Learning from and Listening to Latinx Youth at the 2019 LTC TYA Sin Fronteras Festival and Convening
There has never been a more pertinent time for the first-ever Latinx Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) festival to take place in the United States. The recurring assault on Latinx immigrant youth, particularly from Central America and Latin America—through family separation and deportations, threats to DREAMers, and policies that have allowed children to live in literal cages on our borders—sends the message that undervaluing youth of color and their stories in this country is status quo. Yet the message that reverberated at the 2019 Latinx Theatre Commons (LTC) Theatre for Young Audiences Sin Fronteras Festival and Convening was that Latinx TYA is here to counter the nation’s devaluing of youth of color through stories that empower Latinx youth as the leaders they are ¡ahora!/now.
For a few days in late January in Austin, Texas, 150 adult festival conveners from across the Américas and approximately 1200 youth from nearby schools attended the LTC TYA convening—the first of its kind in the States. In conjunction with the LTC, Teatro Vivo (Austin’s first and only bilingual Latinx theatre), the University of Texas at Austin, and the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC), the festival—led by producers Roxanne Schroeder Arce, associate professor of drama and theatre at UT-Austin; Emily Aguilar, director of the Theatre for Youth and Arts Management programs at Bowling Green State University; and Abigail Vega, producer of the Latinx Theatre Commons—presented five shows that encompassed the diversity of Latinx TYA.
Originating in the United States, Mexico, and Chile, these shows—Niños que fueron grandes, Cenicienta, Epic Tales from the Land of Melanin, Coatlicue 2.0: La diosa que vino del aire, and Tomás and the Library Lady—covered both canonical Latinx and Latin American works and innovative, new TYA voices. Two staged readings were also part of the convening: Dulce by Ramón Esquivel, and Óyeme by Miriam Gonzáles.
Together, this lineup put the spotlight on the transcultural, racial, economic, gender, sexuality, and language diversity of Latinx youth. Each show encompassed many spoken languages, like English, Spanish, Spanglish, Espanglish, and Nahautl. They also included the non-linguistic languages of body movement, gesture, found-object puppetry, mime, and clown. All of the works treated children as adults and with respect.
Over the festival’s three days on the UT Austin campus and the MACC, attendees not only watched but learned—through workshops, panels, discussions, and art-making events centered in validating youth of colors’ experiences. The framework of learning and listening to youth began at the opening ceremony. Festival conveners gathered in a circle outside while members of the Maikan/Garza tribe, alongside Dr. Mario Garza and Maria Rocha from the Indigenous Cultures Institute, led participants through an opening blessing that honored their Coahuiltecan ancestors. This opening was followed by Aztec danza from Miltotiliztli Yaoyollohtli of Dallas, Texas. Aguilar then entreated festival conveners to reflect on two questions: “What do you have to learn?” and “What do you have to teach?” Mario Ramirez, artistic director of Teatro Vivo, then reiterated this central lesson: “This weekend, we are all here to learn from the young people around us. This weekend is about them; to see them, to hear them. They will be creating the theatre of the future.”
The programming fulfilled this promise. Latinx youth were the focus of the entire festival—not only as audience members and storytellers but as workshop speakers and leaders, amplifying youth as valuable voices. After the outside opening ceremonies, conveners went indoors, where they were welcomed by two students from ProyectoTeatro, a Spanish-language bilingual theatre in Austin. The students reiterated one of the salient points of the convening: how necessary theatre has been for them in developing their voices as Latinx youth and providing a medium to project their voices because “we are our future.” LTC producer Vega then explained the central framework of the convening. There would be three layers of learning: “From the show, from the talkback with the students, and from the talkback with us.”
There has never been a more pertinent time for the first-ever Latinx Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) festival to take place in the United States.
So, what did we learn about Latinx TYA and from the youth while watching these works with them? In the bilingual (English/Spanish) play Cenicienta, a feminist retelling of Cinderella written by local theatremakers Rupert Reyes of Teatro Vivo and Caroline Reck of Glass Half Full Theatre and directed by Reck, we learned about the importance of imagination and writing to a young person’s self-esteem. The play follows protagonist Belinda (Maddy Polomo) who creates her own puppets out of everyday objects to navigate her emotionally abusive family who has locked her in the basement. In a powerful moment, Belinda reads a poem she has written about finding confidence in her voice. The poem was, in fact, a devised piece written by fifth graders at an Austin dual-language school. This choice illustrates how important it was for Reyes and Reck to include young people’s voices in the play’s creation. Connecting to this theme of empowerment, one of the elementary students in the audience later voiced what they believed to be the show’s larger message: “Be the person you’ve waited for all your life and never give up.”
