USF professors and Latino arts organization ALAS come together to form a community theater group
A simple conversation among USF faculty about concerns for the anti-immigrant rhetoric in the United States birthed a new opportunity to counter: storytelling through a community theater, located in Half Moon Bay, where, according to the Bay Area census, nearly one third of the population is Latino or of Hispanic heritage. Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, a professor in the marriage and family therapy program at USF, is the executive director of the organization Ayudando Latinos A Soñar (ALAS), an organization supporting the Latino community in Half Moon Bay through arts programs and mental health services.
In addition to its existing Ballet and Mariachi programs, ALAS will add a community theater program, with the help of Luis E Bazán, a USF alumni and adjunct professor, and professor Roberto Gutièrrez Varea, a professor in the Performing Arts and Social Justice (PASJ) department. They plan to gather ALAS members for practices and rehearsals, using exercises to explore and translate lived experiences into stories for the stage.
Hernandez-Arriaga said the ALAS has always hoped to have a theater program, but until now lacked the support structures to make it happen. “We were born through the arts and so teatro [theater in Spanish] lends another layer of activism through the arts,” Hernandez-Arriaga said.
The faculty involved have a long history of community organizing, especially in Latino and immigrant communities. Bazán runs the Arrupe Immersion Initiatives at USF, and Varea has years of experience helping people communicate stories to the stage; the two have worked together in the past on a theater performance group for immigrant day laborers called El Teatro Jornalero. Hernandez-Arriaga has done extensive work counseling families at the country’s southern border. The hope is that, with their support, the ALAS community can create a timely powerful platform for telling their stories.
“We have to find platforms for the Latino community to talk about their own experiences, their own challenges,” Bazán, who is originally from Peru, said.
In August, these USF faculty members, two USF graduate students, and about 10 members of ALAS met in-person for the first time to discuss the details of the theater group. They stood in a field, on a farm in Half Moon Bay, six feet apart, “with the chairs out there next to the cows,” Varea said. The process has been stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevents the kind of physical proximity necessary to fully establish a theater environment, according to Varea, but the group is excited nonetheless.
Jorge Sanchez is a member of ALAS who has been in the United States for nine months and was just granted asylum. He is a lawyer from Venezuela, and has a wife and two daughters with him. Through Bazán’s translation, Sanchez said in an email, “I like being part of ALAS Theater because it is a process in which we get integrated into the community as a family. We have to be very connected with each other. We invest our time to learn to communicate, exchange ideas, and support each other. I am very excited about it.”
Another ALAS member, Paty Ramirez, is from Mexico and is also living in Half Moon Bay with her three children and husband. “Doing theater is fun and full of compassion because we expose our desires, feelings and emotions to the surface,” she said in Spanish. Her statement was also translated via email by Bazán.
Ana Barragán Fernández, a USF resident minister and a graduate assistant for the Arrupe Initiatives Program, and a second-year master’s in international studies student, is looking forward to helping with the project. She said she was impressed by the people she met in Half Moon Bay and hopes that their stories will not only be elevated locally, but heard back in her own home country of Mexico. “I would love to invite some people from Mexico to also hear those stories, because sometimes in Mexico, we romanticize the stories and we shouldn’t do that,” she said. “We shouldn’t just think that they just crossed the border and now they’re living the American dream. So I think these stories can touch a lot of people.”
Varea called the theater project “critical work” in a time when he sees hatred and division in the country. “I think this is a critical role for spaces like this,” he said. “We cannot know who the we is, the we the people, who we are, unless we all have an opportunity to share who we are, how we see the world, what are our struggles, what’s been going on with our communities, and also what are our hopes and dreams for a future together.”