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Center Sets Tone to Teach Musical Heritage

Oxnard: Free performing-arts classes provide cultural training and a sense of pride for the program's mostly Latino students.

July 08, 2002|SUZIE ST. JOHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For the last three years, Jahaira Rodriguez has been taking acting, singing, dancing and violin lessons five days a week.

With a schedule like that, one would guess that she has her sights set on Hollywood.

Guess again.

For the 14-year-old west Ventura girl, it's not about the future but more about the past--her Mexican heritage and culture.

The classes, offered year-round at the Inlakech Cultural Arts Center in Oxnard, focus on the cultural arts of Mexico, including mariachi music and folklorico dancing. Also offered are advanced guitar, Aztec dance and classical ballet. Nearly 125 students take classes in an average week.

"I take the classes because they are a lot of fun, but also because it's part of our culture," said Jahaira, who will be a sophomore at Ventura High School this fall. "We get to learn more about it than we do in school."

Four Rodriguez children are taking classes at Inlakech.

Jahaira and Nereida, 7, are enrolled in the same four classes, while brother Jadiel, 13, takes trumpet, acting and dancing, and sister Naneli, 5, focuses on singing and acting. Two-year-old Sarai is too young for formal classes but likes to sing with her sisters.

"We don't mind coming every day," Jahaira said. "For us it's like having another family at the center."

That kind of sentiment is what Inlakech's founder and artistic director, Javier Gomez, had in mind when he and his wife, Irene, started the center in 1993.

The center grew out of Teatro Inlakech, a professional bilingual theater company founded in 1976 by Gomez. The group's mission is to perform Chicano/Latino plays depicting Latino life throughout Ventura County.

Inlakech is a Mayan term meaning "you are my other self."

Gomez said the idea for the cultural arts center stemmed from a need for additional talent for his Teatro Inlakech productions.

"The best way to accomplish that was to have a training ground to draw from," Gomez said. "The center provides an option for parents wanting to harness the energy exhibited by children and give them something positive to do.

"I look at our center as a form of prevention. All kids are at risk, and the center is a neutral base where they can enjoy each other and develop friendships and tear down the walls of division."

He said the majority of the center's students live in La Colonia, other parts of Oxnard and Ventura. Although most students are Latino, the classes are open to anyone, Gomez said.

Martha Hernandez, an administrator for the Oxnard Elementary School District, said she has known many students in the program.

"We see the cultural center as a treasure in our community," she said.

"At Inlakech, students learn about culture, and it helps their self-esteem and helps them feel good about themselves."

One of the greatest attractions of the program, Gomez said, is that all the classes are free for everyone.

His motivation for providing the classes free stems from his being the oldest of 15 children. He and his siblings could never afford outside activities, Gomez said, so when this program was started, he insisted that no price tag be attached.

"Part of the beauty of our program is that it's not just for children," said Gomez, 52. "We have a lot of adults who didn't get to do things as kids, and they still have that desire to learn."

Gomez spends his evenings teaching at the center and by day is a math instructor at Haydock Intermediate School in Oxnard.

"That's where I get to rest," said Gomez, who is starting his 30th year as an educator. "It's so relaxing for me to teach."

He tries to impart his love of teaching to not only his students, but also the instructors--who volunteer their time at Inlakech.

The staff ranges from the Gomezes' daughter Xochitl, 28, who teaches advanced folklorico dance, to Salvador Bravo, 77, who teaches guitar.

"They have the same passion I have to help out our children," Gomez said.

"I could never repay them for the time and knowledge they've given over the years."

One of the ways the center pays for itself is through fund-raising performances. Several of these concerts are held throughout the year.

The money raised not only helps operate the two-room center at 937 W. 5th St., but also helps send students to specialized workshops such as the annual mariachi festival in San Jose.

Inlakech is sending 21 students and nine parents this month.

For five days, students will receive intensive instruction in mariachi music and dance, culminating in a grand finale featuring the approximately 300 participants.

Gomez said he is just glad the community supports the center, allowing the kids to attend special events.

"It's all about the power of self-discovery and being able to become better than what they were," Gomez said.

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