It was just a spring musical — a ritual, like homecoming, familiar at nearly every high school in the United States. But when the lights came up on Zoot Suit Riots at North High in May 2004, they revealed a very special show.
The twenty teenagers who made up the cast of Zoot Suit Riots had traded basketball games, parties, dates and studies for rehearsal time. They'd eaten dinner between scenes, often chips from a vending machine or a pizza brought in by a mom; they'd sometimes done their homework. They'd learned and botched dance numbers, fallen down, broken character. They'd run their lines a hundred times, drilled them into their squirmy teenage brains. They'd moved each other to tears.
After rehearsal, they'd often gone straight to bed, exhausted. Other nights they'd met up at somebody's house, talking about the play over beers that someone's older cousin had bought at a liquor store on Tejon or Zuni, the back roads of the north side.
Tensions were high on opening night. The sets smelled of wet paint. One of the male leads, Elvis Nuñez, was still walking with a minor limp after getting into a car accident one reckless night after rehearsal. Expectations were high, too: Westword had featured two of the young actors on the cover of the April 22, 2004, issue.
All three performances wound up selling out — a first in North High history. The play drew parents and grandparents, local business owners and Denver City Council members. The following year, a reprise of Zoot Suit Riots became the first high-school production ever staged at the Buell Theatre in downtown Denver, a venue normally occupied by big-budget touring Broadway shows. Nuñez, the boy with the limp, wound up in the New York Times. And the year after that, some of the cast members from this poor, inner-city school traveled to Scotland for the largest high-school theater festival in the world.
The young performers didn't know what would lie ahead when the final curtain came down on Zoot Suit Riots. They just knew that they were somehow different. So was their school. So was their neighborhood. And so were their futures.
At age 29, José Antonio Mercado had worked hard to put distance between the poverty and struggles of his childhood in Greeley and his current reality as a recent graduate of the master's program in theater arts at UCLA. He'd already caught a few great breaks on stage in Los Angeles: a role in Wit and one in Mayhem, with Megan Mullally, for example. The city suited him. During the week he studied and worked with his role models; on weekends he saw shows and danced salsa.
In 2003, though, Mercado had to quickly return to Colorado when his mother, Rosa, succumbed to breast cancer after a long illness. Rosa had raised him as a single parent, and her death stripped him of the most meaningful relationship in his life. When he learned of an opening in the drama department at North High School, he applied, somewhat on a whim. The job would keep him busy while he dealt with his grief and tied up his mother's affairs. He planned to stay in Denver for a year, tops.
"Being a high-school teacher was the furthest thing from my mind," Mercado says. "I knew that with an MFA, teaching at a university was probably going to be part of it. But I wanted to be a professional actor. That was fully my plan."
But the North job was immediately consuming. The school was a crowded, bustling ecosystem with more than 1,600 students; it had seen a series of administrative shakeups and regularly underperformed on district assessments. With no formal training or experience as a public-school teacher, Mercado was assigned to teach drama as well as American literature. He constructed classes around his favorite authors and playwrights, starting with Shakespeare and moving into contemporary Latino authors.
"The students reminded me of myself," says Mercado, now 39. "I was a young teacher by comparison to many of the other teachers at the time. I was only ten years older than most of the students. I was just like those young kids, with so many dreams. My parents had a sixth-grade education. My dad was an illegal immigrant. I didn't have someone on a daily basis telling me to do my homework, and neither did these kids."
When it came time to choose the spring production for those kids, Mercado selected Zoot Suit Riots.
The musical, by Luis Valdez, had never been performed at a high school. The decidedly mature script, based on the true story of a racially charged murder case in Los Angeles that pitted young Hispanics against police in 1942, had great characters — strong Chicano voices for both males and females — and explored violence, racism, police brutality and institutional injustice, all themes Mercado saw as ripe for exploration at an inner-city high school, where close to 90 percent of the students were of Mexican descent, and nearly as many were poor.
Mercado hand-selected the cast — twenty boys and girls who represented the exact cultural moment at North High School in 2004: jocks and cheerleaders, straight-A students and kids on the verge of dropping out. There was George, newly arrived from Mexico, who spoke little English but could out-dance anyone. There was Addison, one of the few white students in the cast, more interested in computers than theater. There was Tina, whose parents had never attended an event at school — because she'd never been part of one.
"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 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.
"I haven't had the same impact in that environment," he admits. "Academia is really good at talking, and I'm really good at doing. I'm not so interested in art for superficial purposes. I'm interested in art that changes the world."
As an eighteen-year-old high-school senior, months from graduation, Emily Hare had no desire to be a serious person. Not yet.
