarocho dances and popular revivals like merengue.

While the social tensions have calmed in San Pablo, Rodriguez says today’s teenagers are still dealing with an identity crisis. He says today’s heated political debates around immigration can be brutal for Mexican American kids coming of age.

RODRIGUEZ: People develop, especially children develop a shame about who they are, even what their name sounds like or what they look like. So when you throw all these factors on top of normal adolescents’ angst, it really creates crisis proportions. I feel very strongly that it’s important to get young folks, especially immigrant kids, to learn a vocabulary to talk about these kinds of things. It’s not going to be the same language that the white kids and the black kids kids are going to talk about because they come from a different place. It’s a language that has to come from their own experience and their own sensibilities.

Most of the band members started out as students at the Arts Center. Rodriguez wanted to reflect their bi-cultural identity on the band’s latest album. He decided to revive a Chicano song from the 1970s called “Soy Mexico Americano.” He was surprised by how it went over on tour.

RODRIGUEZ: It was at the Fillmore and it was at the House of Blues in Southern California. All these kids were there to rock and roll, and they were in the mosh pit. Typically they’re not real kind to opening acts, and we were warned. We came out there and we started doing these traditional Mexican tunes, including “Soy Mexico Americano.” And you could just see all these faces out there, listening to the words and nodding their head and going, "Yeah."

Because the words say, "Through my mother I am Mexican, because of destiny I am American. I am Mexican American." It was this amazing turn of events, historical events, where you have this whole new generation of people saying, "Wow, that’s true, I am Mexican American." What does that mean to me? What does that mean to them? I don’t know, but it’s fascinating to watch.

LUCINA RODRIGUEZ: Because we come from Mexico we have Mexican roots. But then we’re also American because we grew up here and we have the American mentality.

Lucina Rodriguez sings “Soy Mexico Americano” on the new album. She moved to San Pablo from Jalisco when she was 11 and discovered the Arts Center when she was 15. She sings to stay connected to her Mexican roots, but she’s got plenty of American features too.

LUCINA RODRIGUEZ: I grew up Catholic. But I like to know about other religions, and I like to, I like to do yoga. I love Mexican food but I barely cook Mexican food because it’s very time consuming. So I do cook a lot of, I guess, Americanized foods, or I go to Trader Joe’s and get my frozen dinners and put them in the microwave (laughs).

The new Los Cenzontles album is also part American in its sound. It reflects a community that is very much aware of where it came from and who it is today.

In San Pablo, I’m April Dembosky for Crosscurrents.

This story originally aired on October 28, 2010.