When Jorge Huerta became involved with El Teatro de la Esperanza, Chicano theatre was only beginning to emerge. The famous Teatro Campesino had begun producing short plays about political and social issues confronting Chicanos in 1965, but it wasn’t until much later that theatre practitioners and scholars began paying close attention to their work. Now at the University of California, San Diego, Dr. Huerta looks back over the history of Chicano theatre, including his own experience in producing activist work in the 1970s, and provides valuable insights into how theatre by, for, and about the Chicano community has changed over five decades.

Photos by Ginger Huerta:

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Transcript

Michael Lueger: Theatre history podcast is supported by HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community. It's available on itunes and howlround.com.

Hi, and welcome to the theatre history podcast. I'm Mike Lueger and my guest today is Jorge Huerta, he's the chancellor's associates professor of theatre and meritis at the University of California San Diego. Jorge, thank you so much for being on the show.

Jorge Huerta: No, thank you.

Michael: Now I want to talk to you today about a number of things, but let's start in 1968. You are a high school drama teacher at the time, and that's the year that you encounter a group called el teatro campesino. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about that group and about your experience of encountering them.

Jorge: Yeah. I was teaching outside of LA. East of east LA in Rubidoux, California. I tell my students today that teaching high school drama back then, I was GLEE before there was GLEE. I was asked by an actor, this Chicano friend, to go see this group at the University of California Riverside, down the way. I did. It was a group of farm workers, led by Luis Valdez, and they were performing short skits called actos about the farm worker situation. They were singing huelga or strike songs. They were very much a part of the farm worker's movement. The farm workers founded by the late Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.

Watching them and listening to them performing in Spanglish, the language that we were raised here in Southern California speaking both English and Spanish, it was quite revealing. I'd never seen anything like it. I thought well this is really, really amazing. This is theatre that is for something. You know, it was about social justice for farm workers. So, that was the seed that was planted, and two years later I enrolled in the PhD program at University of California Santa Barbara to pursue a doctorate in dramatic art in order to be able to investigate this thing that I had discovered two years before. I had a theatrical heritage that I did not realize was there.

Michael: You've talked about the legacy of El Teatro Campesino, which is still going strong today. You write in a piece from last year in HowlRound, I believe that all of the theatrical activity of Chicana's and Chicano's, indeed Latinas and Latinos from community and student teatros, to professional theatre companies, and individual theatre artists and film makers owe their existence directly or indirectly to Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what that aesthetic was that was so influential. You mentioned that it's for farm workers and later it moves into urban barrios, but I wonder if you could explain a little bit about how this kind of theatre worked.

Jorge: For one, Luis Valdez had studied at San Jose State College as an undergrad and an MA student in English actually, and that's where he began to write plays. In 1964, he was on the first of Venceremos Brigade to Cuba and was quite politicized by that, and then worked with the San Francisco mine troupe until '65 when he went to the farm worker's union and said, "Look we can do theatre in the streets. We can do theatre in the fields. Let's try to organize the farm worker's showing them," demonstrating a la comida del arte that he had learned with the mime troupe using puppets, whatever.

Let's get out there and educate the people about the need for a union. It was quite exciting. And they did. They created collectively. They collectively created these actos about their situation and the beauty of it is that they were demonstrating their own reality. What it was like to be a farm worker and to be oppressed by the growers, and by their henchmen, and by the coyotes, the farm labor contractors. That led to tours where they would go perform, not just in the field for the farm workers themselves, but they would perform at universities and I think their first university performance early on was at Stanford.

They realized that they had an audience of students, who were of course activists, and there was a burgeoning Chicano movement as well, and of course there was a civil rights movement above all of that. It was quite a time. It was a very revolutionary moment. People were looking for means of educating and entertaining their constituencies and so wherever they went, I have said that they planted seeds of creativity on campuses and community centers across the country. Sometimes those seeds blossomed into little teatros. Little emulating the teatro campesino style. The acto is very, very basic. It's simple, but not simplistic.

They published the actos in 1971, and gave them free of royalties to anybody who wanted to do them. That was another impetus that then influenced the creation of other groups, also creating their own actos. Again, away from the majority of Mexican Americans were and are urban, not rural. A lot of people, because of Teatro Campesino gained such notoriety and fame, people thought that all Mexicans in this country were farm workers. No, the majority of Mexican Americans are urban, and so obviously you move naturally, organically into the cities and now we talk about labor unions in the industries, in the factories, and you name it.

