Tony Garcia is acutely aware of the irony that his play about Denver's Mexican experience is being performed at Auraria's stellar auditorium. After all, the campus was built on what had been the heart of the Mexican-American community, which was forced to disperse in the '60s. The history of that community is central to Westside Oratorio, which premiered last weekend. "I'm trying to revive the memory for our community," says Garcia, who teaches at Auraria and is a director at El Centro Su Teatro.
"When I was a boy, I saw the film How the West Was Won," he says. "Mexicans weren't in it, or Asians. There were barely any Indians, and they were there just to be killed. Memory for all of us in the United States is short."
Drawing from oral histories they collected from students and former residents of the neighborhood, and supported by a grant from Continental Harmony, which funds original musical compositions, Garcia and composer Daniel Valdez fashioned an immigration saga that sweeps beyond Denver. "This is the story about how the country is made up of various cultures, and every culture leaves a legacy," notes Valdez, a California composer whose credits include music for the film La Bamba. "This relates to any community and is really a classic American story."
Valdez wrote a dozen original numbers for the musical, but he used a traditional Lakota song to open it. "I said to Tony, 'How can I write something from that time?'" he recalls. Instead, he used an authentic piece that, translated into English, begins: "A hundred years have passed, yet I hear the distant beat of my father's drum; I hear his drum throughout the land, his beat I feel within my heart. The drum shall beat, so my heart shall beat, and I shall live 100,000 years."
Although the score features a "continuing evolution of musical sophistication," according to Valdez, it doesn't sugarcoat history. A catchy doo-wop song titled "No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed" draws from Denver in the 1920s, when members of the Ku Klux Klan targeted non-whites, including Mexicans. Another vignette follows a young woman who meets and marries a soldier at Union Station who's heading off to war -- and never returns.
"This is filled with irony and pathos," Garcia says. "There are so many connections."