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El Movimiento Continua/The Movement Continues

In Latinx teatros around the country, leadership transitions loom as their founders and current leaders prepare to turn their companies over to the next generation. The fieldwide wave of leadership turnover in nonprofit theatre has been documented in many outlets, including the HowlRound Theatre Commons series The Changeover. However, there is a lack of documentation of Latinx theatre within the US theatre. The next generation of leaders should have access to the history and trajectory of teatros, too, so that they will be able to make decisions that are informed by that history. The Latinx Theatre Commons (LTC) works to fill that gap through publications like Café Onda and the documentation of all of our gatherings through the HowlRound journal. By facilitating conversations between leaders to be published on HowlRound’s free online journal, the Latinx Theatre Leaders at the Forefront series continues to expand coverage of Latinx teatro, making it more accessible to anyone wanting to learn more.

When I was pursuing my undergraduate degree, it was easier to learn about the history and robust success of predominantly white institutions (PWIs) than it was to find out more about the history of teatro movements. This led me to believe that the teatros lacked community organizing I craved and that this work was housed in PWIs. Yes, you read that right! The community organizing that has historically been led by Brown and Black people, both in theatre and more broadly, was not taught in my theatre classes and became challenging to find on my own. Because of this, my thesis focused on the history of teatro movements beginning in 1965. Through this research, I was able to learn about the vast history of teatro and the systemic ways in which organizations of color are under-resourced compared to larger regional theatres. PWI’s are often celebrated for their work in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), although artists have been using their platforms to push back against inequity in these institutions. Still, these theatres are seen as pushing boundaries when they produce plays by people of color and provide closed captions, relaxed performances, or translations to a play. But the teatro movement has always been rooted in inclusion and meeting the needs of its community.

Teatros did not set out to fulfill a DEI initiative; they did so (and continue to do so) because for decades no one else was providing these opportunities.

We need to look no further than El Teatro Campesino, which began educating farmworkers about the need to unionize in 1965 as César Chávez and Dolores Huerta were founding the United Farm Workers Movement. Then, there is the Latino Theater Company, which produces work that is reflective of the Los Angeles, California Latinx community. In a panel during LTC’s Comedy Carnaval last year, the Latino Theater Company’s associate artistic director, Evelina Fernandez, said “I write for Los Angeles Chicanos… there is something revolutionary about putting characters on the stage that your audience doesn’t see at the regionals”. In 1976, GALA Hispanic Theatre began for similar reasons, creating work that centers Latinx arts and culture after artistic director, Hugo Medrano, saw the cultural gap of Spanish-speaking theatre in Washington, DC. As part of their fiftieth anniversary season just this year, Su Teatro in Denver, Colorado produced Papi, Me, and César Chávez, which was written and directed by artistic director Anthony J. Garcia after talking to a classroom of kids who, when asked if they knew César Chávez, thought he meant boxer Julio César Chávez. These are only a few of the theatres that have been a part of a larger movement. Though I admit we are not without fault, teatros did not set out to fulfill a DEI initiative; they did so (and continue to do so) because for decades no one else was providing these opportunities. In this interview series, we’ll be transported to Los Angeles, Denver, Minneapolis, and other cities where the work to engage and serve the Latinx community has been ongoing for decades as the foundation of many organizations, not an arm of their community programming.

Now, as the producer of the LTC, I serve on the steering committee of the National Latinx Theater Initiative (NLTI), which supports the ecosystem of theatre organizations and ensembles founded by, led by, and serving the Latinx community in the United States and Puerto Rico. Through conversations with fellow steering committee member Abel Lopez, who is associate producing director at GALA Hispanic Theater, a question emerged: what if Latinx teatro leaders shared their history and hopes for the future during a conversation with an emerging Latinx leader in the field? In our conversation, Abel reflected on what a shame it would be if we were to lose the opportunity to hear from the individuals who founded theatres or became important artists to theatres, losing all that history and experience with them.

One woman speaks into a microphone and another woman stands next to her and smiles.

Amelia Acosta Powell and Jacqueline Flores at the 2022 Latinx Theatre Commons Comedy Carnaval, held at Su Teatro in Denver, Colorado. Photo by Montour Photography.

