Nursing school was physically, mentally and emotionally brutal — all training for the life-and-death daily reality of the actual job. On tough days at work, theater helps. "I try to just be myself and be super-silly with my patients when I can," she says. "I try to make them smile, to make them feel better. It's definitely a performance, every day."

Paulson is 27 now, but her energy is undiminished by adulthood. For fun, she performs with a flaming hula hoop. She periodically shows up in small-budget movies filmed around town. Last year, while shooting scenes at a local dive, Paulson sprang into action when a real customer had a seizure at the bar. "It was a horror movie, and my character had been murdered, so I was completely covered in fake blood," she says. "The paramedics showed up and I told them everything that was going on. They were like, 'Okay, good job on this guy. Now, what the hell happened to you?'"

On weekends, Paulson goes underwater: She's part of the Mystic Mermaid cast at the Downtown Aquarium, performing in a giant tank with eels, sharks and a 400-pound fish. She won the job while she was still in nursing school. Training to be a mermaid — which requires her to swim expertly and hold her breath for seventy seconds at a time — was nearly as challenging as training to be an RN.

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.

"It's crazy and it's hilarious. You have to be super-cheesy. You're down there with all of these fish. I once got bit by a sea turtle. It was like, 'Ahhh! No one told me these things bite!" she recalls. "I'm just a performer in my heart. I'm always looking for some little performance. For me, it's just a way to relax, to chill. It's just a part of who I am. It's always going to be."


Ten years after Zoot Suit Riots, Mercado is returning to North next week with Dreaming Sin Fronteras, which opens March 21 in the auditorium where he held hundreds of hours of rehearsals back in 2004. Elvis Nuñez is a member of the cast, and some of the volunteers Mercado enlisted to run sound and lights for Zoot Suit Riots will once again be behind the boards.

"It just seemed perfect to do it at North," Mercado says. "We asked the principal, and she said yes right away. It's perfect, full circle."

Dreaming Sin Fronteras explores the DREAM Act through true stories, collected from young Latinos whose lives have been shaped — and often limited — by their legal status. The narratives will be dramatized by a cast that includes Mercado's students at the University of Colorado Denver; the show is sponsored by the school's College of Arts and Media as well as its Office of Diversity and Inclusion and Office of Student Affairs. For Mercado, it's another chance to use theater to bring people together.

"Immigration is an urgent topic; we just couldn't do it in a conventional play," he says. "To break with conventions and norms is not something I'm unfamiliar with. We'll be using their stories to show that these kids are every bit as American as the next person; their voices need to be heard."

One of those voices belongs to Alejandra Cardona Lamas, who, as a recent graduate of Gateway High School, was among the victims of the Aurora theater shooting in July 2012. As she recovered, her physical and emotional trauma was compounded by a fear that her status as an illegal immigrant would be revealed. Haunted by visions of her family being deported, she contacted a lawyer who helped her apply for a special visa granted to victims of violence at the hands of American citizens. Last year, Lamas and her entire family were given legal status. She's currently pursuing a degree in social work and criminal justice at Colorado State University.

When Mercado approached Lamas about using her story in a monologue, she decided to risk it — and she'll be in the audience with her family next week. "I've never really gotten the opportunity to see how people perceive my story," says Lamas. "Maybe it will do a lot for my self-growth and healing. Maybe it will help me realize that I made it somewhere that a lot of people wouldn't have gotten to. I hope the audience is able to see my story as the outcome of my being a survivor rather than a victim. I want them to look at it like, 'Wow. She's awesome and strong.'"

Mercado is hoping that powerful stories like Lamas's will help pull audiences not just from North and the surrounding community, but from the entire city. He's assembled a high-profile group of musicians, including Raul Pacheco of L.A.'s Ozomatli and Shawn King of DeVotchKa, to curate the soundtrack and raise the profile of the show. And once again, he's working the area for supporters, hosting a series of fundraisers in the now-bustling LoHi restaurant district.

The north side is a very different place today than it was in 2004. Over the past decade, the population has shifted from nearly 60 percent Latino to nearly 60 percent white. Students on their way home from North now walk a transformed 32nd Avenue, packed with high-end restaurants and boutiques. In February, the last Mexican-music store in this heart of the neighborhood closed; a realtor's shingle hangs in the window.

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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