That's why I say, the campesino it's the beginning of the contemporary Chicano theatre movement of the sixties, but in fact we had a rich heritage, which I discovered when I went to graduate school, as I say in 1970 and went to the library, and discovered a marvelous history of the Spanish religious folk theatre. That's what we had throughout the Mexican communities of the US, whether that was in the Southwest or as far as the Midwest. People were doing theatre in their churches, and so that also led into the growth and evolution of a revolutionary spirit of looking for chance. What we call theatre for social chance. That's why I said what I said.

Michael: You mentioned your time in grad school, and in 1971, you yourself start to put some of this into practice with a group called El Teatro de la Esperanza. I wonder if you could talk about the origins of that group. Why did you start it, what were you aiming to do?

Jorge: It's interesting because when I applied to the PhD program, there was reticence on the part of the faculty of the dramatic art department. The Chicano MECHA, MECHA the movimiento estudiantil Chicano de Azlan, which means the Chicano student movement of Azlan. Azlan being a novel other word for the land to the north of Mexico. The land from when the Aztecs migrated south. The MECHA students marched into the chairman's office and said you have a candidate. I mean I had a Master's degree. I had three, four years of teaching a high school and community college. I was qualified and so of course when six Chicano march into your office, you're going to listen.

They did, and so because of the Mechista's, I was brought in, and they had a teatro. They had a teatro called Teatro MECHA. I was brought in with the full intention of working with Teatro MECHA as a part of my graduate studies, et cetera. There was a developing Chicago studies program at the time. As a TA I was teaching both in Chicago studies or in the dramatic art department.

When the MECHA group fell apart, we formed at the end of the first year there. In spring of '71 we formed Teatro de la Esperanza, the Theatre of Hope, as a response to the need that we felt to join another student organization that was working in Santa Barbara, in the Barrio in la casa de la raza, or the house of the people. We became the resident company in la casa, and we were very proud to be a part of a community based group as well as university students running workshops and performing in what we built a little theatre in the casa.

Michael: This is something that I find really interesting. I think some people who might not be as familiar with the type of work that you were doing would be a little surprised, but there's almost a, there's a definitely a community based aspect and almost a certain sociological aspect that was an important part of what you were doing with Teatro de la Esperanza. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about la casa de la raza, how that functioned as a part of what you were doing with the teatro.

Jorge: It gave us a sense, well it was community. It was community. The university of California has this penchant for putting their universities in very wealthy neighborhoods. UCLA's, and Westwood, Berkeley, La Hoya, the UC's, right? UC Santa Barbara was no different, I mean that actually is not in the middle of a wealthy area, but it wasn't in the city itself, the city of Santa Barbara, which had quite a Mexican population. By going to the casa, we were linking with people activists that were in the trenches themselves as workers in the city and others. People who became politicians eventually et cetera.

It was a place, home. It was a home. In fact, the theatre that we built, we called el nido, a little fifty seat theatre in the back of this old warehouse that they had taken over. They, the organizers of the case. El nido, a nido is a nest, we felt that the the nido was a place where we were going to nurture. We were going to lay eggs if you will. Those eggs hopefully were going to come forward with the fruits of our labor in terms of theatre for social change using the actos that had just been given to all of the teatros by the teatro campesino. They were very fun, very entertaining. Yeah, it was very important to a lot of the students, because many of the students at UC Santa Barbara were from Los Angeles, east LA. They were mostly the children of immigrants. Who had not had access to higher education.

When Luis Valdez and I were students in the sixtes, he at San Jose State, and me at Cali State LA, the teachers colleges. I mean there were not a lot of Mexican Americans in those places because we were not being educated. We were being told not to speak Spanish, et cetera, et cetera. We had a duty, we felt, to be involved in the community. That continues to this day that there are a lot of student groups that insist on being a part of a community organization. Not within it necessarily, but alongside community based organization because campuses are not necessarily friendly to students of color et cetera.

Michael: This focus on education in particular, I know you've done some work, you did some work in the early seventys focusing, in many ways on this particular issue. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the work that you did in Guadalupe.

