One of the leading lights of the Chicano Theatre Movement, Jorge Huerta is now a professor emeritus of theater at UC San Diego. He spoke at the 40th anniversary of the founding of La Casa de la Raza, where he and several companions began El Teatro de la Esperanza. What follows is the text of his remarks.
I want to thank [executive directors] Raquel Lopez, Marisela Marquez, and the members of the Board of La Casa de la Raza for this incredible honor.
It is so good to be back home, in the House of the People. I don’t think I would be where I am today if it hadn’t been for the welcoming arms that received us as El Teatro de la Esperanza in the summer of 1971. So much has happened in the intervening years; too much to cover this evening. As a theatre historian, I would like to take you all back in time, the prerogative of my age, to the heady days of the Chicano Theatre Movement.
What made the Chicano Theatre Movement unique, I believe, was the fact that the people who were in the midst of creating theatre that addressed a myriad of social problems had no historico-aesthetic framework upon which to base their creative efforts. Chicanas and Chicanos, by virtue of their working-class, marginalized subjectivity were not exposed to the wealth of Mexican theatre history and dramaturgy. There were no published playwrights in 1965 who were expressing the realities of life in the Mexican/Chicano barrios of this nation.
1965 is the year the now legendary Teatro Campesino was born, directed by Luis Valdez, as the cultural arm of the incipient farm workers’ union of the late Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.
Also during this period, because of federally-funded affirmative action programs like EOP (Educational Opportunity Program), thousands of underrepresented and low-income students were given scholarships making it possible for low-income (minority) students to enter academia. And due in no small part to the political climate of the time (think the Civil Rights Movement) minority students were admitted to universities across the country.
The shock of this experience was one of the first themes addressed by the student teatros that began to emerge as the cultural and performative arms of the Chicano student organizations.
Chicano high school and university students had formed a national coalition of organizations calling themselves MEChA, acronym for El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (Chicano Student Movement of Aztlán). As a wing of the campus MEChA organization at University of California, Santa Barbara, the students called their teatro Teatro Mecha, a colloquial term for match.
Santa Barbara holds particular significance because a major manifesto was written here, titled El Plan de Santa Barbara, in 1970. Its collective authors wrote: “We take as our credo what José Vasconcelos once said at a time of crisis and hope: ‘At this moment we do not come to work for the university, but to demand that the university work for our people.’” During this moment in time, with protests raging in the streets and on university campuses all over the world, trust was difficult to come by. We knew that there were agents provocateurs in every organization and we certainly did not trust “the Man,” after centuries of official lies and neglect that had decimated barrios, ghettos, reservations, and all poor peoples’ communities.
In January 1970, in protest of the war in Vietnam, students from UCSB burned the Bank of America in Isla Vista. When I arrived with my family the following fall to begin my doctoral studies in Dramatic Art and to direct Teatro Mecha, the irony of the name was not lost on me.
I discovered a campus rife with anxieties and flush with a kind of symbolic success. All of the radical students wanted to take credit for the burning. It was a badge of honor to have participated in that act of civil disobedience, especially against a corporate giant. Of course, the B of A immediately built a fortress-like bank on the same site. But the protests persisted on campus and off.
On campus, I found myself teaching a course in Chicano Dramatic Literature with no plays or books about the subject in print. I also taught a workshop in Chicano theatre, learning what a collective theatre is all about in praxis. Teatro Mecha was mainly a folkloric dance troupe, with one member who was a theatre major. Many of the students had seen a teatro perform and thus had an idea of what actos and protest songs were, but had no experience in creating actos. Neither did I. But as a former high school drama teacher and director I certainly knew what it meant to direct a play.
For the dramatic literature course I relied on the plays of the Black Revolutionary Theatre, attempting to make the transfer from the ghetto to the barrio. However, as Harry Elam, Jr. affirms in Taking It to the Streets, his seminal book comparing the early Teatro Campesino and the Black Revolutionary Theatre, their goals were often very distinct. Anger fueled both agendas but the revolutionary and sometimes violent objectives of many Black plays were contrary to the Farmworkers’ Movement, based on Cesar Chavez’s Ghandi-inspired philosophy of non-violence. Still, angry students had burned the BofA a few hundred yards from my classroom. Anger and frustration had to be contained if anything viable was to be accomplished.