In our post-show discussion of what we learned from the youth, conveners remarked how students were fully engaged with Cenicienta throughout, even if they didn’t understand one of the languages being spoken. Such moments emphasize the importance of Latinx youth seeing and hearing actors who look and sound like them on stage—such representation is necessary in fostering youth’s connection with theatre.
In the more conceptual Spanish-language Niños que fueron grandes by the Chilean company La Negra María Teatro, directed by Nicolas Valiente Blamey, we also learned about the importance of culturally relevant language and non-verbal languages in students’ abilities to connect with historical work. The play used puppetry and object theatre to stage the difficult childhoods of three Chilean writers: Baldomero Lillo, Gabriela Mistral, and Manuel Rojas. With a focus on physicality of movement and sound, the work captivated the attention of the youth in the audience, even though the medium was one youth are not used to.
One of the adult conveners remarked that the children’s discomfort was noticeable at the beginning, yet as the show progressed, particularly as the actors spoke in Spanish, the kids began to shift and settle into the world of the play. Another convener noted that as the children were walking into the theatre, many of them were speaking in English, but as they left, they were speaking primarily in Spanish. Ultimately, the Latinx youth in attendance were able to enter into the work because they heard Spanish, which affirmed their cultural identities.
In another play, non-linguistic sounds and movements drove the storytelling. From the bilingual (Nahuatl/Spanish) Coatlicue 2.0: La diosa que vino del aire by Daniel Loyola, presented by the Mexican company TraZmallo Ixinti with direction by Leonardo Villa, we learned that students connect to theatre when they are treated with great respect and sincerity. The play brought to life the creation of the Aztec world through Loyola’s performance of legendary figure Coatlicue, the goddess who gave birth to the cosmos. The show used sophisticated storytelling and performance techniques, including dance, music, mask, and clown. Yet the youth’s response to Coatlicue 2.0—where they watched Coatlicue search for her lost children in the creation of the universe—showed that engaging with such work is not always a comfortable process.
In the post-show discussion, some of the youth shared that they felt scared, nervous, surprised, and confused at the beginning. One young person remarked that they were uncertain about the gender identity of the looming and towering Coatlicue. However, based on how the youth then spoke about various moments throughout—the opening with instruments, the colorful flower falling from the sky, how the sound of a conch was reminiscent of water—it was clear they grasped the imaginative world of Coatlicue 2.0. And they did so through a work that centered Indigenous epistemologies.
From the other two shows, we learned about the range of genres that encompass Latinx TYA in the United States, from the canonical realist play Tomás and the Library Lady written by José Cruz González, to the newer, fantasy-structured piece Epic Tales from the Land of Melanin devised by FEMelanin, an artistic collective comprised of multi-disciplinary, self-identified femme artists of color and directed by Alyssa Vera Ramos.
Tomás and the Library Lady, directed by David Saar and presented by Childsplay, played to mostly adult conveners and community members. The piece tells the story of Chicanx writer and professor Tomás Rivera, the son of migrant workers and author of the classic book ...y no se lo tragó la tierra who develops a love for learning when he meets the “Library Lady.” The woman encourages Tomás to become a reader amidst a life of uncertainty and self-doubt. With bilingual verbal dialogue (English/Spanish) and digital projections, audiences experienced the protagonist’s development of literacy through his emerging self-esteem nurtured by books.
While all plays at the festival showcased the diversity, artistry, and various performance vocabularies of Latinx TYA, the plenaries focused on the labor and politics involved in creating and producing such work.