Things were going well for Hare. Unlike many of her peers at North who came from single-parent homes, she had a stable family life. She was well liked, pretty, involved in swimming, yearbook, photography. She was a free spirit with a full course load, including several advanced-placement classes. "I always wanted to participate in things. I didn't want to go home; I wanted to fill my time," remembers Hare. "You know, I was in high school. I just wanted to hang out with my friends, and get a passing grade in my classes, and have fun."
So Hare was wary when a young stranger took over as North's drama teacher. José Mercado was intense and demanding, and he wanted to talk about history and the role of art in preserving Latino culture. She decided to give him a chance, and landed a part in Love, Laughter & Lágrimas, the first play Mercado directed at North. The following semester, Mercado insisted that Hare try out for Zoot Suit Riots; he cast her as Alice McGrath, the play's female lead — not an ingenue, but a reporter-turned-revolutionary who fought for justice on behalf of the zoot suiters.
Alice was a demanding role, one that forced Hare to dig deep inside herself. What she found there was a genuine, innate talent.
Hare committed herself fully to Zoot Suit Riots, and to Mercado. When she wasn't on stage, she was next to him in the house, clipboard in hand, observing the action as the show's assistant director. Part of her job was to corral the group of students she'd become extremely close to over the course of the production.
"All of us who were in the play, we could be wild," she says. "Kids from that area were just so creative. We were so used to hip-hop culture. There was a tremendous flavor to that group. Technology wasn't such an influence yet. We didn't have cell phones or an iPad. Even if that stuff would have been around, our parents wouldn't have been able to afford it. Instead we entertained each other with challenges, like, 'Who can do a better handstand?' or 'How many cartwheels can Ali do with one hand?'
"The play gave us this new artistic outlet that was so important," she continues. "It gave us hope. We loved being around each other. We had a guaranteed two or three hours a day to laugh and not to cry or get yelled at. Even if we were being rowdy, there was always purpose behind it. We were always making progress."
Hare was ambivalent about going to college, but her parents were not. North's guidance counselor pointed her to the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, which had programs in both photography and theater. Her work in Zoot Suit Riots boosted a high-school record that was impressive enough, at least on paper, to secure a spot.
"Honestly, I can't tell you a lick of what I learned in high school," Hare says today. "State capitals? Still don't know 'em. Math and science did not come naturally to me, like philosophical thinking and brainstorming, the creative things we explored in theater. What I remember is once getting kicked out of a class for asking questions and being inquisitive, and I remember writing a kick-ass play in drama class and having a lot of fun in the darkroom and in the theater.
"Zoot Suit Riots was a saving grace," she adds. "Without it, I wouldn't have gone to Hawaii. I would have just gone through high school with the usual kind of experience. Zoot Suit helped me realize I could really make something out of this passion."
During her freshman year at Hawaii, Hare returned to Denver to perform in the revival of Zoot Suit Riots at the Buell. "It gave a boost to my ego," she says. "I remember flying back and one of the flight attendants introduced me to the whole plane, over the loudspeaker. That was surreal. I felt like I was famous for a good little minute."
Despite early academic struggles, Hare earned a bachelor of arts in theater in 2008. She stayed in Hawaii for another year, part of a traveling troupe performing at schools. Then she moved back to Colorado, where she faced a series of unscripted setbacks. After being badly injured in a car accident, her older brother had to relearn to walk and talk, an ordeal that strained Hare's close, Roman Catholic family. She soon became involved with a man she met at a fitness club in north Denver. They married, but the contentious relationship ended in divorce two years later.
Today Hare is on a spiritual quest to define herself as an adult rather than a character.
"I was mentally tripped up by this idea that every single moment of our lives is theater," she says. "I lived in this fantastical world. You get a script and say, 'Okay, I'm this now.' You take on all of these roles that are fake; every single day is an act. I think because of my theater background, I had all these internalized emotions that I'm just starting to sort out. I'm realizing that honesty is so important. It's so much more important to be honest than to act like something you're not."
Hare now lives with her parents, not far from North High School, and works at a downtown law firm. Though performing is not currently part of her life, she dreams of opening a small, experimental theater that explores the connections between perception, the senses and drama. Alice is never very far from her mind.
