Friday, June 18, 2010

Los Cenzontles change the world one class at a time

"The only Mexico I knew was of photographs of my family. I found Mexico here, in the music." - from "El Pasajero"
One of my favorite CDs a few years ago was "
El Pasajero (The Traveler)," a soundtrack to a documentary by and about Los Cenzontles with violinist Julian Gonzalez. I picked up the disc at Down Home Music in El Cerrito, but my introduction was weeks earlier in the cafeteria of the children’s hospital where I work.

Los Cenzontles (the Mockingbirds) isn't a band per se, it is a performing group from a community center in San Pablo, CA located where the oil refineries belch into the mouth of the Sacramento Delta. The center was created by Eugene Rodriguez (who plays vihuela (oud) in the group) and Berenice Zuniga-Yap. (Eugene, Los Cenzontles, Lalo Guerrero, and Los Lobos received a Grammy nomination for the recording "Papa's Dream".) The touring group's music features sones jarochos and sones de mariachi, Eugene and Julian accompanied by Hugo Arroyo on guitarron, Tregar Otton on 1st violin, and Lucina Rodriguez and Fabiola Trujillo on voice and zapateado (foot percussion).

That day at the hospital was Cinco de Mayo, and with a neonatologist I'd arranged for Los Cenzontles to perform at lunchtime for patients, staff, and visitors. It was also the day that Mrs. Garner's 2nd grade class from Vallejo was visiting the hospital. Mrs. Garner's class held a penny fundraiser all year, collecting coins a fistful at a time to purchase beanie babies for our patients. I scheduled a visit to accept their donations, give them a tour, and share lunch.

These beautiful six-year-olds are as animated as I've met. I introduce myself and say I heard they had a special story to tell. One by one they hand me waxy gift bags covered with tumbles of curling ribbon, each bag sheltering a beanie baby and a hand-written note of encouragement for a patient. With only the littlest
prompting, each child tells enthusiastically tells why they picked the bears they did -- this one is my favorite color pink! this is a lion and lions are strong and a sick boy needs to be strong! this is a parrot like my grampa has at home, it swears in spanish -- and I ooh and aah. Oohing and aahing is an important part of my job description.

I ask what they think are the two most important things a child needs in the hospital. Hands shoot up urgently. Bandages! surgery! shots! a new brain! Good answers, I say, sick people need good medicine; but what's the other thing? It's as important. Their mother! comes a late answer. I nod. Then I say that a child in a hospital needs the same things they have when they’re at home: family, games, friends, toys to play with.

I tell them our hospital is non-profit, and explain we don't have money to buy toys and beanie babies, we need donations of those so we can buy the bandages. They've done something important by thinking about what other people need and acting to fill that need. I tell them I am proud of them and I hope they feel that way inside.

Their eyes are big that they've made a difference, that they can make change happen. Within those wide eyes I see doors swing open.

I pass around a micropreemie diaper and demonstrate a baby that size by cupping my hand. One girl asks cautiously "Is this clean?" before touching the diaper. We chuckle and I assure her it's an unused diaper. "I was a preemie," says a black girl, the one who likes pink, her hand constantly shooting in the air. "I have diabetes," says a Pacific Island girl, the tallest in the class. "So do I" add a chorus of others. "I have asthma" says a smiling, skinny black boy in a football jersey and soon half of them, hands testifyin’, them too.

Then I show them the footprint from the smallest baby we've had, delivered at 22 weeks gestation, eyes fused, stomach unable to process food, lungs unprepared for months. I don't share those details; instead I show that the footprint is the same size as a paperclip. They're quiet. "Did it die?" asks the girl with glasses. "No," I answer, not offering more, but it comes anyway. "Was it okay?" "Many times children and babies may still need to come to the hospital some more." "That makes me sad," says a very small Hispanic girl who has been absorbing every detail of this visit. So I address her, "But maybe if the baby comes here again, it will be your beanie baby that makes it feel better!" A smile bursts through her dimples and she swings her braided head around to look at her classmates, her ponytail decorations clacking.

I show them where the emergency helicopters land (one puts on a show as it departs), and we go to the family resource center to look at displays of sugar in food and to touch the fake five-pounds-of-fat. They wonder aloud whether they should eat the chips and cookies they've brought for their lunch.

With that, the teacher retrieves their lunches -- carefully labeled paper sacks and a spare package of cookies and fruit juices -- while I seat the children at a large cafeteria table directly in front of the plywood floor Los Cenzontles have set up.

The band strikes up, the tumble of stringed percussion and melody I love so much, and the two female dancers smile at their young audience, encouraging them to dance. Several kids jump up without hesitation. One little girl looks at me for permission, and I nod, but she can't take her eyes off the dancers and the big guitarron. They shout and squeal when the players bring out the quijada, a donkey jaw bone used for percussion. Finally, the shy one gets up and dances til she throws back her headful of braids. I chuckle, imagining how the kids will describe this visit: the miniature footprint and the giant ass's jaw, the helicopter and the fake fat.

My answer arrives a week later in a manila envelope filled with hand-written letters.

Dear Mrs. Martinez, My name is Keith. I'm one of the class mates. Thank you for letting us watch the concert. The footprint was so cool that it changed my life. Thank you very, very much. Love, Keith

Dear Miss Martinez, Thank you for giving us an opportunity to learn about life. I've been to the Children's Hospital before because my Antie accidently dropped her hammer on my head. Now I have a lump in my head and I was only one year old. I will never forget that day. We went on another field trip to the Oakland Zoo and we all had fun. Love, Caiyante

Dear Mrs. Martinez,
My name is Viridiana and I am in Room #7. I enjoyed seeing the little diaper and feet print. Thank you for taking us on the tour and showing us the building of the helicopter and the pad. We hope you like the Beanie Babies. Thank you for letting us go to Children's Hospital. And I liked dancing with the Mexican band in the cafeteria because I'm Mexican. I hope we come back soon. Love, Viridiana

Dear Mrs. Martinez,
I liked the tour because it was pretty important. I liked the beanie babies. Oh, and I forgot to tell you. I'm Mexican. I hope you speak Spanish. I have pride for what I've done. I can never believe every thing I've done. I'm just so happy, I can Never forget. Did you know I play baseball? Love, Patty

--Susan Martinez

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