It's not that Eugene Rodriguez, 51, thinks culture alone can harmonize relations among the races, but from his view as director of Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center in Richmond, Calif., it goes a long way.
A musician/activist and third-generation Mexican-American, Rodriguez founded the arts center in 1994, and it is now a hybrid music academy, community space, and production studio. Its house band carries the same name, and over the years many acclaimed artists who embrace cultural music have played along with The Mockingbirds, from Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt to the Chieftains and Los Lobos.
In a phone interview and in a mini-documentary, Rodriguez discusses Los Cenzontles' outreach efforts to bridge the cultural divide between Latino and non-Latino communities in West Marin County, particularly at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center. It's a county of disparities—the state's highest household incomes in sharp contrast with the largely Mexican immigrant families who work at inland farms and whose children drop out of schools five times more than white students.
We work with immigrant communities to raise awareness about cultural transition. One of our longer-term projects is the San Geronimo Valley Community Center in West Marin, an area that is known for rich folks and lush meadows. Less known is a community of migrant Mexicans who do the hard labor and whose children go to the same schools as white children. At those schools, cultural tensions are rife. The community center's leaders came to us for help to evolve their relationship with the migrant community beyond that of a soup kitchen. So we've been advising them in creating programing built on community assets, serving as cultural translators.
The work in West Marin that we're trying to do (is) to reconcile these deep divides between the working immigrants and their children who are working to acculturate and succeed within a society that is new to them, and the people who control most of the resources in that area.
I believe that much of the tension about immigration is based in cultural difference. Many are freaked out by a critical mass of strange people in their neighborhoods. Since the gulfs are based in culture, then the solutions should be culturally based as well. But culture is an underutilized tool. Culture is under constant negotiation. We just need to learn to more consciously navigate it.
First you need to promote cultural literacy. You need to teach kids to the vocabulary of acculturation. Acculturation is also not a one-way street. It is a complex negotiation [among] all American communities that come into contact with one another.
So Marin gives us the opportunity to see the process of the migrants coming into this area, to fulfill work that needs to be done, the process of acculturation, the children growing up in this American environment but also contributing something of who they are to the environment.
We feel it's very important for people to recognize their own talents and build leaders from within the community and help them create programming around their own assets. It can be cooking, singing, sewing, carpentry—anything. However, it can often be difficult to get people to see that what they carry with them is valuable.
The collaborative nature of the relationship, the partnership, is really building the future of the county. That is the only way to do it. We can't sustain a situation where it's just people providing free lunches or free soup to poor folks. What we need to do is invest into the community, into the people, workers and their families who are here. Because their families are here. And these children who are here are American children. If we don't invest into these children, then what do we have as a society?
Side by side, white children and Latino kids are all custodians or guardians of this beautiful neighborhood, this beautiful area. And they are all working together to improve it with pride in what they bring.
We must change the deeper American narrative about racial purity and the notion that the U.S. is a white-black nation. If we don't change the paradigm, we'll always be treating Americans as outsiders.