Ethnic Roots Give Youths Solid Anchor : * Luis Ruan, Others Help Keep Kids Out of Trouble by Teaching Them Latin Music


For a nation of immigrants, the question of how to maintain ties to native cultures has always been important.

Language skills often deteriorate as the newcomers struggle to master English. Children born here often do not know their parents’ native language at all; dances, stories, music from the old country can embarrass the youngsters more than enlighten them.

But as teenagers become adults, they often realize that links to the past are important. They can help explain why we are who we are, and provide an anchor of stability in a chaotic world.


Luis Ruan decided that teaching youngsters in Santa Ana how to play South American music could help show them their roots and give them something other than gangs to identify with. So far his concept appears to be working.

A former probation officer, Ruan said he grew tired of watching children drift into petty crimes and often into more serious offenses. He said many youngsters saw gangs as a way of life. His alternative was to offer them a culture many had forgotten.

Ruan enlisted a friend, Hernan Pinilla, to teach the class at Santa Ana Valley High. Students learn to play straw flutes, fur-covered drums and traditional guitars, celebrating ancient art forms. Pinilla’s own band plays music based on ancient Andean rhythms. The band is called Huayucaltia, an Aztec word meaning unity and brotherhood.

Pinilla tries to teach lessons that are as valuable as learning a musical instrument. The players have to stay together, practice teamwork. No solos. “You have to have a dialogue,” he said. “One instrument speaks to another. Only if we communicate can we solve our problems.”

One of the students, a 20-year-old who came to this country on his own five years ago from his native El Salvador, said the people he grew up with were largely unaware of their heritage. Gangs were a constant lure, but he said the culture helped him increase his self-respect, which he needs in order to stay out of trouble.

The classes began about a year ago, and about two dozen students now take part. The lessons are a worthwhile effort to help people connect with their past and stay out of trouble.