Jorge: Oh gosh, that's a wonderful experience. Guadalupe was a town outside of Santa Barbara. Total farm worker town. 98 percent Mexican and Mexican immigrants. They were all farm workers. The growers earned the town. There had been a big hellabalue. They had tried to organize against the school. The school system was not offering children bilingual ed. They were punishing children for speaking Spanish. There was any number. It was a little microcosm. This little 2,000 population town at 1 main street, with seven bars and one theatre. It was like a plantation. The parents tried to organize the schools, and they were sentenced to jail. The three organizers.

We were invited to go sing our songs alongside them when they were being taken to jail. They knew they had heard about us and the teatro, and we had learned these revolutionary songs from the teatro campesino and other teatros that were emerging throughout, as I say, throughout the Southwest. We were looking for a piece. We wanted to do a collective creation. They call it devising now. I don't get the difference between devising and collecting, but collective creation, so we went and interviewed the residents. The people who had organized the families, the parents of the children who had tried to unionize and were being put in jail for it.

We interviewed them and we then eventually created a piece titled Guadalupe. It was a dog view drama. It was very much in a Brechtian mode, where we would preface every scene where this is what's going to happen to you to the people on stage. We involved the audience, and it put teatro on the map. It was 1974 that we created it. Cinco de Mayo of 1974, in face we premiered it at UC San Diego. It's a small world over here, which is where I ended up a year later, right? Perhaps because of the production of Guadalupe that had impressed the faculty there.

What impressed the faculty in wherever we went was that we were telling the story of these untold stories. Of these invisible Mexicans, the people who pick your fruit, and your vegetables, et cetera and how they were being oppressed by the oligarchy. It was the first docudrama of its kinds, preceded any others. We were very proud of that. We performed it at a festival international Latino Chicano theatre festival in Medico City the Summer of '74, and it created quite a reaction. Everybody called it a very, very, here I was. I was the director, but we worked collectively in every way. It made our mark.

Michael: What's particularly striking about it, I think this is perhaps something that you hear a little bit of a vague formulation sometimes, this idea of theatre for change, theatre for social change. There were real, concrete effects that followed on from the creation and performance of this play, Guadalupe.

Jorge: Well I'd like to think so. I'd like to think that it did inspire other people to think more theatrically. We were looking for an aesthetic that was beyond the acto. The acto, as I said before, was very, very basic. Simple, but not simplistic as I've always said, but it was short, satirical sketches making fun of the enemy. As I said, it's an incredibly impressive tool. I just published an article or will be in the Latin American Theatre Review on how important the acto is to this day as a teaching tool.

Yeah it became, Guadalupe, became a model. I published an anthology of Chicano plays in the eighties and I included Guadalupe and La Victima, which was the second piece that Esperanza, the members of Esperanza created, and it was a landmark, La Victima, again a docudrama that mixed fact with fantasy and so the anthology that I published was called Necessary Theater, and so to this day I'm looking for necessary theatre and theatr for social change, I think, is necessary theatre.

Michael: You mention La Victima, this is also another one, which perhaps with some very unfortunate contemporary overtones. Another major production from Teatro de la Esperanza. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that play as well.

Jorge: Yeah, I take great pride in knowing that we left, my wife was the musical director of Esperanza from the day we founded it. My Armenian wife, became our musical director, and she is a wonderful musical director, choral director, and so we moved to San Diego to take the position at the university, so we left the group knowing that they were prepared. They were prepared to carry on, and some of my students would say to me, "Well I guess you hope they fall apart when you leave." I said, "Au contraire, that would mean that I did nothing. What did I leae them with?"

So we left them with a business management tools from the business manager musical director, my wife, we left them with an aesthetic, and they went beyond Guadalupe to create a masterpiece called, La Victima, and it's so relevant today. What was happening in the '70s was Mexicans were being blamed for the bad economy and they were being deported at great rates. We were responding to the historical fact that that's what has always happened in this country, whenever the economy gets rough, they blame the immigrant. I mean, it's so relevant today it's beyond belief.

