Their little guitars all should have stickers that read, "This jarana saves drop outs."

Los Lobos guitarist Louie Perez joked in the auditorium of L.A.'s Frida Kahlo High School that he's always wanted a sticker like Woody Guthrie's "This Machine Kills Fascists."

The jarana is a ukele-sized guitar that's the heartbeat of music from Veracruz and the Mexican version of "La Bamba."

Perez was at Kahlo High to talk to an assembly of about 200 students. The teens in the first row seemed to hang on his every word. They're students in Cesar Castro's jarana class. Castro's a legend in his own right. He learned from old school son-jarocho players in Veracruz 15 years ago and toured with the Mono Blanco group in Europe and the U.S. He planted his jarocho flag in L.A. to work with the East L.A. band Quetzal and has since formed his own groups. Many of the guitars played by a lot of L.A. Chicanos who've taken up son jarocho were hand made by Castro.

The philosophy of Kahlo High is to identify and nurture what excites students and use that to open up the universe of learning. For years, 17 year-old Moises Martinez's world was the gang life in the nearby Primera Flats neighborhood. He thanks his Jefita, his mother, for putting him in this school after a four-month lock up in juvenile hall. On campus he developed an addiction to the jarana's ability to express his emotions. "In order to be in the music program you've got to do good in school, you have to have good grades. You can't be tardy, you can't be absent, and that's what I've been doing. And that's why I'm here playing today."

The jarana does the same thing for 11th grader Daisy Sanchez. "I feel free when I play."


So what's the value of bringing Louie Perez to campus? In the Q&A students asked Perez how much money he makes, what inspires his lyrics, and why his band recorded "La Bamba" - nearly 25 years ago - a song that put Los Lobos on top of the charts several years before the students were born. Teacher Cesar Castro said it's about exposing the students to a veterano, an elder who's a role model. The school is surrounded by early 20th century homes, apartment buildings, sweatshops and other manufacturing businesses in old brick buildings. Perez says that's not unlike his East L.A. neighborhood 40 years ago.

Was this assembly a moment like the meeting of a young Joni Mitchell and an aging Charles Mingus, Frank Zappa going to a Ritchie Valens show, or a young Miles Davis playing with Charlie Parker? Or is it about teenagers painfully searching for a positive connection, not finding it in school or on TV, then finding it, and going on to lead a normal, quiet, middle class life?

I'm not really sure. You kind of have to keep listening to the strumming to find out.

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