Shahbaz Yusuf grew up hearing Spanish language, listening to Mexican music and eating Mexican food at a grandparent’s house. Yusuf’s Mexican roots have long been a familiar way of creating connections and building a strong future. For him, “intentionally engaging with your community and culture helps actively maintain that culture,” he says.

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

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

It’s meeting a stated need. One national 2021 survey by After School Alliance found that Latino children in after-school programs declined from 3.8 million in 2014 to less than 2.3 million in 2021. The same study found that 80% of Latino parents felt after-school programs help children gain interest and skills related to science, technology, engineering and math. A similar percentage feel the programs help young people build life skills and keep kids safe.

The Innovation Lab offers tools and equipment that many Latino and low-income youth can’t access on their own. Yusuf’s seen the difference access can make. Several of Yusuf’s friends went into engineering after using LEGO Mindstorms and 3D printers while in high school. “For teens, robotics gets your brain working,” he explains. “If you can build a robot that can fight, what else is possible?”

“If we get more in our community interested in STEM topics and open that engineering door, we’ll put more kids on a path of generational wealth. More will get interested, engage creatively with technology, say, ‘Maybe I do want to be an engineer,’ ” Yusuf says. And while the center’s original founders were Mexican American, the lab’s doors are also open to the broader community.

Post-pandemic outreach

The Innovation Lab is adjacent to Centro Cultural Mexicano’s main operations, where services, support and exhibit spaces are provided. Upcoming workshop plans include projects with wood, embroidery, electronics and digital and traditional art. The area will offer comfortable sofas, snacks and computers for homework after school. Art supplies will also be on hand.

The hope? Free materials, access and mentoring using culture as a conduit will encourage Latino youth involvement in artistic and technology-focused activities.

Local technology workers are also offering to volunteer expertise and mentoring, says Centro Cultural Mexicano’s executive director Angie Hinojos. A local Latino engineer offered to come and teach the kids how to create a digital drawing, then implement the design using a laser cutter and 3D printer.

“When our youth see someone from the same community doing amazing things, they start thinking, “‘How did he or she do that? What path did they take? And they think, maybe I can do it too,'” she says. “We want to normalize all kinds of opportunities for our youth. They need to know that Latinos do every type of work and can follow their passion. We have many stories,” she says. 

Culture-infused success

An advisory group of eight youth, four paid high school/college interns and community surveys have helped guide and co-create offerings. Centro Cultural Mexicano is also drawing on previous successes. Bilingual programs attract families from King and Snohomish counties and include conversing on culture, sharing regional foods, live Mexican music, and hands-on art lessons such as making musical instruments out of gourds.

This fall, Carlos Jimenez will start a mariachi program offering at least 25 children the opportunity to access and play instruments that can be challenging to learn otherwise — violins, trumpets, harps, a unique small guitar called a vihuela and a supersized guitar known as a guitarrón.

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

At Chief Sealth High School, where Jimenez started a mariachi program in the past, he says that cultural programs produced higher graduation rates and an increase in parental involvementfor Latino students. Years later, students still approach Jimenez. “One student I knew went to community college, but last year I saw him again, and he was graduating from law school,” and attributed his success to the Mariachi classes, Jimenez said.  

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

Mixing art, technology and culture — these initial tools will engage students and inspire greater heights. Hinojos notes that the organization also helps support small businesses throughout the region — potentially, a youth may well create innovative designs that could be in demand. “We’re creating the leaders and entrepreneurs of tomorrow. They’re only limited by their imagination.”

Centro Cultural Mexicano is focused on the empowerment of the Latino community through art and culture. We strive to inspire inclusive participation of its members in all aspects of education, culture and society to continue building toward a positive future.