Ten miles east of Downtown Los Angeles lies the city of Montebello, “Beautiful Mountain” in Italian, and sometimes affectionately called the “Beverly Hills of East L.A.” When I graduated from the M.F.A. program in performance for T.V., film, and theatre at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA) in 2013, I formed the Circle Squared Collective, or C2C, with a group of like-minded artists from CSULA. We wanted to combine theatre and film to bring diverse voices to a new generation of theatre patrons, and we soon found our home in Montebello.
Why Montebello? We wanted to maintain strong ties with our alma mater, so the geographical proximity to CSULA was a strong factor, as was the fact that a significant number of CSULA students come from Montebello. Lastly, I knew that the rich cultural history and identity of Montebello would be ideal for the C2C.
So we quietly began setting up shop in a small storefront and strategizing how to establish ourselves and engage with the community. Soon after, while working as an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow for the Los Angeles Theatre Center/Latino Theater Company’s 2014 Encuentro Theatre Festival, I was approached by Center Theatre Group Associate Artistic Director Diane Rodriguez to work as a Montebello community liaison for the Through the Looking Glass project. Through the Looking Glass is a series of writing workshops for local residents in which they write “autobiographies” of residents of another neighborhood—for Montebello, that’s Leimert Park—which eventually become a play.
This was a perfect example of “right place, right time.” The C2C gladly accepted the responsibility of making inroads into Montebello in order to find storytellers who might be interested in participating in the Looking Glass project. We began by tapping into larger public institutions, such as the Montebello Department of Parks and Recreation, public schools, and the local library. We went to community gatherings in parks and scheduled meetings at senior citizen centers. We stopped by local businesses and met strangers in the street. Wherever we went, we were almost universally met with the same response: “Wow, you’re a theatre company from Montebello?” This was usually followed by, “Let me tell you this story…” These individual encounters led to several community gatherings in our storefront where community members could meet one another as well as the creative leaders of the project, playwright and poet Jerry Quickley and director reg e gaines.
Some of my favorite encounters with the Montebello community include going to Montebello City Park on Sunday afternoons and talking with members of local low-rider car clubs as they polished up their chrome and mirrors and told us stories about cruising Whittier Boulevard and being harassed by local law enforcement; a local real estate company that invited us into their business, located in the old Edison building on 5th Street, and told us about their three generations of Montebello family history before giving us a lemon tree sapling from the nursery in their courtyard; and going to the Sanchez Adobe historical site to learn about the history of Montebello, how the original San Gabriel Mission was built here, the part the ranchos played in the creation of the city, and of course, meeting one of the docents and historical re-enactors who plays Doña Lobo, one of the first women to receive a Mexican land grant in California. (This docent is now a Through the Looking Glass participant.)
Working on this project confirmed my artistic hunch that Montebello is a diverse, vibrant, and artistically hungry community looking for an outlet and resources to express themselves. The C2C is forever grateful to Center Theatre Group for this opportunity to engage with Montebello. We’ll continue to build on the connections we’ve made with Through the Looking Glass as we work with the city to produce a free production of Julius Caesar this summer and begin to teach youth theatre classes in the fall. Though we know that our work as community liaisons is ending, we know our work with the “Beverly Hills of East L.A.” is only just beginning.