I’ve posted my final synthesis of the concepts and readings within the course here. But in order to introduce this short essay I need to tell a story. Last night I went to see a performance of a ten-minute plays written by Latina authors at the relatively new theater and art gallery in the Boyle Heights neighborhood east of downtown Los Angeles. A friend from my MFA program had written one of the plays, and I went to support her.
A bit about Boyle Heights….originally a Jewish neighborhood in the 1940s and ’50s, Boyle Heights became a landing spot for Mexican immigrants to the U.S. and during the ’60s and ’70s was stronghold for the Chicano movement. It boasts numerous murals throughout the neighborhood with Chicano themes. More recently, however, Boyle Heights has been a center of Latino gang activity and been mired in decades of poverty. In 2000, I worked as an Americorps volunteer in a gang prevention program in the Pico Aliso Housing Project, the largest public housing project west of the Mississippi, located in the section of Boyle Heights closest to downtown and ringed by three freeways. This housing project was notorious for shootings and turf battles during the previous decade.
This is all background to say that the opening in 2011 of Casa 0101, the theater on First Avenue, is quite a prominent change in the neighborhood. The neighborhood as a whole is just starting to feel some gentrification pressure as the Gold Line light rail line was completed a few years ago. Before the theater, the only night time activity on first came from a few run down bars and the liquor stores. Now people enter the theater in their best clothes. The show and party last night went until midnight.
The theater offers classes to all ages on a pay-what-you-can basis. The show of ten-minute plays came out a series of workshops for Latina women and so many of the authors were first-time or informal playwrights. But the theater brought in professional actors to put these stories on stage. They had sold out all the shows thus far for the their four-week run and the atmosphere was buoyant. After the show, I made the connection that one of the actresses in the show was the same woman who used to come to the gang prevention program as a teaching artist and give theater workshops for the children and teens. She is one of the teaching artists I’ve had in mind during this quarter as I’ve been reading the material. I re-introduced myself and we had a nice conversation about what had happened to some of the children that we’d worked with. She mentioned that Luis, another teaching artist who taught the kids music when I was there had also been in the audience that night. Luis and I had both been in a slap-dash presentation of A Christmas Carol back in 2000 that our program put on for parents and children affiliated with the program. Much of the funding for all of this, including Raquel’s workshops, came via HUD through the faith-based non-profit that sponsored the programming.
Teaching artists, OST programs, community arts, performing arts centers, arts participation for communities of color, cultivating demand, arts-led community development (along with potential gentrification issues) all came together in last night’s outing. I was able to put all these pieces together in new ways because of the class this quarter. Very cool.