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In the Community: Going Home to Make Theatre

Boyle Heights has a special place in my heart. My mother was born and raised there, and I lived there for three years until I made a huge exodus to New York City that lasted 13 years.

And now I am back. Well, sort of. When Center Theatre Group Associate Artistic Director Diane Rodriguez asked if I would be interested in serving as a community liaison in Boyle Heights for Popol Vuh: Heart of Heaven, CTG’s collaboration with El Teatro Campesino, I was giddy with excitement. I currently reside in Downey, a nice neighborhood, but I missed the sense of belonging, community, and history of Boyle Heights. My years there involved lots of communal dinners, posadas (Christmas festivities), and fruit-swapping (oranges for lemons) with neighbors, as well as the occasional late-night ranchera or bolero jam.

A parent at a Popol Vuh workshop.

But I was nervous about going back. Why? Because over the years on my visits home, I saw the neighborhood changing—dive cantinas becoming hip bars, grocery stores and other local businesses disappearing to make way for new Metro stations. In other words, gentrifying. I wasn’t sure what I’d find when my compañera/fellow community liaison, Estela Garcia, and I started to engage with the people of Boyle Heights, and get them involved in theatre- and art-making.

But now, a few months into the process, I have spoken with a wide spectrum of community members, from the working-class gente and immigrant women who organize other parents around social and educational issues to the up-and-coming young artists and the second- and third-generation Boyle Heights residents who are familiar with El Teatro Campesino’s work as an act of social justice. I wanted things to stay the same, kind of frozen in time; it’s that nostalgia thing. But by interacting with all these different people, I’ve realized that Boyle Heights residents are even more empowered and smarter about dealing with change than before, and with their own stories to tell and share.

Using rasquache art to make theatre.

Through our workshops at locations around Boyle Heights, I’ve shared laughs and joy with all these different kinds of people. Theatre and movement have become one more catalyst that brings our community together. Whether it was laughing about our hidden love for dance with parents at Stevenson Middle School or creating a “high wire” circus act from random objects in one of El Teatro’s workshops, we have all been learning how to transform our own stories and imagination into a creative process or dialogue. For example, in our “high wire” act, we combined our collective memories of the Mexican circo with the Mexican tradition of using found objects and leftover parts to make Rasquache art. We managed to give new life and meaning to everyday items like clothes hangers or the skeleton of an umbrella.

A Popol Vuh workshop participant.

And the lovely thing is that those who have participated get to experience a truly collective practice of art-making! We’ve made the workshops accessible for everyone from kids to grandparents, and you can see in some of the photos here of our May and June workshops at L.A. Legacy and Roosevelt High School how amazing a group we’ve gathered.

Even if some of the workshop participants do not perform in the public staging of Popol Vuh: Heart of Heaven this fall, I hope they will take away the activities and skills they’ve learned. Maybe they’ll use them at a parents’ meeting, or for a school club or student group to raise awareness about an important issue. Perhaps they will be motivated to seek out the theatre, as a practitioner and/or as a spectator. At the very least, they will have experienced theater as something that belongs to them, too, and they will have become part of a rich theatrical tradition.

It’s good to be home again.

Read fellow Popol Vuh community liaison Estela Garcia’s account of the experience here.

A Popol Vuh workshop at Casa 101.