Camino Chronicles Arts Series: a Celebration of Mexican and Latin American Music Influenced by California History

Historically, the Camino Real connected Spanish missions along the state of California. Image by Chandler O’Leary.

How can music reframe the story of the ancient road we know as El Camino Real?

Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz and the folk Americana band the Ronstadt Brothers will celebrate California history through their music on October 1-3, during a weekend of activities presented by San José State University’s College of Humanities and the Arts, The Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies, TomKat MeDiA, CaminoArts and Symphony Silicon Valley (SSV). The Ronstadt Brothers will also offer a moderated conversation on the business of music.

“CaminoArts celebrates the folk and classical music of Mexico and Latin America through an excavation of El Camino Real, the historical indigenous trade route used by the Spanish to colonize Mexico and what is now the U.S. Southwest and South America,” said Marcela Davison Aviles, managing partner and executive producer at TomKat MeDiA, a production company founded by Tom Steyer and Kat Taylor to inspire creativity for the common good.

“We brought this idea to the Center for Steinbeck Studies as a way to catalyze writing a new fourth-grade curriculum about the history of El Camino Real.”

Gabriela Ortiz.

Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz.

Ortiz’s new composition, a concerto for flute and orchestra entitled “D’Colonial Californio,” will make its world premiere at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 2, with SSV at the California Theatre, and again at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 3.

Her work is a joint commission underwritten by the TomKat Foundation and presented in collaboration with TomKat MeDiA, SSV, CaminoArts and San José State as part of a broader initiative to examine California history through arts and education.

Admission to the Ronstadt performance is free. Tickets for the symphony performance are on sale through Symphony Silicon Valley.

“The stories and songs inspired by El Camino Real — the transcontinental pathway forged by Indigenous peoples and later colonized by the Spanish and other European powers — set the stage for the Camino Chronicle Arts series,” said Kat Taylor, founding director of the TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation (TKREF) and one of Camino Chronicles’ sponsors.

“We’re thrilled to illuminate the work of Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz, Mexican American singer/songwriters Peter and Michael G. Ronstadt, concert flutist Marisa Canales, the musicians of Symphony Silicon Valley under the baton of Maestra JoAnne Falleta, and project music director Benjamin Juarez Echenique,” she added.

“And we’re doubly delighted to thank San José State University and the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies for believing, as John Steinbeck did, in the unique power of harmony, dissonance, cadence and rhythm of diaspora and migration.”

The symphony will also perform “New World Symphony” by Antonín Dvořák, a piece that was especially meaningful to John Steinbeck, added Steinbeck Center Director and Assistant Professor of American Studies Daniel Rivers. Canales, who also is a co-founder of CaminoArts, will serve as soloist for both the Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon performances, under the direction of Grammy-winning conductor Maestra Falletta.

Ronstadt Brothers

The Ronstadt Brothers will be performing at the Hammer Theatre on Oct. 3. Image courtesy of Marcela Davison Avilas.

The Ronstadt Brothers will perform the world premiere of their new album “The Road,” commissioned by the Camino Chronicles Project and underwritten by the TomKat Foundation, at the Hammer Theatre at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 3. The event is free and open to the public.

“This full-length album from the Ronstadt Brothers centers on the theme of roads, migration and the existential experience of travel,” Rivers said.

Multi-instrumentalists Michael G. Rondstadt and Peter D. Rondstadt describe their music as a “new and fresh take on traditional Southwestern and Mexican folk songs” that carries forward the legacy of their aunt Linda and their father Michael.

“The curricular connections of the Camino Chronicles with the university are related to music, history, humanities and education,” said Shannon Miller, dean of the College of Humanities and the Arts.

“Ortiz’s work rethinks the identity of the El Camino around issues of migration, while the Ronstadt Brothers are composing work in the American folk music tradition while also exploring connections to their Mexican heritage and the Camino’s indigenous roots. This introduces a lot of interesting issues related to decolonizing the curriculum and the arts,” Miller added.

Visit the Symphony Silicon Valley to learn more about the Oct. 2 and 3 performances of Ortiz’s work.

Learn more about the Rondstadt Brothers’ performance and work with the Steinbeck Center.

Read about TomKat MeDia and CaminoArts.

Steinbeck Fellow Yalitza Ferreras Earns Rona Jaffe Award

Yalitza Ferreras wearing an orange top and smiling in front of some green hills.

Yalitza Ferreras is the fourth Steinbeck Fellow and seventh Spartan to receive the prestigious Rona Jaffe Award in recognition of her writing. Photo courtesy of Yalitza Ferreras.

On September 17, six woman writers were recognized with 2020 Rona Jaffe Awards by the New York-based Rona Jaffe Foundation. Among this year’s recipients is Yalitza Ferreras, a Dominican American fiction writer and recipient of the 2014-2015 Steinbeck Fellowship. Ferreras is the fourth Steinbeck Fellow and seventh Spartan to receive this award, joining Vanessa Hua, Gabriela Garcia and Dominica Phetteplace. Three other SJSU-affiliated writers have also received this recognition: Assistant Professor of English Selena Anderson, English Lecturer Aamina Ahmad, and former Lurie Visiting Writer ZZ Packer.

