San Antonio’s Conjunto Heritage Taller and El Tallercito de Son, like all arts organizations, are scrambling to adapt in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. 

For these organizations and the communities they serve, it has always been an uphill battle to preserve and make space for the cultural artistic practices they teach and champion. The shutdown has complicated things considerably. 

Armed with their belief in the potency of the cultural arts they deal in, as well as a devotion to the people they serve, each organization is, in its own way, making the best of a tough situation and looking, in the process, to create new outreach and education models that may benefit them in the future.

Adela Flores, executive director of the Conjunto Heritage Taller, said that the organization had to suspend the five classes a week that it typically runs, in addition to canceling a number of live performances, many of which were booked as a part of now postponed Fiesta events.

As a result, the organization, dedicated to preserving, promoting, and teaching conjunto music, has lost income it relies on. Flores also reports that some of the grants that help the Taller operate have been discontinued.

Nevertheless, the Taller is finding ways to keep its five instructors on the payroll, in part by accessing public and private COVID-19 relief funding.

Flores said that providing full, structured online classes to its students is the goal the organization is currently working toward. But first the Taller must train instructors unfamiliar with the technology. 

After all, no amount of experience with the accordion or bajo sexto, the principal instruments of conjunto, can prepare one for the technical tribulations of online instruction. Social distancing, Flores pointed out, makes it particularly hard to train instructors on the technology, which is new to them.

Emiliano, a fourteen year old student at the Conjunto Heritage Taller, who has been a student since age five, teaching his mom accordion as a way to pass the time and keep himself sharp.

Aaron Salinas, 27, began his musical training at the Taller when he was 9 years old. Since returning from college a little over two years ago, he has been working at the Taller as an assistant instructor and is a big part of facilitating a new model for instruction.

He estimates that the organization is about a month and a half away from being able to offer online classes. In the meantime, the Taller has taken to posting previously recorded performances to social media in an effort to stay connected to the community.

“The plan we are currently executing has been on the back burner for a while,” Salinas said. Since he started working with the Taller, Salinas said that he has been working on ways to reach more people, including building more of a social media presence and, eventually, offering online classes.

The COVID-19 shutdown has “forced us to start implementing the plans now,” he said. The goal is to offer not only live online courses but also to package curriculum into self-paced courses that people can work through on their own.

“We have all the ideas and are working on the logistics,” he said, “but we have to put all the pieces together to make it happen, which is a challenge.”

He’s excited, however, about the possibilities.

“The best part of doing classes this way is that people can take them from anywhere, from all over the world,” he said. He also noted that people who have issues with mobility or transportation will be served well by the online offerings.

“We have to make sure [conjunto music] doesn’t die out or get forgotten,” he said.

“This is the folk music of the San Antonio region. Everyone talks about San Antonio being this blend of cultures, and conjunto embodies that because it is based in European and indigenous Mexican traditions.”

Flores echoed Salinas’ sentiments about the preservation of cultural identity and also said she feels that, now more than ever, “it is important to provide the community with as much of this music as possible to keep their spirits up.”

Keli Rosa Cabunoc Romero, who runs El Tallercito de Son, which works “to create community through cultura” via the teaching of son jarocho music and dance, is already busy teaching online courses herself.

Romero said that she had “already been working hard to create transnational communities with communities in Southern Veracruz, Mexico,” where son jarocho music, a blend of Spanish, indigenous, and African styles, originated.

Now, instead of students and instructors traveling back and forth, she sees online classes and meetups as a safe and effective alternative.

This year, Romero said, was supposed to be a landmark year for El Tallercito de Son, as the organization turned five years old.

Instead, she said, “all cultural events, concerts, and workshops came to an abrupt halt, and that means there was no income” for the son jarocho performers and instructors that she works with, locally and throughout Mexico.

“For some of them [participating in Tallercito classes and performances] is the only time they find refuge and solace during these insane political times,” she said.

She realized that the best way to support her community here and in Mexico was through virtual courses and workshops, or talleres virtuales.

Shortly after the shutdown began, Romero and a few others, including Joel Cruz Castellanos, a member of the Grammy-nominated son jarocho group Los Cojolites, dove into online instruction.

To date, Romero reports that the online sessions, offered every Tuesday for five weeks running, have been well-attended, including by people from as far away as Washington D.C., New York, and Los Angeles.

What began in a bit of a rush has blossomed into something that Romero and others that work with the organization are getting comfortable with and increasingly excited about. 

Romero has now started offering other classes, including baile folklorico, for both children and adults. All offerings are free, and a consistently updated schedule of events can be found on El Tallercito de Son’s Facebook page.

Romero, who wrote her master’s thesis on the power of son jarocho music and traditions to create community, believes that adapting quickly in this time of crisis is an absolute must.

“Our students already didn’t have access to cultural programming, and the few that did, have completely lost it because of these times in which we find ourselves,” said Romero. “Parents are scrambling to find cultural programming, something to connect them to their cultura during these dark days. I couldn’t stand it. I had to do something.”

James Courtney

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.