Theory and practice were to be put to the test: Create theatrical statements about issues that were relevant to the creators. The students in my Chicano theatre course and the workshop were all the first in their families to go to college. “Necessity,” as they say, “is the mother of invention” and we were embarking on a path to “Necessary Theatre,” theatre of social change, protest; of frustration and hope. Thus, I asked the students what they wanted to do, what changes they wanted to bring about with their Teatro Mecha. What “fired” their imaginations, I wondered (pun intended)?
Access to higher education was prominent as a theme, as was the fact that all of these students had been advised by their high school counselors or teachers (as I was in 1959) not to go to college. Education became the common theme and so we began to improvise scenarios I termed, “The High School Counselor.”
As the academic year evolved, however, I observed that the organization of MEChA was getting lost in its own rhetoric, its hyper-nationalism (“only Chicano music will be played at MEChA parties”) and its machismo, sexism, and homophobia. MEChAs were falling apart across the country and we were in the midst of similar divisions. Trust was non-existent and the petty politics would sometimes deter from the goals we had all set for ourselves.
It was like a family in crisis. And familia is sacred to the Mexican, no matter how dysfunctional that familia is. Friendships were dissolving, partners were separating, and I knew that it was only a matter of time before it all fell apart.
In the spring of 1971 the Teatro Campesino published its first anthology of actos, a volume that remains singular in its purpose and achievement. The collection traces the evolution of the Teatro Campesino’s actos from 1965 to 1970, from farmworker issues (“¡Si se puede!” “Join the Union!”) to the War in Vietnam (“Hell, no, we won’t go!”).
That same spring we formed a national coalition of Chicano theatres which we grandly called El Teatro Nacional de Aztlán (The National Theatre of Aztlán), or by its acronym, TENAZ, which means “tenacious” in Spanish. In support of our new coalition-building efforts the Teatro Campesino offered their newly-published actos to any teatro who wanted to produce them, royalty-free.
The Campesino’s actos also dealt with poor educational opportunities, the vendido stereotype, and a brief acto critiquing the Chicano Movement, ironically titled “The Militants.” Armed with these excellent actos, I directed the members of Teatro Mecha in “Los vendidos,” (”The Sellouts”), “La quinta temporada” (“The Fifth Season”), and “The Militants.” We produced these for one of the last meetings of MEChA that spring.
As we expected, “The Militants” was not popular among the young leadership of the organization, undoubtedly due to the fact that the acto very effectively satirized the then-current debate over what constituted a “true Chicano,” as in: “I’m more Chicano than you are because I have a bigote!” (moustache). It was prophetic.
Dissention in MEChA was brewing and when half of the organization chose to join a community-based coalition that had taken over a warehouse in the barrio of Santa Barbara which they called La Casa de la Raza, they were expelled from the campus organization. Six members of Teatro Mecha and I chose to join forces with the new student group La Raza Libre (The Free People) in direct defiance of the campus Chicano leadership. And thus was born El Teatro de la Esperanza (The Theatre of Hope) in the spring of 1971. The members of the incipient, newly-liberated Teatro de la Esperanza began working out of the Casa.
My wife, Ginger, became our musical director and business manager (every Chicano teatro should have an Armenian business manager!). In those early days, our music was the best part of our performances. We converted a space at the back of this massive warehouse into an intimate theatre we called El Nido, or The Nest. Our vision was to create and nurture Chicano theatre in our little nest, a safe haven from campus politics. We premiered our little theatre during the mis-named Old Spanish Days that summer, surprising unsuspecting tourists with our political theatre.
We were also receiving funding from a federal grant that paid us to work with at-risk male teenagers, otherwise called juvenile delinquents. These six high school dropouts were all on probation and the administrator of our grant termed them The Trust Company, an obvious allusion to the fact that these youths had lost the trust of their parents, teachers, and others.
It was our job to earn their trust and we took the term seriously as we conducted theatre games with these skeptical, angry young men, eager to see them create their own realities on stage. Thus, we became like social workers, attempting to “rehabilitate” these hardened young men whose lives were nothing short of tragic.
We were also rehearsing our own actos, which had been written by my students. One of the actos, titled “Trampa sin salida” (“Trap Without Exit”) was about pachucos, East L.A. street youth not unlike our Trust Co. members, and they advised us on gesture, language, and attitude. Especially attitude.
Our intention was to involve the teens in our collective process, giving them a sense of purpose. Our work with the Trust Co. boys here, in La Casa, introduced us to the social work aspect of Chicano theatre, a path that many students across the country took as they later worked in schools and other programs throughout the West and Midwest, attempting to bring about social change through what we now term “applied theatre” and Theatre for Social Change.