You know, this is exactly why Mr. Trump has all those followers. They somehow think that these people are taking their jobs, anyways, so La Victima traces a family from the revolution in Mexico. Leaving Mexico, looking for a better life in the north, and then in the thirties when the depression hit, they started deporting the Mexicans in train loads. Not in box cars, like the unfortunate Jews in the Holocaust, but they were in trains. They put them on trains. They created this fictional family, but based on an actual fact taking it all over the way into the seventies to the present and it could be done today.

La Victima, and again, that's also in the anthology necessary theatr. It's a very, very important play. A very lovely, it's been done all over. I've seen it in many, many places and it's an incredible example of necessary theatre. As you say, so relevant today that we should be doing it, now that you mention it.

Michael: Speaking of relevance, one of the other things that I think is particularly interesting that you've written about in a few places, is this idea of bilingualism, Spanglish as you call it, and the effect that that has as being a part of these actos in the case of teatro campesino, and in the case of some of the works that teatro de la Esperanza produced. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the effect of bilingualism on these plays, on your audiences.

Jorge: Yeah, yeah. I've written about this in how many different places, but the whole notion of being able to communicate in two languages is an empowering thing. When you've been told the colonizer, the first thing a colonizer does is take away your culture, take away your language, take away your religion and pose another one, et cetera et cetera, but you can't totally take away the language in a Mexican community because the parents are recent arrivals and may not even speak English. The children, who are going to school, trying to learn English, and at home they're learning Spanish and trying to learn Spanish, but it's an empowering thing to hear your own culture performed on stage in a language that only you understand, and that only you can laugh at.

There are given words that I know, and I'm going to be doing in a play, that this particular phrase or this particular word is always going to get a laugh from the bilingual audience members. Not the kids who have studied six years of high school Spanish. They don't seem to be able to do the code switching it seems to me in my experience, as well as people who grew up in it. Who grew up in a bilingual home. This bilinguality doesn't just exist in a Mexican or a Spanish speaking community, but any immigrant community and you're going to find bilingual kids, right? It's a way of saying to the non Latino, the gringo, screw you. You don't have to understand this. This is us.

This is our language, this is our culture, and if you don't get it, too bad. Eventually, of course, we wanted to embrace everybody, so you have to be careful with how much bilingualism you can put into a given piece. When we took Guadalupe to Mexico, we toured it after the festival, the two week festival to Mexico City and De La Cruz, we were invited by the partido socialista de trabajadores, the PST, to tour to the villages. The jidos in De La Cruz, and there we go, and of course we then were able to do the show in Spanish. We had to take out as much English as we could because these people were not going to understand the English. You have to adjust to your audience, but it's a form of empowerment to be able to say I speak two languages. What about you?

Michael: I also wondered if you could talk a little bit about this, what Diana Taylor has called the aesthetics of the underdog, rasquachismo?

Jorge: Well yeah, the teatro campesino in its initial stages was nothing but rascuache is a Mexican term, it's a colloquialism for something very, very funky. Something that is unsophisticated. You know when you're driving by a, in east LA there's a car on blocks in the front yard, that's rascuache. You know? There are flowers in a coffee can, a rusty coffee can. There's a geranium. That's a little image of a Mexican village in a coffee can. That's rascuache. Rascuache can extend to any culture, but it's about being unsophisticated, however, the teatro campesino and the other teatros embraced the whole notion of a rascuache aesthetic and celebrated the fact that we did not have technology. We did not have the lighting. We did not have the microphones.

The early teatro campesino, if they were performing and it got dark, they put on truck headlights. That was their lighting. They had no microphones. We had nothing. We were very, very basic. Didn't apologize for it. Rascuache. You don't apologize for rasquachismo. You just say here it is. Go for it. Go with it. Again, I think it's a sense of empowerment to know that you are celebrating your simplicity.

Michael: I wonder, you've been looking at the Chicano theatre movement, among other things, as a scholar as well as somebody who's participated in it. You've been looking at this for a number of decades. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what follows on from teatro campesino, from teatro de la Esperanza, what happens over the decades, and perhaps if you have any thoughts about this, where is the movement now?

