by Maria Lopez
“Popular theater” includes stories told by specific communities for social and political advancement in a larger environment in which they are not represented equitably, according to the Are We There Yet? Community University Research Alliance.
One of these projects, a farmworker theater company created in the 1960s called Teatro Campesino, told the stories of people active in the Mexican-American civil rights movement. Actors performed on flatbed trucks during demonstrations.
“We created our own media, theater, in our own language,” said Zarco Guerrero, a mask maker and Chicano activist involved in the movement. “We don’t see ourselves in the movies? Put ourselves on the walls. Create our own history, our own imagery, our own narrative.”
Theater groups in Arizona continue to tell these stories today.
Cuts to education in Arizona, including the arts and Latino studies, have motivated a community of nonprofits, activists and theater companies to provide the platform for discussion and education.
Organizations like the Cultural Coalition Inc., which began in 1996, focus on bringing theater out of the traditional arenas and into various schools in low-income areas and public community settings.
“We don’t think that just arts in the schools is enough,” Cultural Coalition executive director Carmen Guerrero said. “Art has to be in the community. Art has to be with the people. Art has to be in your living room.”
Cultural Coalition has invested in putting on indigenous and Latino-authentic events like Dia de Los Muertos Phx Festival and El Puente Theater Festival and Mask Procession free for the community, and the organization also emphasizes art literacy.
Fernando Ruiz, a music major with an emphasis in voice performance at Grand Canyon University, did not have the opportunity to explore theater until college.
“Music and art get more attention than theater for sure,” Ruiz said. “I’ve been out of the public school system for a while, but things haven’t changed that much. Programs and funding keep being cut, especially in in low-income communities like where I grew up.”
Teatro Bravo, founded in 2000, was the first bilingual theater in the Phoenix area and enabled a consistency of Latino written, directed and performed plays that were missing in the Valley, founder and Chilean playwright Guillermo Reyes said.
You don’t have to wait for that one performance in Spanish that the major theater companies do a year, Reyes said.
Reyes said he has also noticed that Latino actors are more comfortable depicting controversial issues in their community on stage like the homicides near the Texas border in The Women of Juarez and gay life in Places to Touch Him.
Reyes has been teaching since 1996 at Arizona State University, where he has recruited most of his talent, and he has created an opportunity for students to be involved through Teatro Bravo. His former student, Ricky Araiza, is now the artistic director for Teatro Bravo.
Francis Davis, who supports the arts in Gilbert and Mesa, said he sees inaccurate depictions of Latinos in mainstream theater and the type of stories that major theaters choose to feature.
In a response to a Public Insight Network Bureau questionnaire, he pointed to Arizona’s S.B. 1070, which allowed police to question immigration status based on “reasonable suspicion.”
“Arizona was not an inclusive society and the minimization of the law proved that exploitation was still in place,” Davis, said,
Latinos are about half of the population in the state of Arizona, and members of the theater community said they will find alternative platforms, like theater, to share their side of the story until there is better representation of them in schools, mainstream media and government.
“Because art is politics,” Carmen Guerrero said. “You know, I don’t think we can have art without making a political statement and that’s how come we are a threat.”
Maria is studying at the Cronkite School with an emphasis in print reporting and digital media marketing. She has interned at both AZ Big Media and Randy Murray Productions. She is studying how to better engage the media and its potential and current audience.