For Nuñez, the magic landed him on the cover of Westword, in the Denver Post and even in the New York Times, which featured him in a piece about the re-emergence of the zoot suit. "I took those stories into the principal's office at North and said, 'Look. I'm representing North. This is the first good press this school has had in a long time. You've got to let me back in here.' I knew I wasn't going to boost their grade level, but I had to be there," he says. "Without drama, I never would have graduated. Nothing would have kept me there."

Nuñez was readmitted, and he continued to represent. He helped create One Love, and helped Mercado raise a significant amount of money for the Scotland trip. In 2005, after six years of high school, he graduated.

"Up until that point, I'd always been told I was an asshole, by everyone," he says. "Zoot Suit gave me an outlet to show the world what I had. A belief in myself. It helped me to expand my consciousness and to study, to learn about Chicano history, indigenous history, to find my roots. I learned so much about what I could do."

José Antonio Mercado was only going to live in Denver for a year.
Anthony Camera
José Antonio Mercado was only going to live in Denver for a year.
Alexandra Paulson has stayed afloat since Zoot Suit.
Anthony Camera
Alexandra Paulson has stayed afloat since Zoot Suit.

What he could do, it turned out, was pretty much everything. Nuñez is now the father of a five-year-old boy, a member of a respected graffiti crew, a breakdancer, a teacher and a coach. Through the Denver Parks and Recreation My Card program, he teaches young people the skills that kept him engaged, and alive, through high school and beyond: art, performance, sports. He coaches basketball and soccer, teaches kids how to cook and care for themselves. "It's the coolest thing I've ever done," he says. "Hanging out with these kids, giving them somewhere to go, a chance to play and just have fun. That's what life's about.

"That's something I've figured out lately: It's not about some big message you're gonna understand someday. It's just about living."

**********

Alexandra Paulson was in José Mercado's drama class the day he started at North. When Mercado introduced himself, Paulson interrupted with a question. About his butt cheeks.

It was the kind of test high-school students throw at new teachers, adult interlopers in their finely honed social order. Mercado didn't flinch.

"He laughed," she remembers. "And then he said, 'That's a great idea. Let's spend this class telling jokes out loud to each other.' He made it a theater game. I loved him instantly. He was just this unique person who popped up in the middle of all this craziness. He pushed us really hard. And I always wanted to strive to please him."

In Zoot Suit Riots, Paulson played Lorena, fiancée of romantic lead Henry Leyva, played by Ernest Apodaca, her boyfriend at the time. When she wasn't running dance routines or scenes with Ernest, she was practicing flips and aerials on stage or in the aisles of the auditorium. Outgoing, bold, equal parts beauty queen and class clown, the seventeen-year-old Paulson had a quasar's energy. She was captain of the cheer squad and leader of a clique that had more than a touch of bad-girl glamour.

But when showtime came, her focus was clear. On stage, she gave everything she had to Lorena.

"School was social for me," says Paulson. "I wasn't really successful at anything until I got into theater. I'll never forget the smile on my dad's face on that first opening night. It was a huge thing for my whole family. My mom and I had had some problems in our relationship. I got into trouble when I was younger. Once the plays started, she was so pleased. It made my mom and dad so proud."

The spring after Zoot Suit Riots, Paulson was part of the group of students who wrote and produced One Love. It was the first time she felt a direct connection between what she learned in class and who she was. "I had always hated math and those kinds of classes," she explains. "But I loved to write — and we wrote a whole play. Honestly, everything I learned in high school, I learned in those plays. They helped me find my confidence, how to deal with people. They taught me about writing and creative expression. They showed me teamwork and how to follow through."

At the end of her senior year, Paulson was awarded the first Richard Lucero North High Alumni Scholarship — a full ride to Metro State, where she enrolled in the theater department. In her third year, with the blessing (and continued funding) of the Lucero family, she changed direction, enrolling in the nursing program at Emily Griffith Technical College. Last year, Paulson completed her RN at the Denver School of Nursing; she now works at St. Anthony Hospital/Centura Health.

That Paulson — the cheerleader who thought she hated learning — chose one of the hardest professions imaginable would probably surprise those who knew her freshman year. It surprised her, too: "If it wasn't for those plays, I never would have gone to nursing school. Period."

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5 comments
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

lynnS
lynnS

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

 
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