Jorge: Oh boy. Yeah, so. I'll have to condense fifty years, I mean my goodness. The teatro campesino celebrated its fiftith year in 2015. Last year. I've been doing this since 1970, so it's not quite fifty years but it sure is close. So much has changed. Everybody asks me what has changed and so this is a huge question. We have to flash forward, I think, one of the most important, I have a lecture that I do, the five stages of Chicano theatre and the first stage was the acto. As we proceeded, we proceeded to the stages of that was a collective process. Everything was collective. Very rascuache. As the teatros began to evolve, and grow, and people began to study theatre formally. Because initially the people doing the early teatros were not theatre majors. They were poli sci majors, they were people who were going to go on into other fields, and did.

The people who have walked through the different teatros that formed all over the country, went into any number of fields. They were mostly university and college students. They've become politicians, they have become even philanthropists, and what they really became were supporters of the theatre. The theatre movement, the Chicano theatre movement, following the Chicano movement itself began to evolve and grow. When Mr. Valdez, Luis Valdez, produced with the teatro campesino and the center theatre group of Los Angeles, Zoot Suit, 1978, that became the first professional Chicano play ever written by, directed by a Chicano and with a cast, a multicultural cast of Chicana's, Chicano's and people from every community you can imagine.

Zoot Suit was quite a phenomenon in LA. It lasted eleven months. It broke all records. No play, professional play, has ever lasted eleven months in Los Angeles. People don't realize that. It went to New York in '79, and unfortunately the critics didn't get it, and so it was only able to last for four weeks or five, however, its run in LA put Valdez on the map, and it opened the doors to other regional theatres. They looked and they said, "Boy, look at what the center theatre group here. They made millions. They built a theatre." They bought a theatre with the income from Zoot Suit.

Some of the income helped buy the Aquarius theatre in Hollywood. Which is where they moved the play to and you couldn't get in, it was so popular. Ironically, Mike, as we discussed before this, the play Zoot Suit is going to be remounted at the Mark Taper Forum, center theatre group LA in January of this coming year. How many years later and Mr. Valdez will direct it again, so we are all extremely excited about that. We've come a long way, you know we've come a long way, in the interim from the farm worker movement, and the teatro movement, the early teatro movement that we move into universities when I became a professor at UC San Diego in 1975, I was the first, well people, I tell people, I was the first Chicano to get a PhD in theatre, which I seem to have been.

In 1974, and now I'm certainly not the only Chicana or Chicano, Latina or latino with a PhD in theatre. It's an incredibly broad movement that moved into the regional theatres where the artistic directors began to look for Latina, latino, now we're calling latinx plays, and that's because of Zoot Suit on the west coast. Short Eyes on the east coast. Miguel Pinero's phenomenal prison play, which had been done in 1974, on Broadway, also opened doors. We had theatre companies across the country from the various communities. On the west we had the Chicana/Chicano theatre companies, and the Midwest as well. Also, the Puerto Rican companies, the Cuban American and Cuban companies on the east coast, that the Southeast, and New York and what have you. Eventually these people began to collaborate.

In 1986, the Ford foundation funded a national conference of 125 people doing, what they called then Hispanic american theatre, and that was a very, very important coming together, and learning about one another, and growing together, and seeing what we needed to do. Now we have an online network through HowlRound, through the latino theatre commons. It's a national movement now, that is not just Chicana or Chicano, it's Latinx, it's scholars, it's artists. It's an amazing growth. We have professors teaching across the country teaching in theatre departments as well as in Spanish lit or women's studies. You name it.

We have more plays than I can teach in a year. You cannot teach all the plays that have been published by these playwrights, and theatre groups across the country. It's very, very exciting. I tell people that we communicated with two tin cans and a string back in the sixties and seventies, a joke. We did, actually, we grew up, do you know that? If you put a nail in a can and a string, and you have another can with the string connected you can talk like a walkie talkie? Are you following me?

Michael: Oh, I think I remember trying to do that when I was young. Oh yeah.

Jorge: Well that's what we did. You're much younger. Anyway. Now you know we have the social media. Now we have the internet. We have instant communication, and it's an important, wonderful, wonderful thing to see. We have people that the national levels of the president of the association for theatre and higher education is professor Patricia Ibarra, professor of theatre at Brown University and on and on. Diane Rodriguez, who was one of the founders of teatro de Esperanza in 1971, one of my first students and theatre students at UC Santa Barbara then became a member of the teatro campesino, and now is an associate artistic director at the center theatre group where they're going to remount Zoot Suit, which she was in, in 1978. Diane Rodriguez has been appointed by President Obama to the national council on the arts.

