Eugene Rodriguez is completely dedicated to his music, but he is not your typical rock star. He starts his day at 9am to write grants, organize events, rehearse, and then work with children after school through the evening — when he’s not touring with his bilingual band, Los Cenzontles (The Mockingbirds), across the U.S. or internationally, that is.
Los Cenzontles has produced its last three albums with David Hidalgo (Los Lobos), including their 20th, “Regeneration,” hitting stores on October 9. The group’s core members also operate Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center in San Pablo, Calif. This non-proﬁt, founded by Rodriguez, has been training Bay Area youth in traditional Mexican music, dance, and art for nearly two decades.
“In the mid-90’s we had a huge wave of immigrants coming from Mexico who primarily spoke Spanish and listened to banda,” says Rodriguez. “There was a lot of gang activity, and more kids in the neighborhood needed our services.”
The third-generation Mexican-American says he opened the center in 1994 — in a space that used to be a liquor store — and there was a huge response since its inception, with 175 kids arriving the first week. He says he now has about 200 kids per week taking classes in music and dance from ages 4 and up.
“‘Los Cenzontles’ (senn-SONT-less) is an Aztec word meaning ‘the bird of 400 voices,’” says Rodriguez who named his band after the many styles of music in Mexico. “We’re learning these styles to strengthen our voice.”
The 50-year-old musician, who played a part in the Grammy-nominated children’s album “Papa’s Dream,” with Los Lobos and Lalo Guerrero in 1996, is all about spreading the arts of his culture in all forms. He can’t even categorize the sound of his band into one genre, calling it a mixture of very deep Mexican rhythms as well as pop, Latin alternative, and cumbia.
“Culture is important to everybody — even if they may not recognize it,” says Rodriguez. “It’s like the shared air we breathe — it’s a very powerful tool.”
He says his new album, “Regeneration,” is meant to be a celebration of Latino culture.
“Our country is at the biggest cusp of the biggest demographic shift in 50 years, and the new generation is going to be largely dark-skinned…,” says Rodriguez. “A lot of older people are scared, but we want to create a stronger country with all included.”
He says nearly all the songs are original, as well as have positive messages in them.
“There’s a song that says ‘I just want to be free to be me’ — a joke about stereotypes, and ‘No Politics’ — we’re so political right now that’s a bit suffocating for young people,” say Rodriguez, although the video ends with a poster saying “Just Vote.” “We also did a serious song, ‘The Silence,’ about the drug trafficking problem in Mexico.”
He says Los Cenzontles, which is made up of seven band members, actually started as an artist in residency grant project. Also, the same people who perform in the band — most of whom are in their mid-30’s (except for Rodriguez, and his son, who is 18) — also teach the classes at the cultural center, including zapateado and artesania making in addition to music.
“I got more and more involved and was going to Mexico,” says Rodriguez who earned a master’s in classical guitar from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 1987. “I really was fascinated by the real folk music of Mexico but also in seeing how strong the effect was on young people.”
He says educating children in the traditional music of their roots creates a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning, and a sense of discipline in them.
“A lot of things they aren’t getting from school, they’re getting from us,” says Rodriguez. “I just want to be able to keep on doing the work we do and continue to open doors for young people.”