Mexican Folk Music Takes Center Stage in New Memoir

Los Cenzontles founder Eugene Rodriguez shares his story of cultivating young Chicano musicians by connecting them to their cultural roots.


BERKELEY, CALIF. — Los Cenzontles — the prolific Mexican folk band and nonprofit — was founded by Eugene Rodriguez in the late 1980s on the conviction that culture helps us understand the fullness of who we are. Acutely aware of the lack of Mexican American representation in mainstream US media, Rodriguez created Los Cenzontles as a pathway for young Chicano musicians to connect with their roots through song. In Bird of Four Hundred Voices: A Mexican American Memoir of Music and Belonging, Rodriguez details how his upbringing propelled him to cultivate this one-of-a-kind ensemble, who today are collaborators to some of the leading Latino recording artists of all time.

“In a society that tries, in countless ways, to convince us to devalue ourselves, the cultural arts can help our children build resourcefulness and resilience that can protect their sense of self,” says Rodriguez, who began giving classical guitar lessons to kids living at a blighted edge of the East Bay while studying music in San Francisco. His deep repertoire drew from the vibrant tapestry of Mexico’s traditional genres: mariachi, rancheras, huapangos — all of which became the founding inspiration for Rodriguez’s eventual nonprofit offering musical education to the children of the Mexican diaspora living in working class communities of the Bay Area.

Starting from humble origins and a lean staff, Los Cenzontles (the mockingbirds) has enjoyed meteoric success by both “honor[ing] and upend[ing] traditional Mexican music,” and creating “something completely new, and distinctly American,” as the the New York Times wrote. Today the group is a transformative cultural institution that has recorded a Grammy-nominated album, offered rousing performances on both sides of the border, collaborated with the likes of Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder, and co-starred in a Linda Ronstadt documentary (Linda and the Mockingbirds). By esteeming students as collaborators, Los Cenzontles has not only transformed the lives of the young people who have picked up a guitar under its imprimatur but it has also established for itself a lasting influence in some of the most celebrated echelons of Mexican folk music.

“Eugene teaches children the right music for the right reasons, not necessarily to be performers but to explore their own joys and sorrows” says Linda Ronstadt, whose mariachi album Canciones de mi Padre went double platinum in the US market, “I wish I had studied with him when I was growing up. Read this beautifully written book about culture, identity and resilience, and you will know why.”

Advance Praise for Bird of Four Hundred Voices

“An inspiring tale of the transformative power of culture.”


“A son of so much: activism, history, art, pride, California, Mexico, the world. Each sentence, paragraph, page and story is a fandango for the soul.”

GUSTAVO ARELLANO, L.A. Times columnist and author of Taco USA

“For many years, I have been hearing of some kind of magic that Eugene Rodriguez was creating across San Francisco Bay, with an institute of serious fun. In hardscrabble San Pablo, California, Eugene Rodriguez records his life’s work first as student then as teacher: He has taught young men and women and children to dance and sing with the dead.” 

RICHARD RODRIGUEZauthor of Hunger of Memory

“Firmly rooted in tradition and activism, Eugene Rodriguez’s Bird of Four Hundred Voices brings us the extraordinary trajectory of one of the most renowned traditional Mexican dance advocates and attests to the tremendous power of cultural affirmation and celebration.”

NORMA E. CANTÚ, author of Dancing Across Borders

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Eugene Rodriguez is founder and executive director of Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy, a nonprofit based in San Pablo, California. He formed Los Cenzontles in 1989. Rodriguez has produced over thirty albums and numerous films for Los Cenzontles, and he has collaborated with Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Los Lobos, Lalo Guerrero, Ry Cooder, the Chieftains, and Taj Mahal. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and NPR. He is also the recipient of several awards and fellowships, including from the California Arts Council and United States Artists. He lives in Richmond, California.