Senderos is probably best known for its lively dance performances celebrating Latino culture at festivals around Santa Cruz County. But the group’s primary mission is revealed in its name, which means “pathways.”
“The main goal is education,” says Fe Silva-Robles, a native Oaxacan who founded the organization with her sister, Nereida Robles, in 2001. While working as a middle school teacher, parents asked her for advice on steering their kids in a positive direction. She knew that an after-school program was the solution, but swim lessons and other activities were too expensive for families struggling to pay rent and buy groceries. As a lifelong Oaxacan dancer, she decided to offer free dance classes, and soon after, parents began raising funds to purchase what would become the colorful Oaxacan garments Senderos is known for.
Silva-Robles believes dance and music classes go hand in hand with academic success. “When you are not connected with your culture, you are more vulnerable to different things,” she says. “We were seeing how the students were distracted by sickness in the community.”
Last year, Senderos awarded five college scholarships, and they are creating a college-going culture that benefits not only the students in the program, but also those around them as well. “If these kids are healthy, that health is going to spread in the community,” Silva-Robles says.
This is the second year that Senderos has been selected to participate in Santa Cruz Gives. Senderos offers dance, music and tutoring programs that are held in a family-centered environment in partnership with Santa Cruz City Schools, and they welcome all. Rosy Tapia, a grandmother who has two granddaughters enrolled in the program, is learning dance and music as well. “One thing I love is they show respect to everybody. I feel really comfortable with everybody,” Tapia says.
Kristen Silva, Silva-Robles’ daughter, has participated in the program since she was seven years old. Now she helps lead it. After attending Santa Cruz Schools from K-12, Silva returned to her alma mater, Harbor High School, where she now teaches math to newcomers. “I think that’s really the core of our organization, that we’re not afraid to showcase the aspects of our culture that aren’t really highlighted in the news. And we’re also trying to shape these people and these students into the citizens who can contribute to our community,” Silva says.
“One thing I think is so beautiful about this program is the intergenerational unity,” says Carolyn Coleman, Senderos Board Treasurer. Parents take pride in seeing their children connecting with their heritage, and kids feel stronger about their cultural identity in the face of racism.
“My granddaughter was getting bullied two years ago,” Tapia says. “She started to feel depressed and didn’t want to go to school, but when she started here she started to be more comfortable. She didn’t put attention to them. Now she feels more powerful,” she says.
Santa Cruz Gives donations from last year went toward building the musical instrument lending library, Coleman says. This year, they plan to use funds to continue building the library as well as purchase dance outfits. The all-volunteer organization includes musicians who are able to repair brass and reed instruments that may be sitting around in someone’s garage.
Senderos started the Latino Role Models conference, held in collaboration with Cabrillo College and UCSC, and partners with the MAH to bring an authentic Dia de los Muertos festival to Santa Cruz. The organization relies on grants from the Arts Council and the Community Foundation, as well as their annual festival and fundraiser in May, Vive Oaxaca Guelaguetza, which will be held for the first time this year in the benchlands area of San Lorenzo Park.
The group’s annual winter performance, Winter in Mexico, is this weekend, showcasing dances from 14 states of Mexico.
“Guanajuato is the highlight performance this year,” Silva-Robles says. “We are very lucky to have a professor from Guanajuato who has been teaching us dances from there for two months. We have the story, the knowledge of the culture, and the kids are very excited about it.”
‘Winter in Mexico’ is at 7 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 1, and Saturday, Dec. 2, at Harbor High School Theater, 300 La Fonda Ave., Santa Cruz. $10, $5 students & seniors. 854-7740. To donate to any of the 33 nonprofits participating in Santa Cruz Gives, visit santacruzgives.org through Monday, Dec. 31.