(This post is a part of the Audience (R)Evolution grant program and blog salon.)
Su Teatro is embarking on a project to engage the youngest and newest members of our community as the most important leaders and stakeholders of our future. For forty years, Su Teatro has served Chicanos and Latinos in Denver: a city that was a hub for the Chicano Civil Rights Movement and whose Chicano community continues to be tight knit, active and involved in all aspects of public life.
As beautiful, singular, authentic and organic as Su Teatro’s original grassroots community connection is, and has been, the organization has changed, along with the city. Since 2000, the city, like the nation has experienced tremendous population growth in general and a significant wave of immigration, more specifically. The Latino population of Denver grew from 12% in 1990 to 30% in 2000 – (and most of the growth represents individuals with roots in Mexico). In 2000, the rapid demographic shift challenged Denver’s school system, government and nonprofit landscape to adapt quickly to meet the needs of a new constituency. Spanish speaking youth were flooding Denver Public Schools, clashing with students in long established African American neighborhoods and challenging an infrastructure lacking the immediate tools to meet their needs.
Su Teatro was smaller then. At the time, our total annual budget was about $200,000. As our board of directors encouraged us to expand our mission to more fully engage recent immigrants, we reasoned (correctly) that our capacity did not allow us to provide the cultural experience that Mexicans would get at home. The Chicano aesthetic is a hybrid aesthetic – it is about living in two worlds. We believed that the children of these recent immigrants would relate to our aesthetic and share our understanding of the issues, cultural identity, and lens for seeing the world that has been so intrinsic to our mission and our brand. We believed that the organic force of their experience would bring them to us.
Today, 1 out of 5 of all Coloradoans is Latino and Latinos 18 and under now make up one third of all children in the state. More than half of the students in the Denver Public Schools are Latino and more than 40% speak Spanish at home. Denver’s Latino youth, who are a de facto majority in their age group, deserve an opportunity to shape the future of the city as intellectuals, artists, creators, scientists, problem solvers, inventors, innovators, consumers and teachers. To date, they are underutilized and underserved in a city where the sharp boundaries of privilege and class determine who gets an education, who pursues a professional career and who gets to act in plays. Nevertheless, today’s Latino youth are shaping, thinking, feeling, perceiving and creating: they are building an unprecedented cultural Milieu. It is a beautiful thing to witness their drive, ability, sense of humor and creativity and deeply troubling that there aren’t more open doors and opportunities for them to maximize their massive potential.
Since 2000, our capacity has changed. We built a youth theater program from scratch with few resources and a lot of sweat, tears and passion from program director Mica Garcia de Benavidez. We have built a staff, board and budget (our budget currently hovers near $600,000 with a plan to stabilize at $1 million in the next six years), and we purchased a large facility (300 seat theater and 100 seat black box) in the Santa Fe Arts District and the heart of the city (our previous space, which we also owned – and loved—was a 100 seat black box in Northeast Denver).
Daily now, we interact with recent immigrants and their children – and not just on the margins – they are members of our staff, the theatrical company and our youth program; a program that struggled to serve 15 kids in 2000, serves more than 400 Latino youth, today. These young powerhouses are changing us as much as we are changing them. They bring their own unique, individual experiences, as well as issues and stories related to being a young person in 2014, and often times, identities tied to being a scout, navigator, shepherd and caretaker for parents and siblings who are working things out every day ….struggling, living and loving and building something strong and safe for the future. In the original work that our students have created for our stage they have tackled themes of censorship, HIV, Queer sexuality, the DREAM Act, hair, nails, gossip, doing the right thing, and the travails of a world full of danger and complexity, with humor and shrewd satire. They have engaged in this work on their own, without prompting from us. They are challenging us to think, shattering our barriers and asking us to broaden our definitions of what it means to be a Chicano theater.
A cohort of youth aged 14-25 will helm our project, with support from the Su Teatro staff. They will learn what their peers want, what compels them to engage and how theatrical experience can be more relevant and resonant to them. They will experiment with marketing, engagement and outreach tactics and design coauthorship opportunities that crosscut generations, experiences and cultural identities. The project is about developing audiences and artists who are invested and engaged and ready to lead a new Teatro for 2014 and beyond. These youth are not only the future. They are the very tangible present. It only makes sense that they should play an important role in shaping our future.
Tanya Mote has been with Su Teatro since 1997. She received her BA in Mass Communications and Spanish from the University of Denver in 1989 and holds an MA (1991) and a Ph.D (2009) in International Studies from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. She has served as a board member for the Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training (GIFT) and the National Performance Network. She teaches courses for DU – University College in Arts Management and Global Studies and hopes to write more for the field in 2014.
Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.