‘Theatre for Social Change’ | The current of UCSB
At UC Santa Barbara, as at many universities, the early 1970s are remembered as a time of strife and strife. But something remarkable has emerged from this tumultuous time: a new theater company created by Hispanic artists, for Hispanic audiences.
It was called El Teatro de la Esperanza – the Theater of Hope – and for over a quarter of a century it has promoted justice and inclusion through storytelling and music.
“It was theater for social change,” recalls Jorge Huerta, who founded the troupe while working on his doctorate in the Department of Drama. “We were playing in high schools and community colleges. These performances inspired many people who had never seen themselves represented on stage.
A delayed pandemic conference marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the company in 1971 will take place from 1 to 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 3 at the Multicultural Center on campus. It is free and open to the public, and will also be broadcast live via Zoom.
The event will feature discussions about the company and its historical impact; excerpts from some of the actos, or short pieces, he created and produced in his early days; and musical performances of the kind of songs that were incorporated into these productions.
Theater professor emeritus Carlos Morton, who organized the conference, called the troupe “an important part of the Chicano theater movement,” which was in its infancy in the early 1970s. he noted, “We now have a network of theaters all over the country.”
Huerta, who was a child actor in Hollywood in the 1950s, was working as a high school drama teacher near Riverside when, in 1968, he saw a performance by the flagship El Teatro Campesino troupe. Founded by Luis Valdez in 1965 as an offshoot of the Cesar Chavez Farmworkers’ Union, it toured the state with a program of short educational plays.
“I had never seen anything like it,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘This is what I have to do.'”
After visiting a friend who was pursuing a graduate degree in history at UCSB, he applied and was accepted for the university’s doctorate. drama program. Upon arrival, he took on the leadership of an ensemble called Teatro Mecha, which was “mainly a folk dance group”, he said.
After much research and much trial and error, he began to form the members into a theater troupe. In the style of El Teatro Campesino, the young actors performed and created works that reflected the issues they faced in their lives. But as the academic year progressed, Huerta developed concerns about the larger organization the company was affiliated with, which was becoming increasingly exclusive.
When the troupe split up in the spring of 1971, Huerta and his wife took over management of the offshoot, El Teatro de la Esperanza. They chose the new La Casa de la Raza community center in the heavily Hispanic eastern neighborhood of Santa Barbara as their home. Company members converted a space in the large building into a theater and began putting on shows.
“Going out into the community was a really bold and risky move,” Morton said. “They didn’t know what kind of reception they would receive. But they had the courage to fend for themselves.
Huerta has many fond memories of those days, including self-publishing the company’s first collection of original short pieces at Kinko’s original copy shop. Over time, the troupe started touring, and their shows were well received – most of the time.
“One of the acts that a student of mine wrote was called Trapped Without Exit,” he recalls. It was about East LA and alleged abuse by the LA County Sheriff’s Department. All other words were the F-word, which was how the gang members (actors portrayed) spoke.
“We did it at Santa Barbara High School. We didn’t notify anyone. At the third F-word, the principal jumped onto the stage and ordered the curtain to be lowered. In retrospect, I wish we’d cut out the foul language, which wasn’t really important. What was important was the fact that they killed poor people of color with impunity, and they called it suicide.
The company’s most ambitious project in those early years was Guadalupe, which was established in 1974. After learning of a dispute between Hispanic parents and school officials in this Santa Barbara County town, the troupe traveled to the area and interviewed those involved about the discrimination and lack of respect they face on a daily basis.
“We attended mass at the Roman Catholic parish to hear what the priest, a Spanish missionary, had to say,” Huerta recalls. “Aware that we were in his church, he chided his followers, saying, ‘Those of you who follow Caesar Chavez will go straight to hell!’
The company then made a docudrama about the events, which received considerable acclaim and toured extensively, including to Guadalupe.
Another even more ambitious work, La Victima, made its debut two years later. This play, which combined fact and fiction to dramatize the recurring problem of mass deportations in times of economic hardship, has stood the test of time: it was revived by the Latino Theater Company of Los Angeles in 2019, in a production that toured schools across Southern California.
Huerta left El Teatro de la Esperanza in 1975, when he accepted a full-time teaching position at UC San Diego. Sometime in the 1980s, the troupe moved to San Francisco. He continued to produce plays and tour extensively until the late 1990s.
Morton invited cast members from his Santa Barbara years to attend the conference.