Over the course of nearly a decade, Mission District music teacher Martha Rodriguez Salazar helped Latino song and tradition find a permanent home at the San Francisco Symphony.

Now in its ninth year, the Symphony’s annual Día de los Muertos concert will again return to Davies Symphony Hall on Saturday October 5.

As curator of the festival and music advisor for the concert, Rodriguez Salazar invites local and international performers – dancers, musicians and artists – to fill the Davies Symphony Hall with colorful altars, vibrant installations, art and song, paying homage to the Mexican tradition of honoring the dead.

The inception of the concert was a significant step in infusing Latino culture and music into an institution “traditionally viewed as something like a golden cage,” she said.

“Its an interesting place to work at the Symphony – It’s very much thought of as white culture, elitist, and in a way it is,” said Rodriguez Salazar. “But at the same time my experience with them has been such a positive one because they are very much willing to open their doors to new things.”

In 2008, the Symphony enlisted Rodriguez Salazar to bring the traditionally Latino celebration – and a more diverse audience – to its halls.

“I knew Martha for many, many years. I thought that both her knowledge of music and her knowledge of Mexican culture was a really good combination,” said Salvador Acevedo, a consultant to the Symphony. “I introduced her – the rest is history.”

Sylvia Sherman, the program director at the Mission Community Music Center, added: “We speak about her as a bridge builder. Martha is eminently bicultural. She can in an instant relate completely to the experience of immigrant families in the program where she works. And she can flip and relate to other parts of the community.”

Rodriguez Salazar took on the role as curator of the pre-concert festivities at Davies Hall, as well as being the concert’s musical advisor. Under her tenure, the Symphony has hosted a slew of  “Mexican conductors, sopranos, tenors, mariachi, storytellers and dancers,” said Acevedo, adding that it has grown over the years from hosting one concert to two in one day, and drawing a multi-generational audience from the Latino community and beyond.

“Through this concert and us putting our foot there, they realize how important it is to include Latin American repertoire,” said Rodriguez Salazar.

Earlier in the month, the Symphony began decorating Davies Symphony Hall. Photo by Lydia Chávez

Earlier in the month, the Symphony began decorating Davies Symphony Hall. Photo by Lydia Chávez

A Monarch butterfly facing South – “a symbol of migration,” Rodriguez Salazar said – is one of the many installations adorning the concert hall this year and aims to provide political context on the issue of immigration for those in attendance.

This year’s concerts are headlined by the Los Angeles-based group La Santa Cecilia, as well as the first all-female mariachi group Mariachi Flor de Toloache, out of New York – bringing a unique and young twist to to the concert hall, said Rodriguez Salazar.

“La Santa Cecilia addresses a lot the situation of Latino immigration and the unfairness of things,” she said, while Mariachi Flor de Toloache showcases “not just the traditional mariachi, but people who can bring a political stance into the performance as well – a young interpretation of what their culture is and what it means to be in the United States.”

Hailing from Mexico City, Rodriguez Salazar knows the importance of understanding one’s roots.  She was a gifted flute player as a child, and at age 29 immigrated to the United States to study fine arts at Mills College in Oakland.

“I had only planned on staying two to three years,” she said, smiling. But Rodriguez Salazar said she became fascinated by San Francisco’s strong Latino presence, and some two decades later, she has married her passion for music and a deep appreciation for her own culture.

“When I picked up that flute many years ago I never thought I’d be in a place doing what I’m doing now, and giving hope to a lot of people,” said Rodriguez Salazar, who currently resides in Bernal Heights with her wife and stepson – both are musicians in their own right. Her wife plays the accordion and her stepson plays the bass.

Rodriguez Salazar is a core member of the Bernal Hill Players, a classic and contemporary chamber music ensemble, and was recognized as a “Luminary” by the Mexican Consulate in San Francisco in 2011.  

She credits the Mission’s Community Music Center, an almost century-old nonprofit housed in an old Victorian on near Capp and 20th streets, for some of her most formative community work over the past 15 years.  Out of the center, she has directed “La Posarela,” an annual theater production offering a modern depiction of the nativity scene centered around immigration.

Sherman, of the music center, called the reenactment of the Mexican tradition in relationship to current issues “a creative endeavor that allows the youth that participate in that program to reflect on our reality.”

Rodriguez Salazar also heads the scholarship-based Young Musician’s program, teaching low-income, primarily Latino youth music through private lessons and ensembles.

With extensive training as a flutist and opera singer, Rodriguez Salazar does not only share her love for music with the Mission’s youth, but also with its elders.

Bridging generational iniquities, she conducts four senior choirs through the music center’s adult choir program – a partnership of 11 senior centers throughout the city.

That program, she said, “transformed my view of what a community is, what music is for the community, and what my role as an artist and teacher could be in the way of transforming lives for real.”

Rodriguez Salazar said she sees her work with the choirs as creating an “opportunity for people to get together and to think that they are of value.”

“They can sing. They can attend and feel part of something important. They can be out of their houses,” she said.

Under Rodriguez Salazar’s direction, the senior choirs have also found space at the Symphony’s Dia de los Muertos celebration – performing in the Symphony’s lobby.