Raising the Barrio

Over 25 years old and, proudly, the third-oldest continuous Chicano theater troupe in the country, Denver's El Centro Su Teatro defines what a grassroots cultural arts endeavor is all about. Born of radical movements in the '60s and '70s and deeply dedicated to providing the Latino community with an artistic voice, El Centro remains true to its raised-fist leftist origins, even though artistic director Tony Garcia admits to that viewpoint being out of favor. It's still there in the flavor of their work--a guerrilla spirit persists in everything El Centro does, from its dinner-theater benefits where tables spill into the hallways to accommodate the crowds to the free Spanish-language films it screens every summer in a side yard.

When members of El Centro began working to procure their present space in the old Elyria Elementary School at 47th and High, where they've been nearly ten years, they actually squatted in the building before the deal was finalized. "We figured we'd be harder to kick out that way," Garcia says. And in spite of a leaky roof, exploding furnace, ancient plumbing and dangerously overgrown trees, El Centro has managed to put down tenacious roots. It has transformed the former grade school to include an intimate 112-seat black-box theater space, a modest dance studio and administrative offices that have only recently been walled off in a former communal area once beset in bad weather by drips.

Simple structural upkeep is a serious day-to-day occupation at the center. "It has an appetite," says Jim Schwartzkopff, El Centro's program director and self-proclaimed yard boy. "After all," he adds, "You can't write a grant saying, 'I want to trim my tree.'"

It's also a place where anything can happen. The lazy quiet of this particular summer morning is broken by a surprise visit by kids from the Denver Inner City Parish, herded in the door by Garcia's daughter, Mica, and Olivia Martinez, the daughter of another longtime troupe member, both of whom work at the parish.

Garcia comes out to greet them as they take to the floor in the lobby area. "Do you guys know where you are?" he asks. They shake their heads. To break the ice, he shows them the door to what's now a makeshift dressing room but was once Elyria's principal's office. Then he explains how El Centro exists to pass on the stories of their grandmothers and grandfathers. "We're here for you," he says gently. The kids look back in awe.

Much more than an artistic director, Garcia is El Centro's heart, soul, sparkplug and engine, though he insists on sharing credit with others. He was first drawn to the company in the early '70s, when it was the offshoot of a class at CU-Denver, performing impromptu sketches and guerrilla works such as Luis Valdez's Actos on street corners and in parks under the direction of instructor Rowena Rivera. "I thought they were funny, but it was more relevant culturally," Garcia says of the early performances. "I had never seen those characters on stage before. Nothing like that had been available to me before."

He began to follow them around in 1972. An urban westside kid who played guitar in rock bands, Garcia first joined as a musician. "One day somebody missed a performance, so they stuck me on stage after about twenty minutes of rehearsal," he says, recalling his acting debut. "I was pretty bad." Eventually he found his true calling in the troupe as a writer and director. For Garcia, artistic development came hand in hand with political awakening, stirred by the tumult of the times. "Once you know the truth, you can't go back to ignorance," he says. But for Garcia and El Centro, art came first. "We were performers learning about political consciousness," he stresses. "We were showy and funny, which got us attention. We were playing, having fun."

Humor, from flat-out broad to slyly topical, has almost always been an integral part of the Teatro repertoire. "Humor disarms anger," Garcia says. "And being able to make fun of ourselves is even better." For that reason, he acknowledges, some of the company's harshest critics are from the very community they play to--community members who object to Teatro's willingness to laugh even at Latino foibles. Garcia, who says that being a smartass is one of his better qualities, is willing to take the heat. "We underlie everything with a real love of our community and people," he insists.

After more than 25 years as a voice of the barrio, El Centro is looking for new ways to get that message across. Garcia and company hope to widen their exposure in the process. "We want to do more national interchanges," he says. "We're raising the bar, pushing people harder."

One way the group hopes to accomplish that is with this month's El Festival de Bellas Artes, a series of free performances and workshops in Civic Center Park. It's an upgrade of Teatro in the Park, expanded to ten days since it began as a single-weekend event in 1995. Schwartzkopff, who is organizing the festival, which includes nights of theater, comedy, dance and poetry, calls it a prototype for years to come.

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