"I've carried Alice along with me throughout my life," she says. "She fought for what she believed in, even though she didn't know what would happen. I feel like I'm always fighting for something and never winning. Right now I guess I'm just fighting to be a positive person, to be happy, and to figure out what that means." **********
For all the splash it made in the media, Zoot Suit Riots was never any part of any academic assessment, as is so often the case with extracurricular arts-based programs. Still, it produced some impressive stats. In 2004, North's graduation rate was estimated at 60 percent by Denver Public Schools (and significantly lower by the community group Padres Unidos), yet all but one of the twenty young people who participated in Zoot Suit Riots graduated from high school. More than half went to college.
Many, like Jacquie Adam, were the first in their family to do so.
Adam (then Jacquie Granados) was in the group of drama students who traveled to Scotland with Mercado in 2006. When she returned, invigorated, she applied to both the Daniels Fund for a scholarship and the University of Denver for admission. She was granted both, and earned a bachelor's degree in communications with a minor in theater. One of her younger brothers followed her to DU; he graduated last year, also a Daniels Scholar. Her youngest brother entered Metro State University of Denver last fall.
"Before Scotland, I had no idea of what my future looked like," says Adam. "I was just a little Mexican chick, you know? That trip really opened my eyes, showed me there was this whole world out there. It showed me, like, 'Yeah, we can travel. We can learn. We can do awesome stuff.'
"When I came back, I was super-inspired to get myself together, to do something with my life," she adds. "My mom and dad were so proud. I'm the first person in my family to go to college. That trip really changed my whole family's future."
Now 24 and married, Adam is back at North — as a teacher-mentor with Colorado Uplift, which helps develop student character and leadership skills. "I was exposed to so much at North, being in those plays," she says. "I wanted to see how I could help the kids come out and do something with their lives, instead of just being in the 'hood. I wanted to show them there's a whole world out there. It's not just about the north side."
Elvis Nuñez was on his fourth high school when he was cast in Zoot Suit Riots — and it wasn't North. He'd started at Highlands Ranch, where he lived with a supportive aunt and spent the first month picking fights with well-off suburban kids. Closer to home at Manual High School, there were fewer fights but also less actual school. He soon moved on to North. "I bullshitted my way through it," he says. "Academics? I didn't care for them."
For Nuñez, the whole school scene was impossible to take seriously. He'd seen real life: His mother went to prison when he was six and stayed there for a decade; he'd been raised by a loving grandmother in the rough Swansea neighborhood.
By the time Mercado held auditions for Zoot Suit Riots, Nuñez had been kicked down the road to the Denver Public Schools's Contemporary Learning Academy, with other problem kids.
Today Nuñez has tattoos, a few battle scars and the same burstingly bright brown eyes and smile that led Mercado to cast him as El Pachuco, Zoot Suit's conscience. The play gave him a place to put his energy and style, his creativity and anger — all equally present within his teenage personality. It gave him a stability, a second family. "The people who were cast in that play, we connected on a level that was so deep," he recalls. "And then it was over, and it was so devastating. It was like a breakup, only worse, because you're breaking up with so many people at once. That play wasn't going to happen without our positivity, without us loving each other as much as we did. It wouldn't have been as magical."
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."
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."
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.
"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.
Change has come to North High School, too. The school's numbers are improving: In 2012, North claimed one of the highest rates of growth for all the traditional 9-12 high schools in DPS, and its performance rating was upgraded last year, from red to orange. The campus is now shared with a charter school, STRIVE Preperatory, as well as the North Engagement Center, which serves the area's most at-risk youth.
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Like most public schools in Colorado, North is transitioning to the new Common Core standards, which stress competency in traditional subjects like language arts and math. Theater is an elective — untested and, as a performance indicator, undetectable. The Black Masque Theatre Company is active, but not the draw it once was. Athletics and music are now among the school's most popular activities.
When North's library was remodeled last year, principal Nicole Veltzé — who attended the first performance of Zoot Suit Riots in 2004 and took over as principal in 2011 — oversaw the installation of a tribute to the play, built right into the new architecture.
Last fall, Veltzé hired a full-time theater teacher. This fall, the school will stage a musical.
Author's note: I first met José Mercado and the people in this story ten years ago, when I wrote Westword's cover story about Zoot Suit Riots. Like everyone else who shared in the strange, creative alchemy of that experience, I was changed by Zoot Suit. In the years that followed, I moved back to north Denver and got involved with the Black Masque Theatre Company as a volunteer. I helped Ali, Jacquie and Elvis write One Love, and after raising money for the Scotland trip, I traveled with the group to Edinburgh. By this time, I had left Westword and, like Mercado in 2004, was processing the loss of my mother. Theater at North High helped me to heal, too, and to refine a belief that all people, especially young people, are creative and capable when given opportunities that unlock their potential. I'm not impartial to the people or events in this story: It's my story, too.