August 23, 1995
by Yolanda Reynolds
A “peña,” the name used in Spanish speaking countries for a gathering of friends to share music, discuss important issues or share literary works, is happening in Sunnyvale. It is organized and promoted by the talented Sunnyvale couple Victor Hugo Santos and his wife Leticia Elicea. It is a happening of great pleasure and an inspiration to those who have had the privilege to attend the monthly event. These happenings go by the name of Juchit lreta. The words “Juchit Ireta” are from the Purhépecha people of the state of Michoacan where Leticia is from and means “mi pueblo.”
The peñas are now held at the Columbia Middle School in Sunnyvale.
What makes these gatherings so special is the artistic ability of the guest performers, be they poets, singers, instrumentalists or percussionists. The creative expression of the artists in their performances reveal the rich tradition and varied experiences of people from distinct regions of the Americas.
Leticia says, “what we are doing with the peña is to help people become aware of the full range of what our culture embodies.” “Some people,” she says “do their part in business, presenting food etc.” “What we are trying to do is to present another part of the culture, music, dance, and poetry which are also very important – it gives people options in enjoying their roots and traditions.”
Victor explains that there are different types of music, “Some music, such as commercial music, has the purpose of making money and whatever sells that music is acceptable, regardless of the message or the way it is presented. We on the other hand, present music and experience that promotes brotherhood and unity and that has its origins in the folk traditions of the Americas.” Unity is promoted, he says, in the universal appeal of music.
Since the performances include music or poetry that are important to the people and their personal experiences, political themes and incidents are often part of the repertoire presented. For the listener, the anguish and terror becomes real and not simply a flashing image on a TV screen. Art, music, and poetry that can change the course of history.
Victor explains that his and Leticia’s plans are to establish a permanent site for the Juchit lreta, where people can come together and express their creative talents. They are very thankful for the use of the nearby schools, which became available to them when the Superintendent of the Sunnyvale schools came to an early peña held in the backyard of the Santos residence in Sunnyvale. Though cozy in the yard the gatherings posed problems from lack of sufficient space and the peñas then went to the Bishop Elementary School, which the peña soon outgrew, and now occurs in the multi-media room at Columbia Middle school.
Besides obtaining dedicated site for the peñas. Santos and Elicea are also concerned to secure for immigrants and their children and others a place where they can experience the rich gifts that their native culture has to offer. Santos explains that it is especially important of the children of immigrants to enhance their experience in this country with the richness of the cultural beauty and experience of their ancestral homeland. At the peñas there have been performers from almost every Latin American country, including Caribbean nations.
Leticia adds that, for many immigrants it is particularly important to accommodate a spiritual and emotional balance in their lives. Many immigrants who, in their homeland had very good jobs and are well educated, find themselves working long hours in poorly paid and dull jobs in this country. At one time, Leticia and Victor cleaned houses for a living. They are now employed in the world of high technology. For them, music and poetry is a great release and source of spiritual nourishment and an opportunity they want to share with others.
With few exceptions, this writer has attended every peña. It is remarkable to feel the joy and emotion, not only on the part of the performers but also how that job and emotion is expressed in the enthusiasm and attention from the audience – it is contagious and exhilarating. It is not unusual for members of the audience to spontaneously begin to clap in rhythm with the music, join in the singing or even leave their seat to dance in the aisles. Other times there is hardly a dry eye after a song or a poem.
At the last peña, the audience was privileged to hear a very talented Peruvian composer, singer and guitarist, Homero Oyarce, now living in the Bay Area. Victor likes to point out that, “we have performers that are as talented as any you might hear on the radio or see on television.” Homero is definitely superior to many popular performers. Oyarce sings and phrases the lyrics in such a way that an old song sounds totally new and the words in the lyrics take on new significance. When he performs, the audience keeps clapping vigorously and begging ¡Otra! ¡0tra! He always pleases the audience with more songs. His own compositions are especially beautiful and meaningful.
What is even more amazing is that such a magical evening can be enjoyed for a small entrance fee of $5. Santos explains, “Leticia and I do not get a penny. The money goes to pay the artists for performing.” Santos, himself a formally trained musician and performing artist from Mexico City and who has lived in the United States for the last nine years says, too often artists are taken for granted. “Many people do not realize the years of study and practice it takes to become a good performing or creative artist,” he explains.
Santos is a graduate of the Conservatorio Musical, a school sponsored by the world renowned lnstituto de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. Leticia was an actress, performing not only on stage but in movies, before marrying Victor. They have been married for 16 years and have three children, ages Deyanira-13, Victor-7 and Eilyn-3.
Leticia and Victor both say that music brings their family all together. They hope that music will take children away from hours of television. Their oldest child, Deyanira, helps them with the peñas. The two oldest are also learning to play instruments and are now learning to play drums. The youngest likes to dance and is working on that.
Victor and Leticia, both of whom were totally involved in the arts in Mexico, say that they are doing what they can to promote the arts in their own Sunnyvale neighborhood. Santos says that many in their school community are Spanish speaking and form the core of the audience at the peñas, however the audience is growing to include regulars from all over the Bay Area.
Though organizing the peñas is time consuming, Santos says he is doing here what he did very successfully in Mexico City, he says, I am experienced and know how to organize and promote programs.” Santos and Elicea hope that with the help of the community, their dreams of a dedicated performing arts center, preferably in Sunnyvale, will soon be a reality. They would like to name it “Centro Cultural Juchit Ireta.”
Santos gives music lessons at his home in Sunnyvale. Leticia offers closes in traditional stitchery and is beginning a dramatic arts educational program so that young Latino children will have the opportunity to be leading stars in stage productions. Victor uses the classical guitar technique in his instruction of the guitar while concentrating on Indo American musical tradition.
There is no doubt that Victor and Leticia have already made a difference. Their enthusiasm, energy and most of all their knowledge and talent are treasures for the community.
The peñas are generally scheduled for the first Saturday of each month unless it is a holiday weekend. The Columbia Middle School is located at 739 Morse of Fair Oaks Ave, and Maude in Sunnyvale.
The next pena will be held on September 9 “Celebrando la Independencia de Mexico” at 7p.m. at Columbia School. For more information on the peñas Juchit Ireta, or classes contact may be made at (408) 732-7829. © La Oferta Newspaper.