By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
"Mercado has helped me a lot," Ali says. "Sometimes you'll do a scene and he'll say, 'You know what? That was terrible.' And at first you think, 'Well, no, it wasn't.' But then you realize he was right, and you do it again, and it gets better. So you learn. You learn how to tap into and express an emotion, even when you don't want to."
Mercado calls a ten-minute break. Students scramble for their cell phones or the snacks they've stored in their backpacks. Ali heads back to the stage and sneaks in one more flip.
José Mercado's world has gotten a lot smaller since he came to North.
Most of his waking hours are spent in Room 141, the auditorium and the main office, where he makes coffee -- which he drinks constantly -- and Xerox copies, usually for students who've forgotten to bring their scripts.
Mercado rarely walks more than a few feet without someone stopping him for something. (Boy: Mercado, have you seen my missing keys? Girl: Mercado, do you know, if I leave cream cheese in my bag all day, will it go bad?) Today, a sunny Thursday before spring break, he has to break up a fight between two girls. As Mercado leads them by the elbows to the security office, baby-faced boys wearing skullcaps and petite, honey-skinned girls in low-slung jeans call to him:
Hey, ese! GET 'EM, ESE!
"José may be the best thing that's ever happened to North. The kids love him," says Julie Rendon, North's receptionist. "He's so young; he's got the energy for it. He's always running around the hallways. I have to wave my finger at him to let him know when he has messages.
"I think some of the girls, they have crushes on him," she continues. "He's a good-looking guy, too, no? It's a good thing to have a crush on your teacher. It makes you come to class."
Mercado hadn't planned on becoming a high school teacher. A year ago he was living in Los Angeles, in an apartment just off the Sunset Strip. He had an agent, a master's degree from UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television, and a job teaching acting to undergraduates. L.A. had been good to him. Since leaving Colorado for California in 1997, he'd scored a few small film roles -- including Luminarias, with Cheech Marin, and Hidalgo, the Viggo Mortensen epic -- and landed a spot in an acting collective that included Megan Mullally, better known as the oversexed snob Karen on Will & Grace. When his mother, Rose Garcia, flew from Greeley to see him in the opening-night performance of Wit -- a production that the L.A. Weekly called the best of 2000 -- she was seated directly in front of Tom Hanks, then sporting the skeletal frame and gigantic beard he acquired for Castaway.
"I loved L.A.," Mercado says. "I adapted to the lifestyle very quickly. It was a place that I never saw myself leaving."
But life took a turn in the spring of 2003. Rose, diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999, was losing the battle. Mercado was wrapping up production on a big show with Mullally when doctors told the family to prepare for the worst. Rose told her son to finish the show, then come to see her; she'd wait for him. The morning after closing night, Easter Sunday, Mercado was at LAX waiting to board a plane to Denver when he called his sister and learned that Rose had died about an hour earlier.
Mercado flew home and spent six weeks in Greeley, where he'd grown up with his three older sisters. When he finally got back to California, he discovered that Hollywood couldn't wait for him, either. He'd lost his agent, as well as his taste for the city.
"L.A. is not a place to be if you don't have your stuff together," he says. "In a way, my mom dying made me consider what my overall role should be -- as an actor, as a human being. I'd had seven years of being selfish, having a selfish career as an actor. I wanted to do something else, to find a place where I could do some good."
That place, as it turned out, was North.
Since Zoot Suit Riotsrehearsals began in late February, Mercado has typically been at the school ten to twelve hours a day, and sometimes on weekends. The production has ballooned with each passing day. Mercado has hired two professional actors, friends from El Centro Su Teatro, to work with the students. Suavecito's, a local company that makes custom zoot suits, has been tapped to design costumes. Carlos Frésquez, an artist and educator, is providing the stage backdrops and posters. Mercado has planned fundraising events and found a corporate sponsor, American Family Insurance, to underwrite some of the play's expenses -- like the giant rotating turntable that will be the centerpiece of the stage.
"José wants so badly to see this come to fruition, and he'll do whatever it takes to make this funding happen," says Angelique Acevedo-Barron, North's assistant principal. "When I was teaching art, I'd spend my own personal money to buy materials all the time. The arts are always underfunded, because they're not seen as part of the core: reading, writing, math and science. So that's just what it takes. That's what good teachers have to do."