June 2013

Bayview Professor Goes to Harvard

Keith Burbank

Bayview resident, musician and anthropologist, Dr. Jose Cuellar, spent last spring at Harvard University, researching and recording musical instruments as a Hrdy Fellow at the Peabody Museum. But Cuellar did more than just academic work, reaching out to Cambridge youth and drawing 300 people to a musical event held at the university, in an effort that wasn’t part of his contract. “He’s a bridge. A connector. A natural force in a gentle way,” said Pedro Morales, of Cuellar. Morales, a first-year Masters student in theological studies, assisted Cuellar while the Bayview resident was at Harvard.

Harvard professor David Carrasco agreed, stating that Cuellar, who is a tenured professor at San Francisco State University (SFSU), created a link between the university and the community, something “very few people in academia know how to do.” 

According to Dr. Scott Sessions, a visiting scholar at Amherst College, who has known Cuellar for more than 20 years, it was the mix of Cuellar’s musical abilities and his knowledge of anthropology that made him attractive to Harvard. Alejandro Murguia, a Bayview resident, San Francisco’s poet laureate and a colleague of Cuellar’s at SFSU, agreed. Murguia pointed to Cuellar’s leadership of Dr. Loco’s Rockin’ Jalapeno Band as contributing to Harvard’s decision to recruit him. Cuellar uses the stage moniker “Dr. Loco” — a name he received from kids in Tijuana, where he conducted research — when he sings and plays saxophone and flutes in the band. 

At Harvard, Cuellar recorded musical instruments from Mesoamerica, including whistles, flutes, rattles, and ocarinas; wind instruments shaped like elongated eggs, each with a mouthpiece and finger holes. The devices are hundreds to thousands of years old, and emerged from Mayan and other cultures. In addition to his research, Cuellar “created and conducted three public music programs,” according to information from the Peabody Museum. “Fabulous Flutes, Marvelous Music” was part of the Peabody’s family programming. “Music of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands” was “a performance/talk co-sponsored by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. And ‘The Musical Impact of the Latino Diaspora” was a collective concert including students, faculty, and musicians from East Boston’s ZUMiX, a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening community through music and the arts. 

Roughly four years ago, Cuellar gave a lecture at Harvard that focused on the U.S. — Mexico borderlands. After the presentation, Barbara Fash, a Harvard professor and noted archeologist, expressed interest in bringing him to the university to do a project. Carrasco and another Harvard professor, William L. Fash Jr. — Barbara’s husband, who is also an archeologist — nominated Cuellar for the fellowship. Carrasco is one of Cuellar’s best friends; the two have known one other since they were junior faculty at the University of Colorado, Boulder. 

Cuellar identifies as a “Tex-Mex Indian.” His fraternal grandmother was Kikapu Indian. His fraternal grandfather was Coaltican Indian. His maternal grandfather was Huastec Indian, and his maternal grandmother may have been Jewish. She passed away when Cuellar’s mother was five years old. His mother remembers her as having a fair complexion. 

Cuellar was born and graduated from high school in San Antonio, Texas. “I was raised in the Southern Texas tradition,” Cuellar said. Everyone in his family plays an instrument. “I’m convinced it is genetic,” he said. “My dad played the trumpet and trombone. My brother plays the violin and piano. It would have been a sign that I was adopted if I couldn’t play.” In addition to researching, teaching and playing music, Cuellar is involved in social justice issues, conducting workshops, and playing saxophone, at a state correctional medical facility in Vacaville. 

 “He’s one of the great teachers in America,” Carrasco said. 

“We’re hoping he will be brought back on a more permanent basis,” Morales said.

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