Theater provides taste of life in spotlight

By Helena Rodriguez: Freedom Newspapers

I’ve never had formal acting lessons, but as a child I did spend some time on the stage in our north Portales community theater called Teatro de la Comunidad de los Niños.

We were the junior version of the high school group, Teatro de la Comunidad, which featured a cast of self-taught actors we aspired to emulate, like my aunts Matilda and Vanessa, Manuel Ornelas, Larry Urioste, Sadie Lucero, Darlene Gutierrez and David Natividad, to name a few. My mom and dad and Joe Madrid provided the live music for their performances.

Our street theater was modeled after the traveling theaters made popular by Luis Valdez of California during the Chicano civil rights movement of the 1970s. With little more than a backdrop made of fabric, and a few inexpensive props and costumes, we brought messages of social change to the barrios of Portales as well as to some areas of eastern and northern New Mexico and West Texas.

When we were lucky, some of the big teatros, including Valdez’s famous Teatro Campesino of California, performed at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales.

Valdez was my role model. It was in reading his plays that I was inspired to write my own plays, some of which we performed. Valdez, who is regarded as the father of Chicano theater in the United States, directed his first play in the back of a pickup truck in the migrant camps of Delano, Calif. He formed Teatro Campesino to help labor activist and civil rights leader, Cesar Chavez, as he organized farm workers to lobby and win better wages and working conditions.

Valdez subsequently became the first Chicano director to have a play, “Zoot Suit,” presented on Broadway in 1979. But it was Valdez’s breakthrough 1987 motion picture, “La Bamba,” based on the life of Ritchie Valens and starring Lou Diamond Phillips, which brought him to mainstream America.

Valdez was already a known figure at the time amongst many of us Hispanics, an umbrella name that many of us traded in for the sometimes radically perceived “Chicano” term of the 1960s and 1970s, which served its purpose at the time.

We did plays on social problems of the 1960s and 1970s, Vietnam and kids being wrongfully punished in school for speaking Spanish. It was in teatro that I learned some of the basic stage techniques, like stage left and stage right, and about The Golden Rule of never turning your back to the audience. I had aspirations in high school of trying out for a school play, too, but regrettably never did. The closest I got was being a mime.

I tried to form a teatro in high school, but it was never the same as Teatro de la Comunidad de los Ninos. My peers had better things to do by then. The civil rights movement seemed to be a thing of the past and so we would appear to be rebels without a cause. Besides, my scripts had a few flaws that needed to be worked out. I remember trying to direct some of my friends through one scene I had written, when someone pointed out an error. In one scene, I had a guy being stabbed in the back, but then the script called for him to run off stage holding his stomach. I’m sure this is a mistake playwrights make all the time.

I briefly returned to the stage during my undergraduate days at Eastern New Mexico University in 1988. A group of students from AHORA (Association to Help Our Race Advance) and myself performed a play I had written, titled “La Llorona: Fact or Legend?” at Eastern’s annual Festival Romanico.

I got started thinking about my past stage experiences when I was rummaging through some of my old writings recently. Then I visited with Gloria Ortega and she reminded me of the La Llorona play at Eastern, which she had seen. I’ve been thinking about writing and directing another play someday. Maybe. But don’t expect to see me on stage. My short lived acting career is over.

Helena Rodriguez is a columnist for Freedom Newspapers of New Mexico. She can be reached at: