Bay Area Latino Theatre Artists Network
Forging Sustainable Connections Both Locally and Nationally
This series on the Latina/o Theatre Commons explores the origins, journey, challenges and the future of Latina/o theater in America. We invite you to contribute to the conversation. Use #cafeonda in Twitter.
“I don’t mean to be negative, but we’ve done this before…and nothing’s changed.”—Richard Talavera, playwright
Of everything I heard voiced at the Bay Area Latino Theatre Artists Potluck Pachanga held last September it’s this remark that haunts me.
“We’ve done this before…and nothing’s changed.”
But first, a bit of context.
A Small Dinner, One Big Idea
There was a potluck. Not the potluck in September mentioned above, but a smaller, more intimate dinner of just seven artists sitting around a coffee table eating and talking. I invited those artists to dinner because I had heard more than one of them mention that they were thinking about leaving the Bay Area. That they were thinking of moving to Chicago or Los Angeles because in those metros the possibility of working was higher. And they want to work.
As a playwright I have a self interest in keeping talented Latino actors here in the Bay Area. Mainly because I want to continue to work with them. So as we sat down for dinner I wanted to pitch an idea to them about how we might all collaborate.
I never pitched my idea.
Instead I listened. I listened as we went around the room and each individual articulated what they wanted or needed from their theater community but weren’t in fact getting. More than once someone said they wanted to connect with other Latino theatre artists. That they wanted to know who exactly was here in the Bay Area.
We all wanted a sense of community. To feel connected to one another, to support each other’s endeavors and possibly work together.
So we started a Facebook group.
Yep, a Facebook group. And the Bay Area Latino Theatre Artists Network was born.
Open to any Latino theater artist living in the Bay Area, our Facebook group currently has 170 plus members. That’s 170 plus Latino theater artists living here in the Bay Area.
Naturally, the next step was to bring people together in person, to hold another potluck. But this time everyone in the group was invited.
The Potluck Pachanga
The Potluck Pachanga was held on September 23rd at the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s space thanks to Mime Troupe collective member Lisa Hori-Garcia. There were almost thirty artists packed into the kitchen space sitting and standing around a large table and kitchen island. And with the Mission breeze drifting in through an open door, we repeated that same check-in from the first dinner. Individuals were asked to introduce themselves and articulate what it was they want/need but aren’t getting at the moment as a Latino theater artist here in the Bay Area.
And then we listened.
Listened as people shared that they didn’t know where they fit in. That they had been told they weren’t “Latino enough” or didn’t feel they could call themselves Latino or couldn’t get cast in Latino roles because they were told they didn’t “look Latino.”
We heard people wanting to work, but struggling against categories that others were imposing on them. We heard people longing for connection, excited to be in a room full of Latino theater artists, to be in a space brimming with possibility.
We all wanted a sense of community. To feel connected to one another, to support each other’s endeavors
It was more than halfway into the evening when we came to an artist who seemed a bit reticent to talk. Then he said probably the most profound statement I heard all evening:
“I don’t mean to be negative but we’ve done this before...and nothing’s changed.”
The fact is, this isn’t the first time Bay Area Latinos have gathered to try and address the issues facing them as theater artists.
Latin American Theatre Artists (LATA)
It was at this point in the potluck that many of us got a brief history lesson in LATA—Latin American Theatre Artists—a nonprofit organization founded in the 90s by Luis Oropeza, a company member at ACT here in San Francisco.
From what I’ve been able to piece together from information found online, by the early 2000’s LATA’s activities began to wane. When I transitioned to playwriting from poetry in 2006 LATA was not a resource that I recall anyone mentioning to me. (Side note: I’m trying to coordinate a coffee date with former LATA members in order to find more.)
So what happened? Why did the sun set on LATA?
I’m not sure. But I think it’s really important to find out.
Forging Sustainable Connections
The Bay Area Latino Theatre Artists Network isn’t unique. There are many groups of Latino theatre artists gathering in cities across the country—communities of artists coming together to address their unique local needs as artists. We are part of a larger pattern. A movement.
And the story of LATA is also part of a larger pattern that occurred on a national scale. Watch The Latino Theatre Commons videos from TCG’s conference in Dallas for Kinan Valdez’s brief history lesson on Latino theatre artist gatherings in the U.S. While there have been academic gatherings, it seems the last time U.S. Latino theatre artists got together en masse on a national scale was something like twenty years plus ago. There was a heyday for Latino theater conferences, development festivals, regular gatherings. But the landscape changed and those opportunities were discontinued.
And while I’m sure individual connections were maintained, a sense of a larger community both locally and nationally was harder to tap into. If you were new to theater, someone had to tell you that NoPassport—a PanAmerican theatre alliance and email listserv moderated by Caridad Svich—exists.
New artists coming of age without the benefit of national conferences, festivals that throw artists of all stripes into one space, or connections to established communities were on their own.
“I don’t mean to be negative but we’ve done this before...and nothing’s changed.”
Hearing that out loud wasn’t negative for me; it was a good reminder of our present reality. It was a reminder that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, that we can take the best ideas from those who came before us and build on them. It reminds me that we can also learn from what didn’t work so that this time around there will be success.
Forging a Sustainable Community, Creating Real Change
There is one thing that has changed.
You’re reading this blog post online via a computer, a laptop, a tablet or a smart phone. And while the devices we use aren’t free, most of the platforms online are.
Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter offer free and open [read transparent] ways for us to connect with one another. And through Café Onda, the Latino Theatre Commons is aspiring to connect Latino theatre artists in the U.S. both online and in person.
I’m bringing a lot of questions with me to the Latin Theatre Commons discussion this October in Boston. The biggest question I have is how do we create sustainable connections both locally and nationally?
How do we create systems that do not rise and fall on the shoulders of one individual, but rather offer many opportunities for experienced leaders and new artists to all participate in the growth and development of our network?
How do we use technology platforms to create a transparent and open space so that new artists can tap into [read find] our network?
How do we create real change? How do we use data mapping to get a real picture of the work Latino theater artists are doing both locally and nationally? How do we measure success? What will it look like?
The last twenty minutes of our Potluck Pachanga was a sort of free for all. Eating, laughing, talking one-on-one. It was exciting. Loud. And everyone I spoke with told me more with their eyes than anything else. I saw the enthusiasm. I saw the wheels in their minds turning. Turning at the possibility, the endless possibility of what a group of dedicated individuals can achieve.
We have all sorts of plans. Plans to gather again. Plans to develop a list of Latino theater artists in the Bay Area so producers and casting directors can find us. Plans to self produce. To support each other’s work.
“...we’ve done this before...and nothing’s changed.”
The fact is, we’re at a very special moment in our history as a theatrical community. We’re coming together again in a very big way. And it falls on each of us to create the change we want to see. So that twenty years from now Latino theater artists aren’t feeling isolated and disconnected, but rather they are looking back on the thriving community of artists who’ve reshaped the theatrical landscape both nationally and locally.
There’s a lot of work ahead of us. I hope you’ll join us.