Luis Valdez had been appointed prior. We have come a way long way baby. We are trying to make the invisible visible.

Michael: You write in an essay from last year on the fiftieth anniversary of teatro campesino, that and I'm quoting you here directly, "Sadly, every one of the issues the teatro exposed is still relevant." I wonder if you might consider addressing that and you mention sort of this explosion in new communications. The world maybe hasn't changed that much, but it has changed in some ways. I wonder what you see for the future. How do we address the fact that some of the same issues are still a problem? Are there new ways to address it or is there something that we need to keep and preserve from the tradition of groups like teatro de la Esperanza?

Jorge: You know, one of the major changes, and I'm publishing an article in an anthology about change. What I have seen in the last fifty years in our movement, in the Chicano theatre movement, LatinX theatre movement, that as I said earlier, there's no Chicano theatre company. They're mixed. They're Latina, latino, or Latinx now, and they include Afro Latinos, they include Cuban Americans, Puerto Rican, you name it. People from all parts of the Americas as well as non Latinos who want to be a part of these theatre companies. They have a totally different perspective than people did when the teatro movement first began.

One, these people have all studied theatre. A lot of these people come out of MFA programs, and playwriting, they come out of MFA programs in directing, in dramaturgy, in stage management, but they want to work in their own communities. The difference, the biggest difference as I see the new plays that are being published, is that more and more the plays that are going to get produced by the regional theatres are not going to be as bilingual as we could be back then. Now there's a company here in Los Angeles, Casa 0101, in Boyle Heights in East LA, where I was actually born. This company founded by, Josefina Lopez, Josefina Lopez founded casa 0101 several years ago and now it's a major producing place in east LA with a beautiful ninety-nine seat theatre, multimillion dollar plant.

Her audience continues to be very, very bilingual, but there are other companies that haven't, that are not necessarily in the middle of a barrio, right? The younger generations are not going to be as bilingual, in fact, every community, that immigrant community that has come to this country, studies have shown that by the third generation they are monolingual English speakers. This is what happens. Now we have these playwrights that can't write bilingually, the younger generations. It's not their reality. They didn't grow up in a home where the parents were farm workers who didn't speak English.

They're probably the children of college graduates, right? There's this whole new middle and upper middle class that is being addressed and the language thing, it's sort of disappearing. It depends on the play, depends on the play and the playwright. Is that good or bad? I don't know, but it definitely, when I go to casa 0101, what Josefina Lopez has done is miraculous because she's built an audience that is young. If I go to the regional theatres, and I'm going to be seventy-four next month, and the regional theatres I feel like a young person. They're old. They're dying away. The Latina/Latino theatre companies have, they continue to appeal to the younger crowds of people who want to see themselves onstage. Want to see their realities portrayed, and it's happening more and more.

There's a company in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles, the Latino Theatre Company, that is in charge of the Los Angeles theatre center. An incredible place, downtown LA, five theatre spaces. Large and small, and they produce any number of plays from any number of communities, but they are unique in the country in that they have an ensemble. The Latino Theatre Company has been around over thirty years. These are professional actors, directors, you name it, playwrights, whom you'll see in movies. How often, unfortunately, playing the maids, and the drug dealers, and the victims, and the victimizers, but they have created a theatre company, Evalina Fernandez, who started her career in a Chicano theatre in east LA, moved into Zoot Suit as an actress, and is now a brilliant playwright and actor.

They're doing her trilogy, the Mexican trilogy, at the LATC, and they are attracting crowds of any number of communities with professional theatre that addresses the history of, it's sort of the roots of the Mexican American in LA, this trilogy, which was published by Samuel French, that wouldn't even publish Zoot Suit many years ago because it hadn't succeeded on Broadway. That's, you know, the nature of the publishing industry. That's a whole other story.

Michael: Well we're going to provide links in the show notes to all these Latino Theater Company, to Casa 0101, as well as your 2015 HowlRound essay on Teatro Campesino and your 2012 speech on Teatro de la Esperanza. Jorge, thank you so much for speaking with us today. It was really great.

Jorge: Thank you Mike. Good luck and I look forward to hearing this.