My View

‘First You Need to Promote Cultural Literacy’

Marin County takes on the immigrant gulf, aided by a Bay Area catalyst’s “Grow Your Own” program.

Eugene Rodriguez, executive director of the Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center, from a documentary posted to YouTube.  
National Journal
Eugene Rodriguez
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Eugene Rodriguez
Oct. 24, 2013, 7:09 a.m.

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.

This in­ter­view, con­duc­ted by Jody Bran­non, has been ed­ited for length and clar­ity.

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.

‘MY VIEW’ OF THE NEXT AMER­ICA

Jody Brannon contributed to this article.
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