Celebrating Latinx Theatre Artists in Chicago
On 8 October 2018, more than three hundred members of the Alliance of Latinx Theater Artists of Chicago (ALTA) and their friends and family gathered at the city’s Victory Gardens Theater in their finest for the inaugural ALTA Awards. After years of imagining and months of planning, it was a dream come true for me and my fellow ALTA core leadership team members: a room full of people of color from different backgrounds and walks of life, who had come together to publicly and loudly celebrate each others’ accomplishments and talent.
Spearheaded by ALTA’s director of membership Hannah Gomez, the awards ceremony was intentionally organized to recognize Latinx theatre in the Chicago area, from a Latinx perspective, as a joyful way to pursue equity in the industry. Latinx theatre and theatremakers in Chicago are consistently ignored, erased, or misunderstood by both critics at mainstream publications and the city’s one major awards body, the Joseph Jefferson Awards. And this is not to mention the wider demonization of Latinx people by the current political administration and the long history of racism and state violence facing people of color that is endemic to the United States. The ALTAs were a response to a deeply felt need by the community and offered an alternative to majority-white modes of professional recognition and prestige.
One of the things that was important to us in organizing this celebratory evening, which included live performances and free food and drink, was accessibility. We decided to offer free tickets to ALTA members, nominees, and Latinx-centric theatre companies. And, for individuals who didn’t manage to snag a free ticket, one could be purchased for fifteen dollars, which would help cover the costs of the night.
It was also important to us to transform the awards process itself. There was no voting committee or panel of judges; nominations and votes were solicited directly from the ALTA membership, which totals more than 280 individual theatremakers and practitioners from the Latinx theatre community in Chicago. Members could nominate artists, productions, and companies for twenty-seven individual and group awards, as well as for four legacy awards. The ten nominees with the most votes were included on the final ballot, and, in the event of a tie, both winners would receive an award. Voters were also given the option in each category to abstain from voting.
Categories spanned a range of performance genres including plays, musicals, storytelling, and comedy, as well as included technical and design awards and productions in both English and Spanish. None of the awards were separated by gender, nominated artists did not need to be members of ALTA, and votes were counted by an unbiased third-party. The only qualifier for any of the awards was that the artist/production/company be “outstanding” or, for the legacy awards, embody the values of the artists, mentors, and leaders they were named after—people who paved the way for what Latinx theatre is and can be.
The Latinx theatre community in Chicago is hugely diverse, both in ethnic and racial demographics, but also in artistic vision and practice. One goal of the ALTAs was to imagine an awards ceremony that invited a collective investment in redefining the meaning of an award for outstanding work, and to embrace the multiplicity of Latinx theatre making by imbuing that multiplicity directly into the awards process. The theatre community itself had the opportunity to define and advocate for its own perspective on what “outstanding” meant to them and how those values were defined.
Latinx theatre and theatremakers in Chicago are consistently ignored, erased, or misunderstood by both critics at mainstream publications and the city’s one major awards body.
Throughout the course of the awards process, the core team encountered many lessons, often in the context of larger systems of power. We grappled with the reality that awards often serve as professional currency in hierarchical systems embedded in classism and racism, which still define much of the theatre field. They build professional and social visibility and translate into capital and access. Merit awards, like the ALTAs, have the potential to exclude people who don’t or can’t conform to conventional ideas of theatre and theatremaking.
In some ways, by replicating these structures, the ALTA Awards uphold the notions of prestige and exceptionalism. To combat this, we eliminated nearly all restrictions on who and which shows could be nominated (the only ones being that the shows had to have run within the previous 365 days, that all individual nominees self-identify as Latinx in Chicago, and that any group nominees be Latinx or Latinx-centric), offered an opportunity to consolidate and celebrate community endorsement, and provided voters with a dignified way of expressing that they were unfamiliar with the nominee or their field, or did not think a nominee was outstanding. Additionally, ALTA membership registration, which is free, was open throughout the voting process to allow for as many voters as possible, with the exception of a few days before the ceremony to allow for counting time.
