Paradise Lost

Tony Garcia revisits the old neighborhood with El Corrido del Barrio.

Oral history plays a major role in the magic created year in and year out by Denver's Su Teatro ensemble, whose early acts of Chicano guerrilla theater, performed on the streets during grape boycott demonstrations years ago, have metamorphosed into fully staged productions. And so it goes with the group's El Corrido del Barrio, a street play that's matured gracefully into a fine piece of theatrical storytelling that recaptures the heart of a community ripped apart by progress thirty years ago.

The story of the old neighborhood uprooted in the '70s to make way for the present Auraria campus, El Corrido will be performed this month on campus in the new King Center for the Performing Arts. The center stands on the very spot where St. Cajetan's School once stood, educating neighborhood kids for decades under the stern rule of Benedictine nuns. It's just one way that Tony Garcia, Su Teatro's founder and guiding light, and his troupe continue to give back to the community that inspired them.

"The same analysis is still there," he says of the work. "I've come back to it with a more developed political perspective and see that it's still the same. This stuff is still happening." Like most of the kids he grew up with in the lower-class Auraria community of old, Garcia went to school there, and he came away viewing it quite differently than other Denverites who rarely ventured to the neighborhood.

Former Aurarian Magdalena Gallegos, who's recorded an oral history of Auraria, did venture there, and she still does: She was born in her grandmother's house at 943 1/2 10th Street and lived there again after she was married. "Four generations lived in that same house," says Gallegos, who went on to earn a degree at the University of Colorado at Denver and now works at the Community College of Denver (both on the current campus). "Now, I still walk those streets and have connections with a lot of the people whose ancestors lived there, too. My whole life has revolved around the same neighborhood." And how does it feel to cover the same well-worn ground, albeit in its transformed state? "I think I own it!" Gallegos notes merrily. "I'm glad that it's now an area of learning, because a lot of people don't really know about the old neighborhood.

"All of the families I knew or grew up with were pushing education for children," she continues. "Many of the people my age and younger went on to go to college and are now teaching and working in the community. Like Tony -- look what he's doing. Everyone was very talented. At the old Casa Mayan restaurant, the boys played guitar and the women taught dancing. Everyone in the neighborhood had a piano. My mother sang opera. Maria Gonzales Zimmerman went on to the Lamont School of Music and ended up performing opera in New York.

"We weren't just poor; we were well-educated. When they started tearing down the houses, a lot of people called them 'dilapidated.' They gave a picture that we were dumb and that we weren't cultured, which was not at all what was going on."

Inevitably, the tentacles of urban renewal caught up with Auraria, and that's the denouement of El Corrido del Barrio. But the play still symbolizes Auraria's human legacy, the piece of it represented by Gallegos and her friends and family. And now, there's no one long-gone Auraria landmark Gallegos can claim she misses. They're inconsequential, she says, in comparison to the social culture that once thrived among them, and she hopes today's young people can learn to take the time to record their grandparents' stories, as she did. For Gallegos, old Auraria still lives on in the words she's carefully archived: "The lives," she says, "are what's important."

 
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