Jon Meza Cuero
For Kumeyaay Indians, who live in San Diego County and in Baja California, the perpetuation of traditional songs is extremely important to the maintenance of cultural identity. Traditionally, there was no written language so that songs telling of journeys, historical events, the creation, and valor were an integral part of traditional Kumeyaay life, conveying traditional knowledge, history and social values. Today, the most commonly known song cycle is that of Bird Songs, which are used primarily for entertainment and have allowed the Kumeyaay to maintain a connection with their cultural past despite the contact with and destructive influences of Europeans. Other cycles, which include Wildcat and Salt Dances and funeral songs, are now more rare. Accompanied by gourds for rhythm and used for dancing, the songs have both ceremonial and social purposes in Kumeyaay life. Specific rules govern the way in which they are sung and presented. Because of the quantity and length of these songs, it takes many years of practice and imitation to learn and master their presentation.
Jon Meza Cuero is possibly one a few Kumeyaay in the United States who knows the Wildcat cycle of songs, one of the many cycles of songs sung by the Kuymeyaay. Born in Potrero, California, he was raised by relatives on the Mexican side of the border after his mother’s death when he was two years old. He returned to the San Diego area when he was about 20 years old. He speaks four languages–two dialects of Kumeyaay, Spanish, and English. He is well known in Baja California, where he teaches youth in the language and songs of the Kumeyaay and where he sings regularly at Kumeyaay social events and funerals.
In 2001, Jon was a master artist in ACTA’s Apprenticeship Program with apprentice Stan Rodriguez. Stan started singing over thirty years ago, at the age of seventeen. Regular study and practice with Jon during their apprenticeship allowed Stan to reach a new level of mastery. Stan says, “The need to preserve my people’s culture has been very important to me and by learning these songs I will be able to pass this tradition on to others. It is my fear that as the singers get older and pass away, the songs and the stories that are told in the songs will also die out.”