How can we ensure that teatros continue to exist beyond their founders? In a 2021 survey of teatros in the United States and Puerto Rico, they all named archiving support as their second most pressing need following general operation support. The funding structures in the United States were created to propel PWIs. And while systemic change doesn’t happen overnight, I hope that initiatives like NLTI and the Black Seed are the beginning of a long overdue assessment of philanthropy in the theatre field. The resources afforded to PWI’s have allowed them to have more visibility than teatros, more funding for staff positions, a clearer path to owning property, and other advantages.

While I cannot solely reverse centuries of oppression, I can use the resources available to me to support archiving needs by ensuring that we hear and document the history of teatros and the leaders who have led them. Abel and I curated Latinx Theatre Leaders at the Forefront to serve as a historical intervention that adds to the limited existing documentation of Latinx theatre leaders. This series convenes Latinx theatre leaders to amplify their experiences in a field that has ignored their existence and failed to provide enough resources to build the infrastructure necessary for success. The interviews that make up this series model horizontal mentorship and learning by bringing together leaders for intergenerational conversations about choosing a career in theatre, finding community at a time when few people were engaging in culturally specific work, the teatro movement, influencial mentors, and their hopes for the future.

The scope of work around the country differs and we hope this series shows the diversity within Latinx culture. In this series, Abel and I chose to define leadership broadly, and we are not only thinking of artistic directors as leaders. We included artists who don’t have an individualistic approach but instead are concerned about their peers and the experience of their peers. We were intentional about featuring people whose years of experience range widely and who think critically about the state of our field. By intentionally pairing leaders who didn’t have a deep relationship before, we hope these conversations serve as the beginning of continued partnership.

We are all better because of the work our elders have accomplished, and if we’re going to one day inherit and continue their work, we need to be in dialogue with them.

I hope this series serves as a resource for anyone who is curious about the vast history of Latinx teatro, and if they also identify as Latinx, I hope it shows them that people that look like us have always held positions of leadership and enacted change. This series is also a place where people who don’t identify as Latinx can learn more about Latinx history. We all benefit from learning about each other’s histories and experiences. In our time, it has become easier to form judgements about organizational practices without knowing the context or history of these organizations’ decisions. The conversations in this series introduce the pioneers who have led our field for years and the radical ways in which they have operated against traditional theatre models. The energy and passion needed to sustain a teatro for decades cannot be feigned. We are all better because of the work our elders have accomplished, and if we’re going to one day inherit and continue their work, we need to be in dialogue with them. If the last sixty years are any indication of what the future holds, we are going to need strong shoulders.

Over the next few months, we will publish conversations between Latinx leaders around the United States and Canada. In this first week of the series, we will introduce Jose Luis Valenzuela, artistic director of the Latino Theater Company in conversation with Nidia Medina, associate artistic director at INTAR Theatre; Olga Sanchez Saltveit, artistic director emerita at Milagro Theatre and assistant professor of theatre at Middlebury College in conversation with Shayna Schlosberg, equity leader at Oregon Public Broadcasting; and Abel Lopez, producing artistic director at GALA Hispanic Theatre in conversation with me. Future conversations include Tony Garcia and Claudia de Vasco, Milta Ortiz and Al Justiniano, Rosalba Rolon and Eric Swartz, and many more.

A large group stands on a stage and smiles at the camera.

Attendees of the 2017 Latinx Theatre Commons International Convening, the Encuentro de las Américas International Theatre Festival. Photo by Bracero LA.

A commons is a resource owned by no one that benefits everyone. In a commons, we all manage those resources. This series is our way of contributing to the stewardship of the commons, and we hope it invigorates others to have conversations with the elders in their life and learn about their history. This is not meant to be a project with a beginning and end, but our own contributions towards systemic change. If you want to take part in a similar conversation, submit to contribute content to HowlRound. This is not meant to be an exclusive list and we welcome others to join in the continued conversation and sharing of resources.

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Thoughts from the curators

If history is made by those who write it, then the Latinx Theatre Leaders at the Forefront series serves as a historical intervention by adding to the limited existing documentation of Latinx theatre leaders.This series convenes Latinx theatre leaders to amplify their experiences in a field that has ignored their existence and failed to provide enough resources to build the infrastructure necessary for success. In an effort to continue legacy and leadership cultivation, these interviews pair established theatremakers with new and future leaders, creating intergenerational conversations that model horizontal mentorship and learning. Join us to share in these leaders’ hope for future generations and to learn how they have mobilized that hope by creating community and producing work that centers Latinx stories.

Latinx Theatre Leaders at the Forefront

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