A cultural bridge to artistic and high-tech success – The Seattle Times | Candle Made Easy

Shahbaz Yusuf grew up speaking Spanish, listening to Mexican music and eating Mexican food at his grandparents’ house. Yusuf’s Mexican roots have long been a trusted way to make connections and build a strong future. For him, “consciously engaging with your community and culture helps to keep that culture active,” he says.

So in 2019, during his freshman year at Centro Cultural Mexicano in Eastside, Yusuf began volunteering, starting with a Cinco de Mayo festival. Today he is the organization’s outreach coordinator, a paid summer intern, and a senior at Western Washington University.

Yusuf is excited that a new bridge of art and culture for the next generation will be built this fall. Centro Cultural Mexicano’s new innovation lab will appeal to high school students with free access to high-tech tools: 3D printers, LEGO Mindstorm robots, a textile printer, laser cutters and graphic design software. “It will connect the community to their traditions as they learn to use industry standard CAD software,” Yusuf says while building marketable skills. For example, traditional patterns and artwork can be 3D printed or printed with a laser cutter.

It fulfills a stated need. A 2021 national survey by the After School Alliance found that Latino children in afterschool programs fell from 3.8 million in 2014 to fewer than 2.3 million in 2021. The same study found that 80% of Latino parents felt that after-school programs help children develop interest and skills related to science, technology, engineering, and math. A similar percentage think the programs help young people build life skills and keep children safe.

The Innovation Lab offers tools and equipment that many Latinos and low-income youth do not have access to on their own. Yusuf has seen the difference access can make. Some of Yusuf’s friends went into engineering after using LEGO Mindstorms and 3D printers in high school. “For teenagers, robotics makes their brains work,” he explains. “If you can build a robot that can fight, what else is possible?”

“As we generate more interest in STEM subjects in our community and open this tech door, we will put more children on the path to generational wealth. More will be interested, get creative with technology, and say, ‘Maybe I want to be an engineer,'” says Yusuf. And although the center’s original founders were Mexican, the lab’s doors are open to the wider community as well.

Outreach after the pandemic

The Innovation Lab is located next to the main Centro Cultural Mexicano operations, where services, support and showrooms are offered. Upcoming workshop plans include projects involving wood, embroidery, electronics, and digital and traditional art. The area offers comfortable sofas, snacks and computers for after-school homework. Art supplies will also be available.

The hope? Free materials, access and mentoring, using culture as a channel, will encourage participation of Latin American youth in arts and technology-oriented activities.

Local tech workers also offer volunteer expertise and mentoring, says Angie Hinojos, executive director of Centro Cultural Mexicano. A local Latino engineer offered to come and teach the kids how to make a digital drawing and then use a laser cutter and 3D printer to produce the design.

“When our youth see someone from the same community doing amazing things, they start thinking, ‘How did he or she do that? Which way did they take? And they think maybe I can do it too,” she says. “We want to normalize all possible opportunities for our youth. You need to know that Latinos can do any type of job and pursue their passion. We have a lot of stories,” she says.

Success through culture

An advisory group of eight youth, four paid high school/college interns, and community surveys helped guide and shape offerings. The Centro Cultural Mexicano also builds on previous successes. Bilingual programs attract families from King and Snohomish counties and include talks about culture, sharing local food, live Mexican music and hands-on art classes like making musical instruments out of pumpkins.

This fall, Carlos Jimenez will launch a mariachi program that will offer at least 25 children the opportunity to access and play instruments that are otherwise difficult to learn — violins, trumpets, harps, a unique little guitar called a vihuela, and an oversized one Guitar known as the A guitarron.

“Kids will be able to learn songs they’ve heard at weddings and parties, songs that have a deep resonance, and then share them with the community through performances,” says Hinojos.

At Chief Sealth High School, where Jimenez created a mariachi program in the past, cultural programs resulted in higher graduation rates and greater parental involvement for Latino students, he says. Years later, students still approach Jimenez. “One student I knew went to community college, but I saw him again last year and he was just graduating from law school,” Jimenez said, attributing his success to mariachi classes.

Other cultural programs reflect similar successes—at one high school in Wenatchee, a mariachi program achieves 100% graduation rates among participants.

Blending art, technology, and culture—these first tools will excite students and inspire them to greater heights. Hinojos notes that the organization also helps support small businesses across the region — maybe a youngster can come up with innovative designs that could be in demand. “We create the leaders and entrepreneurs of tomorrow. You are only limited by your imagination.”

Centro Cultural Mexicana focuses on empowering the Latino community through arts and culture. We strive to inspire the inclusive participation of its members in all aspects of education, culture and society in order to continue working for a positive future.

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