The bilingual (English/Spanish) Epic Tales from the Land of Melanin, directed by Ramos, connects back to Tomás and the Library Lady as a story centering protagonists who, like Tomás, are agents of their own destinies and are helped by their community. With verbal storytelling, sound, movement, DIY aesthetics, and audience participation, the show, based on histories of real-life women of color, follows three young female warrior-explorers on a journey to reclaim their individual and respective communities’ power from the “takers.” The audience aids them as they fight evil force fields and monsters they meet along their journey, where they learn that the power they seek has always resided in all of them and that community support is what’s needed to fight evil. Epic Tales from the Land of Melanin demonstrated that silliness and play keeps us in the harder issues longer.
While all plays at the festival showcased the diversity, artistry, and various performance vocabularies of Latinx TYA, the plenaries focused on the labor and politics involved in creating and producing such work. Adult conveners learned about the challenges of producing Latinx TYA and the inspirations and goals behind some of the major artistic creators and practitioners of this work.
“Exploring the Roots of TYA in Latin America and the United States” was moderated by Schroeder-Arce and included panelists Marco Novelo, professor at the School of Arts in Anahuac University Mexico; Miriam Gonzales, playwright of numerous Latinx TYA works; José Cruz Gonzalez, prolific Latinx TYA playwright and professor at California State University Los Angeles; José Casas, playwright and assistant professor of theatre, drama, and playwrighting at the University of Michigan; and Diana Guizado, actor and student in UT-Austin’s theatre and dance program. The panelists explored the roots of Latinx and Latin American TYA audiences, addressing the viability of the work, funding realities, the need to diversify TYA for youth of color, and the politics of white writers adapting Latinx stories for white theatre institutions.
In this session, we learned about issues of representation and visibility of Latinx playwrights, particularly the need for more Indigenous and Afro-Latinx TYA. On this point Schroeder-Arce asked, “Is there a certain kind of Latinx story that theatres want to produce?” Gonzales responded with: “It all goes back to who is accepted into the American Latinx family.”
It was clear that the majority of the panelists were driven to produce Latinx TYA because they did not see their communities represented on stages. As Casas powerfully proclaimed, “everyone’s stories deserve a space” and that we need “accomplices, not allies; people who look like us” writing and producing this work. Similarly, Gonzales remarked that TYA needs to represent the new narrative of America—where there is a blending of intersections, of inter-ethnic mixing—and that we need to look at the persistence of institutional racism to address why this work is not produced. Overall, the panelists remarked that stories of diverse representation of Latinx communities are out there, we just need to find them, publish them, and produce them—all the while ensuring that Latinx people are represented in positions of power in the producing process.
During the plenary “Producing Latinx TYA in our Theatres and Communities,” the topic of navigating Latinx TYA collaborations with historically white theatres came to the forefront. Moderated by Aguilar, the panelists included Rupert Reyes, founding artistic director of Teatro Vivo; Ramón Esquivel, Latinx TYA playwright and educator at Central Washington University; Crystal Mercado, founder and artistic director of Bocón Theatre Company; and Nat Miller, director of education at Zach Theatre. The conversation centered around the challenges, successes, and strategies in producing and advocating for Latinx TYA, as well as the logistics of working with area schools to bring young audiences to see this work. We also learned from each panelist about their unique regional producing circumstances and what types of stories they feel haven’t been told or need to be told. Mercado affirmed the need for more stories that “resist the ‘identity play’ and are not about proving our latinidad”—they can be about any themes, as long as they “have a family up there that looks like [us].”
When an audience member asked, “How do you not get swallowed up by a large theatre, especially when the ‘smaller’ theatre is run by people of color/Latinx people? How do you make sure it’s a partnership?,” dialogue among the panelists went deeper. Reyes said that you have to set non-negotiable collaboration guidelines and transparency up front. Mercado noted that you need to have the “hard and uncomfortable” meeting early on to ensure that the collaboration is equitable and that papers outlining the terms of collaboration are signed. Esquivel spoke to the larger context of institutional racism: that if you “lift your foot up off the gas” just a little bit, you should expect those inequalities to surface, and that, to avoid this, we need to ensure that the good, yet informal, relationships already built with ally institutions are institutionalized. Finally, Miller expressed that communication is key and shared that he and Reyes had many of those difficult conversations in their co-production of Cenicienta and subsequent collaborations.
The work, of course, is not yet done.
