Tony Garcia of Su Teatro: On moving from marginalized to mainstream

Su Teatro’s Anthony J. Garcia was disappointed when he brought his recent production of ‘Enrique’s Journey’ to Los Angeles and it garnered attention from the Los Angeles Times – but not from the hometown media in Denver. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

‘I think the problem in Denver is that a lot of what is perceived as the mainstream is actually the mainstream from 20 years ago.’

By most any measure, Su Teatro has arrived. Denver’s only Chicano theatre company has been serving the statewide community for more than 40 years and now attracts about 12,000 a year to its live theatre, films and concerts – while somehow managing an average ticket price of just $10.

Su Teatro calls itself “Locally Grown, Nationally Known,” having emerged from the protest movement of the early 1970s and surviving several moves to its current home as a fully functioning multidisciplinary cultural arts center on Santa Fe Drive.

Last week, Su Teatro won a $42,880 national grant from The MAP Fund to support Chicano Roots Rehab, a new music and theater project developed by Su Teatro’s proudly rebellious Executive Artistic Director, Anthony J. Garcia. The grant will dispatch Garcia and his musical collaborator, Daniel Valdez, to communities in Colorado and New Mexico to collect songs and stories in danger of being lost.

In its 44 years, Su Teatro has created more than 30 original, full-length theatre productions that have toured widely to venues such as New York’s Public Theater, The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio and the Plaza de la Raza in Los Angeles. Su Teatro has been funded over the years by the Shubert Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Theatre Communications Group, the American Composers Forum and, now, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, among others.

Locally grown, nationally known.

But the question that still gnaws at Garcia is this: Why is Su Teatro not more locally known?

“We have, in many ways, a greater national presence than local presence,” said Garcia, the only Colorado artist ever to earn both the Theater Communications Group’s Directing Fellowship and a United States Artist Fellowship.

“Do you feel culturally marginalized?” he was asked bluntly. His answer: Somewhat.

“But just to be clear about it, I don’t feel this is necessarily a cross,” he said. “I think it’s a reality. We used to always say we aren’t trying to fit into the mainstream – we’re trying to broaden the mainstream so people understand that there’s a broader palette that is actually part of that mainstream.”

Garcia believes there is a chasm that separates Su Teatro and other culturally specific local arts companies like Cleo Parker Robinson Dance and Museo de Las Americas from the area’s largest cultural institutions whose mandate is to serve all segments of the community.

But the local landscape has changed dramatically since Garcia grew up in the 1960s in Denver’s west-side barrio. He was one of the hundreds of Chicanos who were involuntarily displaced to make room for the Auraria campus. Growing up, he saw the cumulative effects of how social and economic neglect on a proud, poor community manifested themselves in crime and alcoholism.

“But now we have Latino U.S. senators,” said Garcia, 62. “We have Latinos who are running for president. We see bilingual commercials on television. So this idea that we’re exotic and we’re on the periphery is no longer true. We are participants in the mainstream U.S. economy. We are participants in the mainstream democracy. We are participants in the mainstream culture.”

But he believes the little guys “must work harder, smarter and leaner” for their share of public and private support. “If you were a sponsor, who would give a better profile to: The large, mainstream institution or the little barrio group?” he said. “If you are a newspaper or TV outlet, what event would you want to cover? If you were an artist, which gig would rather do: The one where you get better pay and exposure, or the small, neighborhood event?”

But while Hispanics and Latinos now make up 35 percent of Denver’s population,  Su Teatro remains the state’s only dedicated Chicano theatre company, to Garcia’s great frustration. So why hasn’t there been commensurate growth in institutions along with the change in population? We asked Garcia to expand on issues of cultural equity.

John Moore: Explain what it means to be marginalized.

Tony Garcia: There is a lot of conversation right now about how racism is an economic issue, and it is. Racism is an economic structure that allows for the advancement of one group from the exploitation of another group. That is why economic disparity exists. I define marginalization as the norm versus the abnormal. I think the problem in Denver is that a lot of what is perceived as the mainstream is actually the mainstream from 20 years ago. Now Su Teatro and other organizations are pushing up against the perception of what “was” the mainstream. They talk about marginalization in political-science classes in terms of the “other.” The fear of the other. It’s xenophobia. And I think that’s part of marginalization.

John Moore: You have always been bilingual but primarily English-speaking in your theatrical presentations. What is said in Spanish is generally repeated in English, which I think non-Spanish speaking audiences appreciate. But some of your titles are in English, and some of them are in Spanish. Are your plays differently received when you go with the Spanish title?

