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Sustaining the Flame at the Latinx Theatre Commons Tenth Anniversary Convening

My experience of the third day of the Latinx Theatre Commons (LTC) Tenth Anniversary Convening began just after midnight, when I walked into the Marriott Courtyard’s private lounge and found old friends and new immersed in boisterous conversation and celebration. I was home. I had watched Thursday’s livestream of the Opening Ceremonies, caught the faces of friends I hadn’t seen in years, and my heart was bursting at the thought of seeing them in person. Driving to Boston held a profound sense of anticipation for the reunion, and it did not disappoint. Looking back, I see how this one day engaged all four tenets of the LTC: scholarship, advocacy, art-making, and, of course, convening.

Saturday morning began early with a meeting for the Wallace Field Studies Project, a conversation among scholar-practitioners working on the creation of a robust and accessible archive of Latine theatre and performance. We were in the room where the LTC had held its first convening in 2013, and the vast room I had held in my memory now struck me as cozy. Had the room shrunk? No matter. The LTC had inspired me to enter the academy back in 2015, and to discuss the current state of the archive with this circle of scholar-champions—Carla Della Gatta, Jorge Huerta,Anne García-Romero, Brian Eugenio Herrera, Patricia Herrera, Noe Montez, and Patricia Ybarra—was deeply meaningful. Libraries around the country hold the papers of renowned Latine theatremakers and companies, but the archive is far greater than what is renowned. Moreover, some of those materials are mis-archived and unlocatable, or undigitized and unsearchable, creating an erasure, in effect, of our performance history. Furthermore, there are records held in personal storage spaces and theatre offices that are at risk of deterioration for the lack of the appropriate conditions needed to maintain documents and other ephemera in good condition. In short, there is a crisis of Latine theatre and performance documentation that only fuels misunderstanding of our work. Without context, critique is flawed. Without access to writings and recordings of earlier work, creatives are denied the inspiration and legacy of cultural art forms, practices, and aesthetics. What will it take to build an accessible portal to our vast art history and legacy? All of this and more was our Saturday morning’s discussion.

A group of people sit in chairs in a circle listening to a speaker.

Abigail Vega speaks to conveners at the Latinx Theatre Commons Tenth Anniversary Convening. Photo by Anna Olivella.

While I was attending this meeting, there was a concurrent session on “Balancing Life and Art” facilitated by Tiffany Vega-Gibson and Adriana Gaviria, longtime LTC “commoners” (folks who share the responsibility for the commons) and leaders of the Parent Artist Advocacy League (PAAL). Vega-Gibson is a PAAL national board member, and Gaviria serves on the PAAL executive team. Cristina Fernandez, PAAL chief rep for Los Angeles, also joined the roundtable where conveners shared their experiences as artists with caregiving responsibilities, such as childcare, elder care, and care for family members with special needs and disabilities. Gaviria noted, “Our one-hour scheduled session extended to two hours, demonstrating the desire we all had for more of these conversations and spaces.” She continued:

We all have so many varied experiences, and it was deeply special hearing and learning from each other. As champion for the 2019 LTC Miami Convening, we held our first national conversation for caregivers, allyship, and community in the arts specifically geared toward Latiné artists, and five years later, although I have seen a shift for more supportive workplaces, I still see the importance and value in checking in with each other on a human level, learning what challenges we are facing, and continuing to explore with each other more supportive solutions in balancing life and art.

The first ten years were about growth, and the next ten would be about self-determination.

Next came the meeting for LTC steering and advisory committee members. With so many attending this weekend, a conversation about the LTC’s future was an opportunity not to be missed. Important concerns were on the table, including the future of the movement itself. The day before, the LTC’s next three-year round of programming had been announced, an ambitious slate of diverse projects reflecting the LTC’s passion and scope for projects that would continue to transform the narrative of the American theatre and elevate the visibility of Latine theatre making and theatremakers. Saturday’s steering and advisory committee meeting was necessary to take the pulse of the LTC and support its healthiest future. As Lisa Portes put it, the first ten years were about growth, and the next ten would be about self-determination.

During the first half of this meeting, we sat around six tables that held the same materials: a page with the LTC’s mission, vision, and values statements; copies of the LTC’s budgets over the past few years; the notes from the LTC small group meeting held in April 2018; the consultant agreement for the LTC producer, and the relationship language between HowlRound Theatre Commons and the LTC. This set of documents allowed us to generate questions about all the above, beginning with, is the LTC eternal? Do our budgets match our ethos? Are we supporting our producer (who supports all our programming) equitably and humanely? Do we feel the relationship with HowlRound is sound and mutually beneficial? We were charged with generating investigatory questions; what more do we need to know to make informed decisions?