Much of the work of the convening happened off-stage and outside of the plenaries. In the opening night art sharing ¡Caleidoscopio!, conveners were able to experience the diversity and range of Latinx TYA being cultivated throughout the Américas. Curated by Kim Peter Kovac and UT students Maribel Leola and Juan Leyva, ¡Caleidoscopio! introduced conveners to new projects from both an older and newer generation of artistic creators, producers, and educators. Presenters shared Latinx TYA and Latinx work being produced in Chicago, Illinois; Seattle, Washington; Austin, Texas; San Antonio, Texas; Rio Grande Valley in Texas; Veracruz, Mexico; Tempe, Arizona; Denver, Colorado; Mexico City, Mexico; and Guatemala.
Conveners also had the choice to participate in several breakout sessions, including an interactive bilingual workshop “Face to Face with Rising Youth Theatre and Teatro Bravo,” led by Rising Youth Theatre and Teatro Bravo. Focused on teaching strategies for creating art with young people, the workshop leaders led participants on how to create art through intersectional frameworks. In an interactive laboratory for producers, presenters, and playwrights, “Devise and Conquer: Creative Collaborations in Commissions,” playwright Georgina Escobar led participants through a series of activating “commissioning prompts” (i.e. a climate change play, the reinvented classic, a new musical, a play for schools) to foster ways to develop new models of artistic collaboration between presenters, the community, and artists.
Performances and dialogues that expanded the discussion of Latinx TYA continued throughout the rest of the convening. In “(Un)Documents: Performing Migrant Childhoods,” artist Jesús I. Valles led participants through an “infor-mance,” performing excerpts from their solo show (Un)Documents, which tracks the performer’s journey of migration, followed by a post-performance discussion with Rudy Ramirez on what it means to perform migrant childhoods on stage and in the high school classroom. In the interactive panel “Palabras Del Cielo: An Exploration of Latina/o Theatre for Young Audiences,” Casas led a dialogue on issues of scholarship, productions, access, and diversity.
In “Archival Show-and-Tell: 100 Years of Latinx Theater,” conveners had the ability to learn about the archival holdings of theatre groups and playwrights at the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, one of the premier libraries in the world focused on Latin America and Latinx Studies. In “Learning from the ProyectoTeatro Youth Company”—part-workshop, part-performance session, youth director Luis Ordaz Gutiérrez and the students of the company shared the movement warm-ups and performance techniques they engage with as the basis of producing work. It was clear from Gutiérrez’s interaction with his students that he sees them as artists and collaborators, treating them as leaders. The ensemble then performed powerful vignettes from their play Por Los Mojados; both “Siri” and “Cruzando” dramatized the migrant experience, amplifying the need for the United States to pay greater attention to the victimization, violence, and vulnerability of young people crossing the US-Mexico border from Central America.
In “Dialogue/Diálogos: The Long Road Today,” González shared his two-year bilingual theatre project Dialogue/Diálogos: The Long Road Today. With stories from the Santa Ana Latino community, the piece focuses on healing and social change. David Lozano of Cara Mía Theatre led “The Mask y el juego: The Dynamics of Mask Performance,” introducing participants to the principles of performing with masks and spotlighting how his company uses them in their productions both for young and adult audiences. In the Spanish-language session “Festival Interprepas Tijuana Hace Teatro (THT): Experiencias del teatro en la frontera que han empoderado la voz de los jóvenes,” Jesús Quintero and Ramón Verdugo shared how both the Festival Interprepas Tijuana and the productions of Tijuana Hace Teatro have worked for over nine years to establish a relationship with the young people of the border region.
At the closing reception, conveners were treated to the eclectic sounds of the youngest Latina band in Austin, the Tiarra Girls—carrying the sounds of Latinx youth empowerment into the final moments of the convening. The work, of course, is not yet done. Many conveners headed home to institutions and regions that still willfully neglect Latinx youth stories. Many will continue to have difficult conversations to ensure that Latinx TYA is produced. Many will still have to navigate the economic realities of working with companies and educational institutions, as well as in supporting their own artistry. And many will continue to engage in the daily hustle of producing Latinx TYA.
Yet we went home knowing that seeds were planted at the Sin Fronteras festival. From the stories we witnessed, the lessons we learned, the new connections and collaborations we made, and the wisdom we gained from our youth and elders, the next generation of Latinx TYA will be produced—not tomorrow, but ¡ahora!