Theater group explored issues of the day

2013-09-29T00:00:00Z Theater group explored issues of the dayErnesto Portillo Jr. Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

It was the beginning of 1975 and clamors for social change were loud.

The Vietnam War reverberated across the country. César Chávez and the United Farm Workers led a union movement boycotting grapes. President Gerald Ford was trying to right-size the administration after a disgraced Richard M. Nixon resigned. The wounds still bled from the federal siege of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

And in Tucson, an all-volunteer theater troupe was born.

Teatro Libertad, a diverse collective of activists, musicians and thespians, was a street performance company that explored the social issues of the day: racism, economic exploitation, drug abuse, social inequality. The group performed in schools and churches, on street corners, on local Spanish-language radio, on the strikers’ picket lines and in festivals in California and Mexico. The political thespians entertained, informed and inspired their bilingual audiences to become more active and create social change.

It was part of a larger social political movement and, in its time, made its mark.

“We deserve our piece of history,” said Teresa Jones, a founding member of Teatro Libertad, today a sales executive in Seattle for the Univisión television network.

Teatro’s history is on exhibit at the University of Arizona Main Library, organized by Joseph “Bob” Diaz, an associate librarian in Special Collections and former member of Teatro Libertad. Tuesday, at 6 p.m., former members will gather for a reunion at the UA’s Special Collections Library to remember and reflect on Teatro’s place in Tucson’s cultural history.

Teatro Libertad was active for about 15 years and its impact was enormous. Before the advent of social media, Teatro’s performances made powerful and poignant statements about the status quo and everyone else.

“The message was political, pointing out society’s deficiencies,” said Juan Villegas, a retired graphic arts teacher from Tucson High Magnet School. “I think we were pretty successful.”

Teatro Libertad was recognized across the Southwest for its works, most of which were written collectively. It was part of a national network of Chicano theater groups. One of its works, “La Jefita,” was an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s play “The Mother,” which was based on a novel by Maxim Gorky.

However, the group was best known for its original plays, infused with history and current issues. Its 1975 debut play, “Los Peregrinos” (The Pilgrims), told the story of a family that was displaced from its land in Mexico and migrated to the factories in Nogales, Sonora, then to the fields in Yuma. The family is exploited along the way but in the end survives through the strength of family and unionism.

The group largely grew through Barclay Goldsmith, who was teaching drama at Pima Community College. Goldsmith would later establish Borderlands Theater, a professional community-based theater group.

Jones and Villegas were PCC drama students drawn to the group. Scott Egan, another founding member, had been working with the UFW, as was Sylviana Wood, who had done some acting before joining Teatro Libertad.

The group, taking  its cue from El Teatro Campesino created by playwright Luis Valdez during the 1960s with striking field workers in California, used comedy, farce and drama. Its actors delivered their lines in Spanish, English and caló, barrio street slang. They used minimal props and often performed free.

“We were trying to connect with the community in whatever barrio we went to,” Wood said.

The group attracted a variety of people, but all with the common vision of using theater as the vehicle to bring political-social awareness.

Pernela Jones, Teresa Jones’ sister, was a teenager when she joined the group. It changed her life. “It literally helped me grow up. It gave me a strong sense of identity,” said Jones, who would go on to be a bilingual education teacher and later director of the Tucson Education Association, the teacher’s union.

The group eventually disbanded, as jobs and family commitments sapped their time and energy. Members went their own ways. But the group’s work did not end. Teatro Libertad’s individual members fanned out throughout Tucson and other places to work as teachers, activists, writers and organizers.

The legacy continues.

Ernesto “Neto” Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. Contact him at netopjr@azstarnet.com or at 573-4187.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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