A quick break for lunch provided another opportunity for hugs and hellos to dear friends, but soon we were guided on to the next task. Knowing that it would be impossible to have a deep dive into all five potential topics, we were invited to vote for those we most wished to discuss. Strips of stickers were distributed to everyone, and we voted by posting them among the sheets that named the five talking points. Few stickers were placed on “the future of the LTC,” perhaps indicating that most of us were not quite ready to say goodbye to this remarkable instrument of solidarity and change. “The Producer’s Agreement” and “Relationship with HowlRound” were selected for our topics of discussion. Soon, the conference tables were struck, and the room was transformed into one dominated by a large circle of chairs. From this point on, we would all be in conversation together.

I was grateful for the wisdom of the organizers who placed our most pressing questions before us and invited us to determine which we felt were right to discuss at this moment.

Tara Houston, one of last year’s Producer’s Support Group (a small group of volunteers who covered the producer’s work while the LTC producer was on leave), continued to facilitate this conversation. She invited us to center ourselves with breath and then, keeping our feet flat on the floor, to imagine roots stemming from the soles of our feet into the ground, and further, to imagine our roots intertwining with those of everyone gathered in the room. With this image we became more than a hive mind: we were grounded together. Tara reminded us of something said by José Luis Valenzuela on an earlier day, about the flame we carry within us. She invited us to imagine that light illuminating the ones who came before us, the ones who worked beside us but who might not be in the room that day, and the ones yet to come. We were holding the past, present, and future simultaneously in our hearts and minds. Thus, we began the conversation on the relationship between HowlRound and the LTC.

HowlRound and the LTC were birthed at almost the same time, in 2012. Since then, HowlRound has provided infrastructural support for the LTC’s operations, and it serves informally as a fiscal sponsor so that the LTC can apply for grants. HowlRound hosted Café Onda, the LTC’s blog, before it became unwieldy; after that, the essays were folded into HowlRound, supported by HowlRound’s editorial team. Now funders were asking if the LTC should be hosted by a different organization, such as an independent Latine cultural organization that more reflected the LTC’s cultural identity. We imagined the burden that such a realignment might place on a typically under-resourced arts organization. We also imagined becoming our own nonprofit 501(c)3 and the organizational responsibilities that would require us to function and carry out our plans. Clearly this conversation would need to be picked up in the future. There were too many variables to consider and too many questions to answer. Tara Houston wisely reminded us that “decisions are an illusion.”

We turned our attention to discuss the producer’s contract, which since the beginning has been as a consultant, not an employee. While this status allowed the producer to remain free of allegiance to a “boss” such as HowlRound or Emerson College (over the LTC), it also means that the producer has had to source their own benefits, such as health insurance, and pay self-employment tax, which, as any independent contractor knows, can take a big bite out of one’s earnings. Advocacy was raised for the health and well-being of the LTC producer. It was clear from a review of the job description and glance at the upcoming schedule that they were asked for more than was possible. That is, to be in multiple places at once, producing multiple programs within a too short period of time. Even with an increase in the fee and added benefits, the demands were simply unhealthy. We called upon the LTC steering committee to reactivate the Governance Committee, and to consider the schedule of the proposed LTC programming. Perhaps some can be moved to later dates. Again, this conversation is one that will need to be continued, and soon.

Two convening attendees have a discussion.

R. Réal Vargas Alanis and Jean Carlo Yunen A. in discussion at the Latinx Theatre Commons Tenth Anniversary Convening. Photo by Anna Olivella.

The meeting ended with a feeling of urgency, advocacy, and support for the movement which, Miranda Gonzalez reminded us, only moves at the rate of our own healing. I was grateful for the wisdom of the organizers who placed our most pressing questions before us and invited us to determine which we felt were right to discuss at this moment. The conversation was respectful, curious, caring, and open-hearted, like a family meeting. Folks asked, “How can I help?”

On to the artmaking! Four teams of Boston-based Latine artists worked with four groups of conveners in simultaneous workshops to create vibrant presentations. Daniel Irizarry, currently devising and directing Plum Box—Strange—Ideal & More Than… at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), shared his physical approach to theatremaking inspired by dada, clowning, and the grotesque. The ensemble performed in unison and individually, creating order and disorder among them, and including wild gestural tableaux while declaring their visions for the future of Latine theatre. “I see available spaces to create and inspire for all artists that need it and want it,” shouted Daniel Jáquez. “¡Veo un mundo donde todos son gay y tienen aire acondicionado!” said Krystal Ortiz. Anne García-Romero envisioned “Expansive Latine productions in every city giving opportunities across lines of age, class, race, culture, and ethnicity!” Next, Eddie Maisonet stepped up and offered a reminder to consider accessibility for our artists and audiences as we ask them to engage in our creative work. We risk alienation and exclusion when only slight adjustments could make the experiences we create enjoyable for all. Eddie shared information about Think Outside the Vox, a resource for culturally competent audio description, toward the prioritization of health and peace in our theatre and performance making.

