Throughout December, we’re publishing our Best of the Bay 2020 Editors’ Picks, highlighting some of the tremendous people, places, and things that made the Bay Area shine during one heck of a year. View the growing list below—and see our Best of the Bay 2020 Readers Poll winners and our Readers Stories of Resilience here.
Founded in 1987, this San Pablo cultural institution has been redefining the flow of culture for decades. Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy serves a plethora of purposes in its community, but at its heart is a mission to educate youth in traditional Mexican art forms, and particularly in music and dance. It finds particular expression in the Los Cenzontles Band, which puts out music and videos that reach audiences far beyond the Bay Area.
Generations of young people have found their passion and a way to constructively pass their time in Los Cenzontles’ practice rooms, where son jarocho and huapango styles mingle with other sounds and dances. During 2020, the pace has hardly been slowed by the COVID epidemic. Staff have taken up the challenge of connecting to stuck-at-home young people, even removing the class fees so that kids and teens could continue learning from home.
Truth be told, lessons have never been limited to Los Cenzontles’ longtime center. Staff often take the kids on one-of-a-kind missions of cultural connection that have brought students to places like Banámichi, Sonora, where they paid a 2015 visit to Grupo de Danza Xunutzi alongside singer Linda Rondstadt. (Other journeys have been documented on Los Cenzontles’ thriving Youtube page, for those looking to visually experience the utterly unique voyages.) Shining graduates of the cultural arts academy often find their way into the band, which has played an instrumental role in the bolstering of Mexican art in the United States, and in so doing, built up a singular profile in the world of folk music and beyond.
The Los Cenzontles adult group has collaborated with Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, Ry Cooder, The Chieftains, and Jackson Browne, to shoutout just a full marquee names who have found artistic inspiration in the group’s dedication to traditional sounds. Recently, the center has taken to resuscitating California’s history of cultural diversity, with a recent video piece focusing on the journey led by a racially eclectic group of Mexicans that led to the first non-indigenous settlement in San Francisco. —Caitlin Donohue