There were several categories, notably design ones, where there were only one or two nominees. This disparity has raised questions about the level of access to theatrical education and training, as well as the representation and visibility of Latinx designers and technicians in the theatre industry at large and in theatrical training programs. It also helped the community identify an area of possible growth, where established artists could share their skills and act as mentors to emerging creators. As a way to increase visibility of all artists, the ALTAs also included categories that are largely left out of major awards ceremonies, like stage management, intimacy design, and other artistic specializations.
Race, ethnicity, and identity are often complex and extremely personal, and making room for that complexity in the context of an awards ceremony presented a challenge. Several of the artists nominated were mistakenly identified as Latinx, and they came forward to the core team to express the error. Other artists communicated discomfort or frustration at being identified as Latinx, based on their personal experiences with the term, or because they disagreed with the cultural and political context of the word and the frameworks of power and visibility that it is part of. ALTA responded on a case-by-case basis, relying on shared knowledge among the core leadership team and input from nominees and community members. Often, it was as simple as removing a nominee who said, “Hey, I’m not Latinx”; other times it was about sitting down with someone to listen to their concerns or to offer insight, assurance, or explanation. Intentionally centering the community in the process required an approach that prioritized a multiplicity of experiences and voices, as well as transparency about how the awards work.
For many, the night of the ALTAs was one of discovery, an introduction to artists and companies that often fall below the mainstream theatre radar. For instance, there are companies in Chicago that have been producing Spanish-language work and Latinx work for nearly as long as, or longer than, several of the most well-known theatre companies in the city have been in operation. Institutional and economic barriers that often inhibit people from seeing theatre in neighborhoods other than their own, or seeing enough theatre to vote comprehensively, was another challenge for the ALTAs. Geographic location, language, and access to institutional resources often played a part in how visible and recognizable certain productions and artists were.
[F]or so long, artists of color have been told that the work itself is the award. The ALTAs were our way of saying, “We see you.”
These patterns of unfamiliarity and erasure mirror larger existing social and political power divisions in Chicago. The night of the ALTAs was one of the only nights where Latinx artists from all over Chicago were in the same room together, despite the economic violence and racism that essentially segregates the city and is currently causing displacement for people of color and of low income in the south and west sides. Amidst all of this, the ALTA Awards were a strong reminder that showing up for each other’s work is a tangible and immediate opportunity to build and strengthen community ties, to combat the forces that keep the city divided, and to grow as artists and as people.
Part of ALTAs mission to further the Latinx theatre movement in Chicago is by being a nexus: a meeting place where people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds, schools of thought, life experiences, and artistic visions have an opportunity to support and empower each other. Though the ALTA Awards were always meant to be a night where Chicago theatremakers could strengthen or forge new connections with each other, it was also a night to think deeply about the differences that make up the wide breadth of practice, vision, and purpose in Latinx theatremaking in the city. Celebrating this diversity of thought and process was a tremendous experience, humbling and revelatory, and, as so many expressed at the ceremony, deeply affirming.
The room at Victory Gardens was full of people who clapped for every nominee, not just the winner. And when the winners accepted their awards, many of them shared stories of how incredible it felt to be recognized by their peers, by people who know them and who they respect and love. They shared words of wisdom, action, and thanks: reminders to transform the energy of the night and in our work into action, to leverage the stories we tell to push for change in our communities. They shared gratitude for being a part of an incredible community and for the people who sacrificed and supported them along the way, and joy in being recognized and celebrated by their colleagues, friends, and family for being exactly who they are, as they are.
So often people of color are expected to be twice as good, or to outperform others, just to be noticed. But, as Hannah Gomez put it, it was a powerful feeling to celebrate others and be celebrated this way because, for so long, artists of color have been told that the work itself is the award. The ALTAs were our way of saying, “We see you.” We see the way you push the boundaries of form, unearth buried stories, challenge the status quo, seek justice and transformation, and imagine a freer world. And we want you to see each other too.