Boston’s Hyde Square Task Force crafted the final creative presentations with two more groups that both explored the folkloric tradition of plena, a musical genre of Puerto Rico that serves as a way to spread messages among the people. Nicolas Perez and Josie Ross and their ensemble created lyrics to a captivating rhythm performed with drums and shakers interwoven with the words aquí na’ma te quiero (here, I only love you). In a very short time, everyone in the audience was singing along, swept up by the joy of the music and the singers. Then Juan De Los Santos and Genesis Rodriguez and their ensemble delved into plena and dance. Keeping in mind the future of Latine theatre, De Los Santos reminded us that we need to know who we are to know what we might do in the future. The dreams of our parents are often realized in us, as they sacrifice theirs for the sake of ours. Making one’s dreams come true not only honors our lives but our parents’ as well.

Participants in white skirts dance in a circle.

Participants of the LTC Tenth Anniversary Convening showcase what they learned during local artist workshops. Photo by Anna Olivella.

The final sharing began, as people clad in long, full white cotton skirts danced on and into a circle. One by one, each dancer made their way to the center of the circle to express their own joy and intention. When each had their turn, the circle opened into a line, and audience members were invited to join and dance through the room. This session could not have ended any more joyously, with tradition, inspiration, collaboration, and camaraderie resonating through the room.

The time came to say farewell. Miranda Gonzalez, Sylvia Cervantes Blush, and I were invited to say a few words about dear leaders of our field who had passed on since our first convening in Boston. I remembered how, at that convening, we had built a Día de los Muertos altar that had held images and memorabilia of our heroes living and dead; some of those heroes were now gone. We honored the inimitable Miriam Colón, María Irene Fornés, Margarita Galbán, Hugo Medrano, Diane Rodriguez, and Myrna Salazar. This session was streamed and recorded by HowlRound so I won’t say too much here, except that I was moved by the sharing that followed as conveners voiced the names of those they wished to remember and honor in the circle, and the room responded in unison, “¡Presente!”

As with all LTC convenings, it was hard to leave this party. The only comfort was the reassurance that another was on the way.

Our closing ceremonies provided us the opportunity to express our gratitude and visions for the future. Postcards and note cards were distributed to everyone in the room. Lisa Portes invited us to write our mailing address on the postcard, and a commitment statement, a vision we would strive to manifest. This is a tradition of LTC convenings, to articulate our commitments and activate the power generated by community support. On the notecards, headed by the phrase Muchas Gracias, we were invited to write a note of gratitude to someone at the convening and then to bring the cards with us to the closing fiesta. Finally, we were called to consider mentorship, as mentors and mentees all, to commit to learning from each other. We moved the chairs away and with our commitment postcards in hand, headed to the west end of the room for a group photo and the final ritual. Juliana Frey-Méndez, Fran Astorga, Juan Carlo Yunén Aróstegui, JZ Marrero, Becka Morton, and Laura Moreno created a “threshold” where they stood in the middle of the room. They asked us to breathe together and consider our individual commitments as projects held and supported by community embrace and generosity. We walked across the threshold, handed over our cards to them, and then created one circle around the bag in which the cards were placed. Juliana invited us to rub our hands together, acknowledging the power generated by that friction, and then to extend them toward our commitments. “These are the hands that sustain the flame.” Our shared focus empowered our visions.

A band sings onstage.

Clave and Blues performing at the Closing Fiesta of the Latinx Theatre Commons Tenth Anniversary Convening. Photo by Anna Olivella. 

On to the Closing Fiesta at Croma, a converted church space, where we were greeted with mouthwatering pollo guisado, maduros, arroz, and flan created by Dominican restaurant Merengue. Soon, the excellent Clave and Blues took the stage, and we were on the dance floor the rest of the night. Gratitude cards were shared, mentorships confirmed (and re-confirmed), and so many photos snapped. As with all LTC convenings, it was hard to leave this party. The only comfort was the reassurance that another was on the way. Latine theatremakers passionate about our work and our familia will certainly gather again.

Many thanks to all the people who made this Tenth Anniversary Convening possible: LTC producer Jacqueline Flores, the vision and planning committees, the HowlRound team, and Emerson College. As Jacqueline said at the end, she witnessed people “doing incredible, innovative, and vulnerable things” throughout the convening, and we were poised to take that spirit, the flame, forward and beyond.

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Thoughts from the curator

The LTC Tenth Anniversary Convening was a celebration of the last ten years, a reflection on the LTC's learnings and successes thus far, and an opportunity to discuss the future of the LTC and have field-wide discussions. This series features documentation and reflections from attendees. 

Latinx Theatre Commons Tenth Anniversary Convening

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