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Jose Luis Orozco, rockstar to toddlers, has taught language through song for decades

Jose Luis Orozco, rock star to the toddler and preschool set.
Jose Luis Orozco, rock star to the toddler and preschool set.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

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Jose Luis Orozco is a rock star — at least to the toddler and preschool set (along with their parents). The Santa Cruz-based musician has performed children’s songs in Spanish and English for more than four decades. Even if crowd surfing’s unlikely at his Levitt Pavilion concert Wednesday night in Pasadena, it is likely that parents may be the loudest people in the audience.

Orozco talked about his career at a recent Los Angeles performance in the Silver Lake Public Library, during that magic time between nap and dinner. About 20 kids and their parents gathered to hear Orozco sing and play guitar. He began the show with standards like “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” which he then blended into Spanish. 

The bilingual performance teaches kids two sets of words, two different ways of communicating with the same melody and it creates a positive setting for kids to express themselves in multiple ways. It is how many people around the world grow up, Orozco said, and how many U.S. parents want their kids to communicate.  

“It’s very rewarding. That means their parents want them to be part of the world that is changing. It’s changing now. And they want them to be ready for that world,” he said.

Orozco is like a jukebox packed full of children’s songs from Mexico, Central America, South America and the United States. He plays with translation as a humorous tool to teach two languages.

“The donkey in English. The donkey goes like this: 'ee-haw'. In Spanish, 'ah hee',” he sang as he walked around the library’s first floor meeting room. 

For Jose Luis Orozco the path to popular children’s folk singer began in elementary school. For five years he traveled around Mexico, South America and Europe with the Mexico City Boys’ Choir. He left the group when puberty changed his voice, but vowed to continue traveling. 

When he was in high school he got his chance again, but the circumstances were stressful. It was 1968 and Mexico was in turmoil after government soldiers opened fire on a large, peaceful student protest.

After that incident, Orozco says he took a bus to Tijuana and with a visitor’s permit began to explore California and its culture. 

“At that time the foreign language that the people wanted their kids to learn was French or German," Orozco said. "And then they realized that it was not as useful as Spanish is now."

Orozco has travelled to most corners of the United States as Latino populations grow. After the Silver Lake Public Library show Juana Mora said her 16-year-old daughter loved Orozco’s music as a pre-schooler. Mora’s second daughter, a two-year old, is with her at the library show.

Mora says that even in Spanish-rich Southern California, bilingual performances like Orozco’s are hard to find—but worth it, as she’s taught her daughters the Spanish she grew up with. 

“It’s a validation and a reaffirmation that this is beautiful, that our language is beautiful and that it’s something to be proud of,” Mora said.

Non-Spanish speaking parents are increasingly searching for bilingual learning for their kids. Andrea Permenter brought her two year-old son Henry to the show. 

“Many of our friends in fact, who live in the neighborhood and in the area in general, are sending their children to dual language immersion schools for Spanish. So people want their kids to be bilingual even though they themselves are not,” she said. 

Permenter says academic research is convincing many parents of the merits of bilingualism. Jose Luis Orozco’s thousands of performances, three children’s books and dozens of recordings have also contributed a great deal.

Jose Luis Orozco is scheduled to perform a free show at Pasadena’s Levitt Pavilion Wednesday at 7 p.m.