Teatro Nahual is the Bay Area’s first and only entirely Spanish-language theatre group

When Verónica Meza, founder and artistic director of Teatro Nahual, moved to Los Angeles from Mexico City in 2001, she couldn’t find any options for Spanish language theatre anywhere. The same thing happened when she moved to the Bay Area a couple of years later and went searching for theatres that offered Spanish language performances.

“There was nothing, really,” she says. She wondered, “Where are my Chicano theatre groups? What is happening with the Latino American community that there are no opportunities?”

After actively seeking Chicano theatre groups, Meza met some cultural activists in the area and began discussing her desire to see a Spanish language theatre group and see if anyone was interested in participating. They published casting announcements through local radio and newspapers seeking actors and musicians with the idea of performing a piece for the anniversary of La Peña Juchitireta, a cultural platform for Latin artists formed by Bay Area musician and activist Victor Hugo.

Meza was “very, very surprised” when people started calling and expressing their interest in participating.

“We got people from Argentina, Peru, Mexico, Honduras – all different nationalities who, when they moved to the area, didn’t have any options for theatre even though they had a background in theatre, and others just wanted to try acting.”

Meza says 14 or 15 people came to the casting call from all different backgrounds, some actors and some with regular day jobs. They did a few acting exercises and immediately began casting and practicing for Meza’s adaptation of La otra cara del indio, a satiric comedy critique set in a fictitious Mexican village that addresses racism in the Mexican government and Mexican society against dark-skinned indigenous peoples.

Meza holds a bachelor’s degree in literature and drama from the National Autonomous University of Mexico with extensive theatre experience in Mexico City and additional training at the National Institute of Arts in Mexico. For her, finding – and, short of that, forming – a Spanish theatre group in the Bay Area wasn’t just a matter of getting back to her own artistic practice, but also an avenue through which to celebrate and preserve Chicano culture and heritage in diaspora in America, while also addressing the unique social issues experienced by Latin Americans (and Mexicans in particular).

In 2003 the first 100% Spanish play was held in the Bay Area, La otra cara del indio, at the Mexican Heritage Plaza to a crowd of over 350 people. The play featured Spanish actors, Latin American music, and Mexican folk dance choreography to “La Cucaracha.”

In this play, the authorities of the village concocted a plan to attract lucrative tourist dollars by shipping all of the “unsightly” Indians off to the mountains and decorating the town and the people in all the latest fashions. When their first tourist arrives, a white woman from the United States in search of authentic folklore and cultural roots, she is disappointed to find the town looks just like a cheap imitation of an American town. She leaves, taking her American dollars and the promise of tourism riches with her.

“I remember getting a big standing ovation at the end of that first performance,” she says. “The topic was very strong, and totally understood by the community. In that moment I started reflecting, ‘Oh my God, people like it!’ I started getting invitations around the area to perform it in Bakersfield and San Francisco. We went to different places around the Bay Area to present the play. So then I thought, now we have this play and people like the idea of a Spanish language play, so what am I going to do next? I can’t do this one play forever.”

At that point Meza had to decide how much of a commitment she wanted to make to the theatre – was this something she just wanted to do once in a while, or did she want to dig in deep and fully commit?

“I was reflecting to myself and talking to other people, but after seeing the reaction of the population and seeing the community was really interested in seeing Spanish language plays I figured, well, let’s just start.”

With that first performance, Teatro Nahual was officially born: a Spanish-language theatre in Santa Clara County led by Meza with an all-volunteer board of directors that performs Spanish plays in different venues and cities throughout California.

Since then Teatro Nahual has performed ten unique pieces, all adapted or written and directed by Meza. The subjects of these pieces have touched on various social justice issues including women’s and immigrants’ rights, government corruption and student uprisings, and the effects of dementia in Latin American families. The works often use biting humor to make a critical point, and are also meant to educate and inform the audience of various social, political, historical, and health issues impacting Latin American communities.

“Where you come from is very important because it’s part of our identity,” Meza says, and she explores these different diverging and converging identities with humor in her productions.

“I am Mexican and I live in this country. I was also raised in Mexico, and I know from that experience, being a woman is a challenge.” She comments on her own struggles with the machismo in Latin culture that she has had to struggle with even as the director of Teatro Nahual – being a woman telling men what to do.

For Huelga sin palitos/Strike Without Sticks, Meza wrote the play based on the famous proto-feminist comedies of ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes, The Assembly Women and Lysistrata. In it, the women of ancient Athens are sick of government corruption and the injustices of war, so they develop a plan to wrest away the political power held exclusively by the men – by withholding sex.

Though set in ancient Greece, the play equally served as commentary on the then-ongoing war in Iraq, and also underscores a recurrent feminist theme in Meza’s work echoed in the earlier Don Baldomero murió virgin/Mr. Baldomero Died a Virgin, a farcical comedy that examines the historical silencing of women in Mexican society, and later in Teatro Nahual’s adaptation of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues.

Other pieces like Unete pueblo, La tarea de Ciencias Sociales, and Era Sólo Rock and Roll/It Was Only Rock and Roll deal with government corruption and student uprisings, while Teatro Nahual also produces more light-hearted, inspirational, and educational children’s plays.

Their next play, Leyendas y Realidades/Legends and Realities, debuts on March 12 at the Foundation for Hispanic Education, with a special reception prior to the performance at the Mexican Museum. This piece combines popular traditional Latin American legends with things that are happening in today’s world.

In addition to producing plays, Teatro Nahual has been offering Spanish language acting classes for kids and adults of all ages since 2004. And for Meza, the classes are not just vanity projects for people with a vague acting interest – this is where she trains her future actors, starting with level one classes and going all the way up to level five, which can take several years to work through. Some of her students even go on to study acting at the university level to make a full-time professional career of acting.

While other Spanish-language theatre efforts have popped up and certainly other Chicano theatre companies exist, Teatro Nahual remains the only completely Spanish-language professional Chicano theatre company in the Bay Area, and is also the only such company training actors.

While they might not have the budget for expansive Broadway-style sets, Meza prides her company on the quality of their performances and the diversity of performers, as well as the original music and choreography that accompanies them.

“We have local actors, we have people with doctorates and masters degrees in acting, we have Spanish teachers, painters and landscapers, moms, web designers – it’s a very interesting group of varying levels, but when you see them together in the play everyone is on the same page,” she says. “We focus more on acting than productions; we can’t have Broadway productions here but we can still have acting, and there is a lot of talent here in the area.”

Teatro Nahual is also entirely a nonprofit passion project. All the artists have full-time jobs outside of the theatre, as does Meza. They rely on the help of volunteers. They sell tickets and seek donations to cover the expense of their productions, and also host a lot of fundraisers. They occasionally apply for grants but, Meza says, “It’s very competitive.” They also work with many different community partners and other cultural organizations like MACLA in San Jose, the National Hispanic University in San Jose, the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco, and the Foundation for Hispanic Education in San Jose. One day, Meza would like Teatro Nahual to have its own dedicated performance space.

Despite whatever struggles might come with financing an independent project like this, Meza is committed to sticking it out. “I do this for the love of the theatre and a passion to bring something back to the community.” For native speakers, she says, “The Spanish language is where you can reflect, where people can laugh but are still reflecting on something.

‘It’s important to follow your dreams and not step back because of a political situation or not having money to do it. You have to give yourself the opportunity to do it. A nonprofit organization does not have a lot of money, and we’re doing performances in Spanish where the dominant language is English,” she reflects, knowing that this is not the kind of thing that will ever make a lot of money, but that it is important all the same.