If there is one word to describe the theme of this year’s San Jose Mariachi and Mexican Heritage Festival, it has to be “connectivity,” and not just because the festival has landed T-Mobile as its title sponsor. At this week’s press conference for the lead-up to the festival that takes place Sept. 20-27, the word “connection” and its derivatives were uttered multiple times by all three participants: festival CEO Marcela Davison Aviles, artistic director Linda Ronstadt and headline performer for the Sept. 25 concert, Joan Baez.
One thing that connects the three women personally is the fact that they were all born into bicultural and bilingual families with one Mexican and one American or European parent (in Baez’s case, a Scottish mother). Both Ronstadt (from Tucson) and Baez (who grew up in Palo Alto) made strong connections to their Mexican heritage later in their artistic careers. Baez was one of the first American artists to record an album of Spanish language songs, 1974’s “Gracias a la Vida,” and Ronstadt followed up her rock-and-roll years with, among other things, a terrific album of traditional mariachi songs from her childhood, “Canciones de Me Padre.”
Ronstadt, now in her first full year as artistic director, articulated her vision for the 2009 event as well as the future of the festival. She described the germ of her idea to explore the developments in Mexican culture locally after a couple of generations in the American melting pot as “Hey baby, Que Paso?” She believes arts education has been removed from its general educational context and “ghettoized” for the purpose of limiting it as a budget item in the school curriculum. This year’s educational workshops aim to promote the teaching of music and dance as a connected subject within general education programs.
On the next level, Ronstadt wants to place Mexican and Mexican-American music and dance traditions in a wider cultural context that includes the other arts as well as straw bale and adobe building methods, nutritious cookery and sustainable local agricultural efforts that would encourage close physical connections between the community and the food they eat. She believes that this would help break the cycle of citizens’ dependence on corporate producers of food that put profits ahead of nutrition. She uses the example of San Jose’s many community gardens as an example of what can be done to improve food quality locally.
Baez, of course, wholly endorses Ronstadt’s proactive concept and said that this is what attracted her to appear in the festival. She expressed her concerns for the moment as issues that “separate” members of our communities: rich and poor, immigrant and citizen, etc. Her desire as an activist is to promote connections between those on opposite sides of these groups in order to facilitate solutions that benefit those in need of help and, therefore, the community as a whole.
Baez, following in the footsteps of one of her heroes, Pete Seeger, has been one of the most politically and socially active performers in America for over fifty years. She made her name as a civil rights activist marching with Martin Luther King in the South and standing with Cesar Chavez in the fields of the Central Valley, and as a prominent anti-Vietnam War protester. By bringing Baez, along with other activist-performers Carlos Santana and Los Lobos to the festival, Ronstadt’s artistic leadership heralds a bold, new direction for the 18-year-old event.
Thanks to Aviles, Ronstadt and their team, this dynamic concept for cultural celebration has found a home here in San Jose, a fact recognized by Mayor Reed when he said a few words at the press conference expressing his enthusiastic support for the event.
In addition to the workshops and student concerts, some of the highlights of the 2009 festival include:
Sept. 21: A special screening at Camera 12 of the film “La Mission,” with star Benjamin Bratt and his brother, director Peter Bratt, in attendance.
Sept. 25: Joan Baez in “A Tribute to the Heroes of Our Heritage” at the Performing Arts Center.
Sept. 26: “Mariachi Goes to the Movies: A Tribute to the Golden Era of Mexican Films” at the Performing Arts Center, with a performance by the “Queen of Mariachi,” Aida Cuevas (who was so incredible last year), and Mariachi Cobre.
Sept. 27: Feria del Mariachi, three stages in and around Plaza de Cesar Chavez presenting folk dancing and music, family activities and Mexican food stalls. Admission will be FREE this year thanks to a generous donation by Target.
Sept. 28: “A Concert Tribute to Cesar Chavez” at HP Pavilion with Little Joe y Familia, Los Lobos and Carlos Santana.
For times, ticket information and event schedule, go to:
NOTE: I will be blogging the entire festival for San Jose Inside next month. I hope you will all participate in the discussion and that I will see you there.