The prestigious honor awards $30,000 to emerging woman writers of exceptional promise and includes a reading at New York University. This year’s event was hosted online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ferreras read an excerpt of her novel-in-progress, The Four Roses, which follows Altagracia, a Dominican artist who immigrates to Spain in the 1990s to create art while struggling to survive.

“The characters I’m writing about are usually poor people, often people of color and very often women,” said Ferreras, whose work has been published in Kenyon Review, Bellevue Literary Review, The Southern Review, Aster(ix) Journal, and The Colorado Review. Her story “The Letician Age” was included in the 2016 Best American Short Stories, edited by Junot Diaz. “I like to explore everyday, quotidian situations—people trying to work and survive. There’s so much conflict in people’s lives as they go about their days and feed their families. I want readers to truly see my characters, to insert them into the stories that everyone is reading. That is very worthwhile to me.”

Born in New York and raised in both New York and the Dominican Republic, Ferreras identifies with the immigrant experience and sees fiction as an opportunity to “bear witness” to the daily triumphs and challenges of negotiating new places. The first in her family to attend college, Ferreras intended to pursue a career in law before discovering a fiction workshop as an undergraduate at Mills College. At the urging of her professor and 2010 MacArthur Genius Fellow Yiyun Li, Ferreras went on to earn an MFA in creative writing at the University of Michigan, where she worked on a short story collection and began writing her novel. She has since received fellowships from Djerassi Resident Artist program, Yaddo, Voices of Our Nations and the Tin House Writing Workshop. She describes San José State’s Steinbeck Fellowship as a turning point in her writing career, which was interrupted in 2011 when she suffered a brain injury in a car accident. The fellowship allowed her to visit Spain and the Dominican Republic, research trips for her novel. It also introduced her to a network of writers, fellows and alumni.

“The Steinbeck Fellowship was really timely for me; it allowed me to really begin working on the project in earnest,” said Ferreras, who has often supported herself as a graphic designer. “I’ve finished a draft of the manuscript and the support from the Rona Jaffe Foundation is going to allow me to finish the novel. I’m really grateful to both organizations for their support because they’re helping me make this happen. It feels really amazing to be a part of these two communities.”

“When a former Steinbeck Fellow wins a major award, or finds a large audience for a new book, I am thrilled for them first of all, but I also feel validated,” said Nick Taylor, professor of English and comparative literature and director of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies. “It demonstrates that our program is good at finding and supporting talent. And these successes aren’t rare anymore. At this point we’ve had 64 Steinbeck Fellows who have received something like $750,000 in support from the program. They’ve gone on to publish 40 books—a number that increases every year without fail. Not every former fellow publishes a book every year, but every year some do, and each of those publications gives us an opportunity to call attention to what we’re doing here at SJSU.”

Current Steinbeck Fellows are Rita Chang-Epigg, Tammy Delatorre, Brice Particelli, Daniel Pearce, Kate Osana Simonian and Anthony Veasna So. Applications open January 2 for the 2021-2022 fellowship.


Watch Ferreras’ Sept. 17 Rona Jaffe reading.

SJSU’s Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies to Recognize Mumford & Sons Sept. 18

Mumford & Sons

SJSU’s Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies will present Mumford & Sons with the Steinbeck Award Sept. 18.

San Jose State University’s Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies will present the 2019 John Steinbeck Award to musical band Mumford & Sons Sept. 18, as part of the Stanford Live Program. The sold-out event will feature a conversation and acoustic performance by the band.

SJSU’s Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies presents the John Steinbeck Award annually, celebrating writers, thinkers, artists, and activists who embody the empathetic spirit and values of John Steinbeck. Mumford & Sons demonstrates this commitment to social engagement through Gentlemen of the Roadthe fund they founded in 2006 that supports global and local charities fighting for social justice.

“Mumford & Sons can also be linked to John Steinbeck through their music, especially songs such as ‘Timshel,’ ‘Dust Bowl Dance,’ and ‘Rose of Sharon,’ and through their advocacy of Steinbeck’s writings,” said Ted Cady, chair of the Steinbeck Award committee.

In 2012, the band performed in the heart of Steinbeck Country at “Mumford & Sons in Monterey: A Salute to John Steinbeck.” Now, the band will again honor Steinbeck in a performance that marks the 80th anniversary of the publication of his novel The Grapes of Wrath.

Past awardees include notable musicians Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Jackson Browne, and Joan Baez.

Proceeds from the event will benefit The Steinbeck Service Fellowship created by SJSU Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Director of the Marth Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies Nick Taylor and Stanford English professor Gavin Jones. The fellowship will allow students to participate in service projects across the region that embody Steinbeck’s work and continue his legacy for compassionate community engagement.

For more information about the John Steinbeck Award and the award ceremony at Bing Concert Hall, visit steinbeckaward.com and live.stanford.edu.

About SJSU’s Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies 

In operation since 1973, the Cox Center promotes Steinbeck’s goals of empathy and mutual understanding through public programming, free curriculum for teachers, and fellowships for emerging writers.