Youth members of Loco Bloco rehearse at Brava Theater Center. Photo Elisa Parrino

For the past 20 years, thousands of Bay Area youth who longed for an artistic outlet had somewhere to turn, and Jose Barajas means to keep it that way.

“Not everyone is cut out to be an engineer or architect, people express themselves in different fashions,” said Barajas, who is the lead music instructor and one of the original members of Loco Bloco—the Bay Area youth organization that has provided low-income families with professional level arts education for the last two decades. “Here, there are free classes for kids and it’s crucial to keep it going.”

It will keep going on Dec. 19 and 20 as Loco Bloco celebrates its 20th anniversary with “Beats in the Streets.” The production will feature students from all over the Bay Area performing various musical pieces that bring together traditional rhythms, movements and aesthetics of African Diaspora within Latin America and fuse them with contemporary urban styles of music, dance and theater to create high-energy, innovative presentations based on social justice issues.

A celebration of Loco Bloco’s history in the community, the weekend event will reconnect audiences to the organization’s core values: “artivism,” grit, education, family, health, youth leadership and inclusion.

“Grit is a crucial value because we used it a lot to make it to 20 years,” said Alma Herrera-Pazmiño, who was a student at Loco Bloco for 10 years and now serves as a program administrative assistant. “It’s incredible the amount of work we do with the amount we have, and this celebration is a testament to that.”

Artists and activists of color founded Loco Bloco in 1994 as a response to the ever-growing funding cuts of arts programs in schools. Since its founding, thousands of Bay Area youth, from ages 3 to 24, have participated in after school classes, summer camps, international exchanges/tours, and the annual self-produced events and community performances.

Herrera-Pazmiño turned to Loco Bloco as an opportunity to practice and embrace her musical talents when her music elective class at Horace Mann elementary school was cut after its first year.

“Art is very important in the way that youth can find their voice,” said Herrera-Pazmiño. “Loco Bloco is not just a supplement, it’s a culture they’re learning.”

Today, some of the performers have amassed recognition from international superstars. Barajas and others performed alongside Latin Grammy winner Carlos Santana, an international music icon who got his start in the Mission District. Others performed at the Bill Graham auditorium to pay tribute to worldwide salsa musician and Latin Jazz composer, Tito Puente.

But throughout the years, the vision for the organization has evolved out of the necessity to keep the Loco Bloco spirit alive. And for Barajas, who began his musical career at an after-school program housed in a local Presbyterian church before turning to Loco Bloco, that’s what the 20th anniversary celebration is about.

“It’s a big thank you,” said Barajas, Loco Bloco’s lead percussionist and instructor for the community classes.

“To show where we came from, where we’ve been and where we’re going.”

The event takes place Friday, Dec. 19 and Saturday, Dec. 20 at 7 p.m. at Brava Theater Center, 2781 24th St. Doors will open at 6 p.m. for Lobby Gallery Walk. Free pre-show Q&A panel with youth “artivists” on Saturday, Dec. 19 from 5:30 p.m. – 6:15 p.m. Tickets: youth/student $5 regular admission $10 in advance, $15 at the door.