"I was raised by a single mom. So was almost every single boy in Zoot Suit Riots," recalls Mercado. "They had the hope and desire to succeed; they needed someone to give them permission. I had the energy, the time and expectation, to help me heal. It was the perfect storm. I needed to be a workaholic, and they needed someone who had the time to give them."

Mercado proved not just an energetic director, but an aggressive promoter. Virtually unknown in Denver's creative circles, he hustled like an insider, securing publicity, donors and supporters for the rechristened Black Masque Theatre Company. He got people to do things for free — including building sets and loaning expensive vintage clothing for costumes — and enlisted donations from businesses in the neighborhood. North wasn't accustomed to this kind of attention.

"We were just so used to North getting a bad rap," says Alexandra Paulson, who appeared in the original Zoot Suit Riots as well as a revival that Mercado staged at the Historic Elitch Theatre in 2010. "Suddenly we were in the newspaper, like, every week. I thought I was a celebrity. It was probably one of the most profound things that ever happened to any of us, or to the school."

The cast of the 2004 Zoot Suit Riots.
Anthony Camera
The cast of the 2004 Zoot Suit Riots.

"The culture in the school was one of low expectations," says Mercado. "There was a shock when the students' talent was brought out. I heard it all the time: 'These kids go to North?' The teachers, members of the community — they didn't know. That initial shock was followed by appreciation and a certain pride that manifested in this neighborhood that was transitioning from being a traditional Mexican neighborhood to the Highland of today."

In 2004, the area around North High School was still known by locals as "the north side" — an area that for decades had been associated with gangs, crime and poverty. But to most who lived there, it was simply home, a neighborhood that had been occupied by Latino families for generations. The stretch between Tejon and Clay streets along 32nd Avenue, a path traveled daily by hundreds of North students, was lined with Latino-owned businesses: La Raza Records on Zuni, Panaderia Rosales on Clay. But change was coming. Real-estate signs and condominiums were going up; a few old houses had been knocked down.

"Zoot Suit provided a point of unification," Mercado says. "You had groups that would not normally interact. The Chicanos and the Mexicanos would not normally have had anything to do with each other. But in the play, you had kids who barely spoke English and white kids and Latinos, all together. When the play opened, the new arrivals who didn't have kids came to the auditorium, where they'd sit next to somebody's Mexican-American grandmother. Those kids brought communities together."

In 2005, Mercado convinced the city to let him produce Zoot Suit Riots at the Buell Theatre. On the night of the show, when the cast entered the large theater from the back of the house, they received a standing ovation from a sold-out crowd.

"It was the first time parents from the north side had ever been to the Denver Performing Arts Complex," Mercado says. "It was the first time they ever felt invited to come downtown for a show."

Drama soon became one of the most popular electives at North. Mercado continued to push students creatively, selecting texts that explored Latino culture, civil rights and oppression. In 2005, students wrote One Love, a musical that explored the connections between hip-hop and identity. The following year, North was accepted for inclusion in the North American High School Theater Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. After raising $60,000 — with help from parents and community leaders — Mercado took a group of students to Great Britain, starting with a tour of London. Once in Edinburgh, amid thousands of high-school thespians from across the United States, they earned an award for their performance of Simply Maria, a challenging drama about a young Mexican immigrant.

As North's profile rose, so did Mercado's. He got a Denver-based agent and started doing voiceover work, commercials. His efforts gained the attention of then-Mayor John Hickenlooper, who recommended him for a spot on the Denver Commission on Cultural Affairs.

"No one would have cared about this drama department if it had come out of the Denver School of the Arts," Mercado says. "That it came out of North, that was the surprise. After that, my definition of success changed — from a selfish, 'Look at me, on stage, in a movie,' instant-gratification kind of thing to being about helping these kids believe in themselves. And it was a whole new rush. It was very gratifying; it turned me on."

Mercado didn't leave Denver after all. But after four years, he did leave North. In 2007, he joined the theater department at the University of Colorado Denver. It was a practical move, an upward move for an aspiring artist: Mercado had access to students with more formal theater experience, better facilities, more mature appetites. Still, more than five years later, Mercado considers his work at North to be the most significant of his career.

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Laura Naranjo
Laura Naranjo

We are elated to read a much needed and hearty reprise of Zoot Suit Riots. In this preview of spring a curtain call for a neighborhood home to so much cultural diversity and many corazones in solidarity and appreciation of the efforts community wide, of Jose Mercado and Padres Unidos, Cesar Chavez Committee, Sisters of Color, Escuela Tlatelolco. Sadly public education is still searching for millennial solutions via a post industrial age, out of date system. That resounds among the interviews of the people whose lives were transformed and whose lives continue to create progressive change. In gratitude Laura Bond is still searching and researching our Xicanismo/a. So well written and thoroughly lived. Our corazones y almas...are with the young people giving back to our communities; Elviz, Emily, Alexandra y todos con respeto, Laura Naranjo & Familia, Denver


Is he a Greeley Native?

Alexandra Monique Inda Escobedo
Alexandra Monique Inda Escobedo

North Denver Vikings has a great drama teacher now Megan Gillman. My son in drama and he love's it Mrs. Gillman really inspiring