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Take Three | PATT MORRISON

Music of the Hemispheres

June 20, 1997|PATT MORRISON

Two words of explanation frame this tale of L.A.: Danny Santiago.

If that seems like no explanation, perhaps you do not remember the buzz. In 1983, a first novel called "Famous All Over Town" appeared, to enormous acclaim for its young author, Danny Santiago, and literary honors for its verite telling of life in East L.A.

Then it emerged that Danny Santiago, new Latino voice, was one Daniel Lewis James. An old man, a Yale man, a white man.

The buzz changed. It was no longer about the book, for the book was no longer a book but a lightning rod. The buzz was about the writer. Who was he to pretend to know this place and tell a Chicano story. To steal us from us.

Daniel James wrote "The Great Dictator" with Charles Chaplin. He had also been a Communist. After his name appeared on the blacklists of the 1950s, he worked for a time in B movies, and then not at all.

His novel posed new "are you now or have you ever been" questions to a post-melting-pot age: Are truths only as authentic as the person who speaks them? Who owns the rights to a culture?

*

At a Mexican restaurant in the Eastlos that Daniel James had lived and worked in, the Garfield High and Griffith Middle School mariachi programs were ending the year with an awards dinner.

They had as good a time as they could, considering. Their revered mariachi teacher was taking his leave: of the schools, of Los Angeles, and of them.

The teacher is a PhD in ethnomusicology, a Fulbright scholar, a master of the Greek bouzouki, of the mariachi guitarron. His name is David Kilpatrick.

On his first school day some years back, one of the Martinez triplets, Isaac, sent a friend for a look at the new music teacher. There was nobody there, the friend reported, then he looked again and realized: he's white.

*

Before David Kilpatrick, the Martinez triplets--Alan, Isaac, Gaston--spoke almost no Spanish, to their parents' sorrow. They played Schumann and Chopin and listened to rock 'n' roll. Now, in the Martinez living room, the old canciones can be heard more often than the classics.

Before Kilpatrick, Severo Lopez grooved on underground music. He might listen to his mother, Gloria, and he might not. Then, Kilpatrick taught him that there are no true mariachis who are not also caballeros, ladies and gentlemen.

A year into Severo's mariachi class, his mother, Gloria, looked at him and asked, "Where did you hide my son?" Who is this boy who shakes hands, holds doors open, offers his chair? "I made a big U-turn," Severo says; mariachi made him more responsible, more mature. More the caballero.

Why, then, is Kilpatrick leaving?

One, because music and art are still back-of-the-bus curriculum. Schedule too crowded? Drop art. Budget too sparse? Cut music. It is an economy of folly. Math, reading, science--with those, a kid can find work. But music and art--with those, a kid can dream.

Two, because any profession, medicine to auto mechanics, is a hive of loyalties and grudges, stars and second-raters, implacable foes and undying friends.

And in this hive, Kilpatrick has come to believe that the politics of both skin color and academics are hurting his students just because they are his students. He says his accomplished young musicians have been snubbed at major mariachi events. Sometimes they are not called onstage afterward, not thanked, not applauded. Sometimes they are not invited at all.

Maybe it was a mistake, he would tell them. Don't jump to conclusions. But on the drive back from one such event, Carlos Martinez saw his 14-year-old sons as close to tears as he had in a long time. "Adults," he says severely, "shouldn't take out their own jealousy and problems on the kids."

Rosa Ramirez, ex-Kilpatrick student, vihuela player in Mariachi Orgullo: "When he doesn't do things the way they want, they use against him the fact he's white. That's what bothered him. [He'd say] 'If people have a problem with me, it doesn't matter, but don't take it out on the students.' "

Angelica Arellano, ex-Kilpatrick student, future teacher: "Mariachi music is supposed to be breaking down all these barriers. . . . We're supposed to be teaching each other not to be racist, and here they are"--Kilpatrick's detractors--"doing the reverse."

Before she found mariachi, Arellano studied classical music. No one insisted she had to be German to play Beethoven.

*

Kilpatrick leaves a Garfield High that has graduated sports heroes like Oscar de la Hoya, and scholars like Jaime Escalante's calculus whiz kids. De la Hoya fought for a gold medal in boxing. Escalante's students fought for fantastic test scores, and then had to fight again for their good names. Their scores were suspect because they were so good, a code word for so "white."

Brown kids make white test scores; a white man makes brown music. Who, in conscience, can praise one without honoring the other?

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