By the fall of 1971, the Teatro de la Esperanza had a core group of five serious drama majors, undergraduates who had been introduced to this thing called “Chicano theatre” and who saw teatro as a potential way of life.
By the fall of 1973, Teatro de la Esperanza had coalesced into the collective that would create one of the hallmarks of early Chicano Theatre: “Guadalupe,” a docu-drama based on an actual incident in 1973. In fact, this was the first docu-drama created by Chicanas and Chicanos. The play revolves around a group of Mexican farm workers in the norther Santa Barbara town of Guadalupe. The schools in this rural town of about one thousand inhabitants were not serving the majority Mexican students with respect; the teachers were punishing the students for speaking Spanish, offering no bilingual education, and the like. When a parents’ committee was formed, the power structure fought their efforts in typical fashion, to the point of arresting three of the parents who had organized a protest against the school board. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights investigated the situation and wrote a scathing report titled, “The Schools of Guadalupe: A Legacy of Educational Oppression.”
We visited the town of Guadalupe, meeting with the parents and others who had been affected by the neglect of the power structure, as we gathered material for our play. We heard from the parents as well as the students and even attended mass at the local Roman Catholic parish to see what the priest, a Spanish missionary, had to say. Everybody in town knew that these “radical” Chicano students were up to something, including the priest, who unceremoniously told his congregants: “¡Ustedes que siguien a Cesar Chavez irán directatamente al infierno!” [“Those of you who follow Cesar Chavez will go directly to Hell!”]
The group returned to the rehearsal hall with conflicts and scenarios rife for dramatic interpretation. Of course we included a scene in church, quoting the aging but living vestige of colonization. In 13 scenes, interspersed with choral transitions that narrated the action, the Teatro told the story of a community under siege. I am honored that one of the creators of “Guadalupe,” Martha Hernandez, became the first bilingual teacher in Guadalupe and she is here, with us today.
After a very successful tour of the provinces of Mexico with “Guadalupe,” it was time for Ginger and I to step aside and let the Esperanza members continue to create exciting and necessary theatre. The core members had been with the troupe since its inception and were now ready to take on the paradigm of a true collective, one in which all voices participated in the directorial process.
Ginger and I were confident that the core members of the Teatro were now equipped to tackle the responsibilities of a collective without a singular director. Also, it was time to move on. I was determined to continue documenting and producing Chicano theatre as social commentary through a university position because I now understood the opportunity and the responsibility of being the first Chicano to earn a doctorate in theatre. I had the “union card” in my hands and it was time to put it to good use. The Teatro members stayed and worked right here, at La Casa,
Working under the same model we had established with the creation and staging of Guadalupe, the Teatro members collectively wrote and directed an even more successful docu-drama, “La víctima” (“The Victim”), which combined fact with fiction to explore the recurring problem of mass deportations of Mexicans when the U.S. economy is in trouble. (Sound familiar?)
The factual aspects of the play were detailed in the historical reality that in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, the federal government blamed the Mexicans and thus deported them in large numbers, breaking up families regardless of the fact that the children were born in the United States. The play thus follows the life of a young Mexican girl whose familia flees Mexico during the Revolution, and who grows up in the United States, marries, and has two children. In a scene that still lives in my memory, the young woman, now a mother, is separated from her little boy at a train station. Holding her baby girl in her arms she screams for her boy, who is on the other side of the stage. Freeze. A guitar strums and another Mexican corrido ushers us into the next scene.
The actors remain on stage throughout the production, sitting on the sidelines, watching the action and changing minimal costume or prop accessories while a new scene unfolds in the life of the little boy, Sammy. Sammy is adopted by another family, fights those commies in Korea, and becomes a Border Patrol agent. In the final scene of the play, Sammy finds himself interrogating his mother and deports her even though he knows instinctively who she is.
This play was premiered in 1976, toured the United States and parts of Europe, and has been produced by various Latino theatre companies across the country. Given the xenophobia that currently reigns in the United States, the Los Angeles-based Latino Theatre Company produced “La víctima” two years ago, living proof of the docu-drama’s efficacy and urgency. Most especially, I am honored that we have in this room two of the original creators of “La víctima,” Estela Campos Chu and Santiago Rangel.
The legacy of El Teatro de la Esperanza lives on and we could not have begun without the support and encouragement of La Casa de la Raza. Muchisimas gracias por todo.