Tony Garcia: Yes. The language becomes another barrier, and that’s part of marginalization. We did a piece called Cuarenta y Ocho, which means 48, and in the story, it refers to the 48 hours in-between two bombings. A lot of people just wouldn’t say the words in Spanish; they just referred to it as 48. With the title, a lot of people assumed it would be presented entirely in Spanish, even though it was mostly in English. So, yes, I think the title being in Spanish kept some people away.  I just thought Cuarenta y Ocho sounded a lot better than 48.

John Moore: How did that play out at the box office?

John Moore’s 2005 profile on Tony Garcia

Tony Garcia: We had just finished doing Real Women Have Curves, which drew astronomical numbers. The place was just packed all the time with heavily drinking women. But I would say the attendance was 50 percent lower for Cuarenta y Ocho.

John Moore: So you think seeing a title in Spanish …

Tony Garcia: It’s a deterrent.

John Moore: It’s a deterrent, yes. But is it racism?

Tony Garcia: That’s a good question. I think there are other elements tied into the racism. I don’t think someone ever specifically says: “I don’t want to go because there are Mexicans there – and I dislike Mexicans.” The racist element comes in when someone says: “This is outside the norm.” There’s a marginalization that occurs when you say: “I am placing what you do on the margins.” Racism can be very nuanced, but we can make some assumptions. We get more white audience members when our titles are in English versus Spanish.

Anthony J. Garcia of Su Teatro spoke up last month on a compromise that moved the SCFD reauthorization forward in its legislative odyssey. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

John Moore: Are you saying that the demographics of Denver have changed and the old mainstream hasn’t caught on that they really aren’t the mainstream anymore?

Tony Garcia: I am saying the dynamics in Denver are all changing. The demographics are changing. Political and the economic dynamics are changing. Latinos are moving out of Denver, because we’re all moving out of Denver. We have to, because the housing situation is pushing more and more people of lower economic status out to the suburbs. Denver’s Latino population is 35 percent in the city. And they are expecting that by 2030, the population will be 20 percent across the board in all seven metro counties. Latinos have become a majority minority. That’s because we’re all having kids. And those kids are not immigrants, because they’re already here in this country. So when I say things are changing, that’s happening. Ergo, the mainstream is going to change. No matter where people came from, you have a whole group growing up, for lack of a better word, as Chicanos. They’re bilingual, they’re bicultural and they are going to be a huge force here. With that as a given, when we have conversations about what’s going on here in the city and we’re not included in those conversations – there’s a disconnect.

John Moore: You are operating at a time when it is getting more and more difficult for anyone to attract major media attention. But do you feel the difficulty you are facing is a cultural bias – or are you just like everyone else who is struggling to get some attention in an era of dwindling newsrooms?

Tony Garcia: To me, that is a question of economics, because I don’t have the time or economic capacity to be on the phone tracking down reporters for an article.

John Moore: But do you feel you are being ignored because of who you are?

Tony Garcia: Yes. Yes. Because the media gets to decide “this is what is important to the greatest number of people.” I don’t believe the media have an obligation to cover us. But I do believe there is a big disconnect when you’re completely ignorant of us. The dominant culture has a responsibility to understand the minority culture. It should not be all on us to educate every white person who comes along to what is sensitive, and to what is important. That’s a lot of educating we would have to do.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

John Moore: There are more than 60 theatre companies in Denver. But you’re the only one whose mission is to present Chicano and Latino plays. So do you think the media have a responsibility to pay attention to you, regardless of the numbers?

Tony Garcia: They have a responsibility to the greater community, but they do not have that responsibility to me. As an individual artist at Su Teatro, I always believe that we put our stuff out there and we compete for attention equally and openly. We understand that it’s a matter of capacity and resources, too. And I understand that there are a lot of other groups that are doing a lot of important things out there. But I also I believe that our community contributes to that infrastructure. I don’t like the idea that we’re the only Latino theatre in town. But that also means what we do here represents a big part of the Denver population. And I also think there’s a benefit to the mainstream community for us to get stronger and for us to continue to produce. So in a broader sense, I would say “yes.”

John Moore: I want to try to pinpoint who you’re really mad at.

Tony Garcia: I’m mad that I don’t have an HVAC (heating and air conditioning).  Mine is messed up. I need $125,000 to fix it, but we don’t have those kinds of resources within our community right now to make it happen. It’s like we’re trying to build an ark with rocks. But we’ll figure out a way. My daughter tells me, “I have always felt if they gave you a rock and a rubber band, you could build a play.” That’s kind of the way we’ve always been.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Su Teatro /Upcoming

  • May 8: Serenata Madrelinda: Mother’s Day brunch and concert.
  • June 9-26:El Sol Que Tu Eres/The Sun That You Are: Revival of original musical adapted from the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice)
  • June (dates TBA): Bless Me, Ultima: Revival of Rudolfo Anaya play about the coming of age of Antonio Márez y Luna, with the guidance of his curandera, mentor, and protector, Ultima.

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