Teatro Visión celebrates Chicano culture and identities through theater
San Jose’s Teatro Visión is a 31-year-old Chicano theater company. Co-founder and Artistic Director Elisa Marina Alvarado explains, “We use that term because the Chicano movement, [with its] values of social justice, international solidarity, and support for immigrants, [reflects] many of the values that guide the movement for equality and justice in our theater work.”
Also a founding board member of MACLA, Alvarado has been an arts and community organizer for decades, working full-time in the theatre world on and off since the 1970s while also working in the mental health field with Latino families.
The very different worlds of performance arts and mental health might not make for the most obvious symbiotic relationship, but for Alvarado, each one has consistently, and integrally, informed the other.
As a community educator in a mental health center working with Latino families, she says she learned a lot about the cultural nature of our beliefs and actions. “[Through my work in mental health], I understand how people change their thoughts and behavior,” she says. “It certainly has helped me understand what culture is. Even in our community, people’s understanding of culture is the language we speak, the foods we eat, what holidays we observe; all very observable practices, but there’s so much more. Our understanding of culture informs how [one thinks] about oneself, one’s people, one’s family. Culture is an active shaping of who we are.”
Speaking both as a mental health worker and as a Chicano arts practitioner and organizer, she notes, “When you don’t know your cultural history and where you came from, there is a correlation between that loss of culture and criminal activity in gangs, depression, substance abuse. Culture is really central to the animation of a community and a community’s’ willingness to become involved in making the physical reality of life better, and also get involved in social change and justice.”
Teatro Visión celebrates and promotes Chicano and Latino arts and culture. “We see our work as a form of service for the community through ideological development, physical development, and supporting the development of cultural and artistic life in a community,” says Alvarado. “We believe that supports improvement in the quality of our lives, particularly with people of color where there is language lost and culture lost.”
Initially Teatro Visión was formed by women, for women as a Chicana theater group, in response to gender inequality Alvarado and her fellow co-founders experienced in the Chicano theatre world in the 1970s. Later, though, they decided they wanted to “contribute to the formation of a new Chicano man” and opened up the group not just to all genders, but also to all ethnicities and cultural identities, including LGBTQ immigrants of color. Alvarado explains that the “Chicano” label is more so one of support for a worldview, embracing values of inclusivity, social justice, and cultural preservation.
Through Teatro Visión, Alvarado has done a lot of cultural competency training in the mental health field, hosting theatre workshops in mental health settings, training staff and other community organizers and advocates, and working with the statewide First 5 early childhood development program on an intensive training for family partners in Santa Clara County – educators, health workers, teachers, actors, and community organizers.
“We really have had this huge impact on knowledge of the participatory arts in the health field in San Jose,” she says. “Theater has a very unique power to not only project questions and invite dialogue but also to have people identify with the lives and experiences of others on an emotional level.”
Teatro Visión has produced work from award-winning playwrights and featured award-winning actors. While they once produced three full plays each season, the recession forced them down to just one, and the rest of the year is spent focused on teaching and workshops.
Their productions feature both students from their classes and professional actors, and this October they will once again stage their original Dia de los Muertos production MACARIO, honoring the important Mexican spiritual holiday of remembrance.
MACARIO is based on a classic Mexican novel and the first Mexican film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Teatro Visión is the first theatre company granted the rights to the story for a theatre production, for which they worked with a nationally-renowned team of artists on an original script based on the language of the novel, as well as original music, choreography, costumes, stage design, and puppetry.
Set in Colonial Mexico, MACARIO is the story of a poor indigenous woodcutter who dreams of eating a whole roast turkey by himself. When he tells his wife he will not eat again until his dream is fulfilled, she steals a turkey to give to him. As he prepares to eat it, hoarding it all for himself, he is approached by God, the Devil, and Death, all in disguise. The only one he shares his turkey with is Death, which begins a “friendship” between them that later goes sour when Macario tries to cheat Death.
The story itself is a beloved one, comparable to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and touches on many critical themes of religious intolerance, mistreatment of indigenous peoples, the racial caste system of Colonial Spanish Mexico, and other issues still relevant to the Chicano experience in Mexico and America today.
“We wanted to select a story that was familiar to many Mexicans,” says Alvarado. “It’s a very beloved film by the Chicanos.”
Leveraging the familiarity and popularity of the film and novel as well as her own social work skills, Alvarado interviewed people in the neighborhood where Teatro Visión draws its largest audience, one of the poorest barrios in San Jose, to collect stories of experiences of hunger from the community and use them to inform the creative team in the design of community workshops that eventually evolved into the Day of the Dead performance.
“It was a frame of reference that was already familiar to people [that allowed us to explore] the connections between personal experience and the film’s themes,” she explains. “Many people had told me that they used to sit all the kids down during Day of the Dead to [watch the movie so they wouldn’t] forget that [families] had gone through such difficult times. Some of those people even took part in the workshops and actually became actors in the central production.”
MACARIO is in its third production year, and now, for the first time, Teatro Visión has included a number of children’s roles as they are doing more work with children and youth, and are connecting their performances to other Day of the Dead activities in San Jose. They also plan on developing a second Day of the Dead-themed play to rotate with MACARIO.
For Teatro Visión, says Alvarado, the model that works best with their community is the concept of “membership.” The work they produce emerges out of their relationship and dialogue with the community, and students from their classes also participate in their productions.
“It’s a participatory form of relationship with the audience rather than the audience being consumers,” she says. “If you’re a member…you also have some kind of a say in the organization through feedback and a solicitation of ideas of what we should be doing. The audience members are really participants in the organization.”