Spotlight: Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center

Spotlight: Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center

Founded in 1994, Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center is an artist-driven grassroots organization providing family-friendly classes, events, media and performances steeped in Mexican culture to communities in San Pablo, California. NYFA talked to the center’s Development Manager, Lauren M. Merker, about the current programs offered by the organization as well as what can be expected in the future.

NYFA: Los Cenzontles is located in San Pablo, a city in a richly populated region of the United States. How has San Pablo and the Bay Area influenced your origins and mission?

LM: Our program is heavily place based. We have striven to anticipate the changing demographics of our area since our inception. For example, when our youth program first began in 1989, the Latino community was primarily US born and English speaking. In the mid 1990’s the immigration boom transformed our community. Our programming has reflected these changes. Also, our faculty and staff have heavily relied on young people who grew up in this program. 

San Pablo and neighboring Richmond are neglected cities in the Bay Area known more for our famous neighbors San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley. Civic resources in our area are slim. Our origins are more humble than those of other cities and we have had to fend for ourselves. This is also made us resilient, resourceful and grateful. 

NYFA: Los Cenzontles is more than just a cultural organization, but also a musical group, academy, community center, and more. Could you explain how you use all of these programs to express Mexican heritage in the Bay Area and beyond?

LM: All of these components are tightly woven together to form our synergistic organization. At the staffing level, we can afford to provide full-time salary and benefits to an artist when that artist also has non-arts related responsibilities. At the artistic level, our core group of artists has developed deep connections to our mission and has been able to evolve because of the stability provided by full-time employment. We also have numerous long-term relationships with artist and media partners with whom we collaborate. These are all important elements in expressing Mexican heritage because Mexican and Mexican American culture is rapidly evolving. We can invest in the deeper themes of identity, tradition and acculturation when we are not responding simply to market driven demands of music making. 

NYFA: You’re in the middle of renovating and expanding your arts center (and fundraising for this project through the Supporting Roots Campaign). What is your timeline for construction and what can we expect when it’s completed?

LM: We have been in our humble, storefront space for over 15 years. A number of years ago, we started planning for the future because it became obvious that the Latino youth population was growing faster than we’d be able to keep up with. We received some amazing “pre-development” funds from some loyal funders (including the Ford Foundation and the Walter & Elise Haas Fund) and were able to thoroughly investigate all of our options for expanding. In the end, we decided to do a modest expansion and renovation of our current space. We acquired the business next-door, giving us 30% more space and recently finished Phase 1 of the project, which was the build out of the additional space. Now we are focusing on raising $800,000 for Phase 2, which is the renovation of our current facility. Our goal is to complete the fundraising and the construction for Phase 2 by the end of 2014.

The new space will provide:

  • A kitchen for cooking classes
  • 2 new private lesson rooms
  • New dedicated dance room
  • New dedicated art room with natural light
  • Expanded office and storage space
  • Expanded theater space with new sound and lighting system
  • New HVAC system
  • Soundproofing between classrooms
  • Upgraded video and audio equipment for our production studio

In addition to the physical upgrades, the campaign will allow Los Cenzontles to add staffing, new programming, and establish capital and operating reserves to provide long-term stability for our organization as we enter into our 3rd and 4th decade of service.

NYFA: A major part of the organization is Los Cenzontles Academy, a school for young students offering subsidized classes in music, dance, and arts and crafts. Please tell us more about the classes you offer and if they change throughout the year. In terms of the teaching artists you work with, do you have an established group of teachers or do you actively recruit new teachers?

LM: Los Cenzontles Arts Academy is the heart of our local programming in our San Pablo/Richmond neighborhood. We offer high-quality, low-cost classes to more than 600 students a year. Beginning to advanced classes in music, dance, and artesania based in Mexican traditional and popular arts are taught by master artists (many of whom were students at the center beginning at a young age) and assisted by teen teacher trainees. Ten-week group class sessions are offered in winter, spring, fall, and summer, plus an intensive summer camp. We also offer private musical instruction in piano, violin, guitar and voice.

NYFA: In terms of Los Cenzontles, the band, what can we expect this coming year, perhaps a 2014 tour or a new album in the works?

LM: We will be releasing a new original animated short film with new music as well as a new recording project.

NYFA: As many of our readers are artists and musicians, what’s the first step for them to get involved with Los Cenzontles?

LM: The first step would be to check out our website to learn more about who we are and what we do. Then, email us or give us a call! We are always looking for partners, artistic collaborators, etc.

Interview by David J. Bertozzi

For more information on Los Cenzontles, please visit their website.

Images: Courtesy of Los Cenzontles
Amy Aronoff
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