By Nick Cains
Eliberto Gonzalez is a proud Latino-American, fully embracing the culture and speaking the language. At one point he was spanked for being bilingual.
Stirring a glass of sweetened iced tea at a Dallas IHOP recently, Gonzalez smiles to himself as he remembers the racism he felt in his Port Isabella, Texas Elementary School. If anyone was caught speaking Spanish, they received a spanking.
“We were targeted because we were Mexican-American,” said Gonzalez after taking another sip. “I wondered why everyone was so angry.”
Gonzalez, now 60, grew accustomed to the racism in Port Isabella and was shocked to find more positive experiences in the bigger cities that he lived in as an adult, including Austin. As the population of Latino-Americans grew across the U.S., so did the amount of literature Gonzalez found celebrating his culture. The Physical Education major from The University of Texas Pan-American was especially drawn to theater and plays that depicted his culture.
“I wasn’t a theater artist, but I was already hooked by the power of it as a young man in school,” said Gonzalez. The only problem was that no one was producing Latino-American plays. That’s when Gonzalez took it upon himself to start the Cara Mia Theater Company in Dallas in 1998.
Cara Mia, currently performing in the Latino Cultural Center, is the only company in Dallas exclusively producing plays about the Latino-American experience in the U.S. The necessity for theater of this kind comes in response to the culture’s growing presence in the Dallas community.
For the past 15 years, Gonzalez’s theater has carved out a place on the Dallas theater scene.
“We’ve always had a solid audience following,” said David Lozano, the Artistic Director of Cara Mia. “In the past couple years, we’ve sold out the Latino Cultural Center with almost every production.”
“We’re very small, but we’ve already made an impact,” said Gonzalez.
Lozano attributes his company’s success to people who share Gonzalez’s vision. With little money and publicity, the company is funded mostly by grants, donations, and money that Gonzalez makes from his own roofing business. Lozano says that it’s the community that keeps them together and makes the shows worth it.
“Our audience members feel they need our productions,” said Lozano. “They leave our shows exhilarated that their lives are being portrayed on that stage.”
According to Robert Kemper, Professor of Anthropology at SMU, Dallas County grew by about 150,000 people in the past 10 years, with about half the new growth being from Hispanics. That means the Latino culture has changed the face of Dallas over the past decade. Gonzalez’s goal was to finally give a voice to this new population, even if his was not the first Hispanic theater in the city.
Teatro Dallas, established in 1985, is dedicated to presenting all styles of theater that reflect the Latino community. “Our mission is to bring theater from a wide range of Latin cultures to this Dallas audience,” said Cora Cardona, the Managing Artistic Director of Teatro Dallas.
So, what was the need for Cara Mia Theater if the Latino community was already represented?
The answer lies in the difference between “Latino” and “Latino-American.” Gonzalez contends that “Latino” includes just about every Spanish speaking country, which is what he saw represented on any of his numerous visits to Teatro Dallas. Shows about the Latino-American, who grew up in the United States, however, were few and far between. Lozano said that there is merit in what each theater focuses on.
“Their focus is to look at literature from Latin America and abroad,” said Lozano. “We need that.”
Lozano brings Latino-American plays to life with the help of a small group of Hispanic actors from vastly different backgrounds. Ana Gonzalez, an actress in the company, is a student at Richland College who was not very proud of her Latin roots growing up in Dallas.
“I used to feel ashamed to say I’m Mexican,” said Gonzalez peering over her caramel macchiato at a local coffee shop one recent afternoon.
She was one of only three Mexicans in her second grade class and was ridiculed for being different. She even failed Spanish tests on purpose to try and fit in, but it didn’t work. Looking back on it, Gonzalez knows that working with Cara Mia helps her to take pride in her heritage and hopes it gives other people encouragement too.
“We need more positive things about the Mexican community,” said Gonzalez, now 24. “We don’t usually get to see it.”
Priscilla Rice, another actress in Cara Mia, agrees that working in the company has built up pride in herself, but is touched even more by the effect the plays have on the community. Cara Mia also conducts workshops and theater camps for kids who want to learn about theater.
“We teach them that it’s okay to be themselves,” said Rice. “It’s really a blessing.”
Manuel Pecina brings his son to ballets and theater shows across Dallas and has recently added Cara Mia to his list. In the last two years, Pecina witnessed numerous performances and involved his son in the theater camp.
The next Cara Mia production will be an original work co-written by David Lozano and Jeffery Farrell called “Nuestra Pastorela”, a family-friendly spin on the Mexican folk tale. Performances will run December 2-17 at the Latino Cultural Center. Information about tickets and upcoming performances can be found on caramiatheater.com or by calling 214-717-5297.
Nick Cains is a senior Theater major at SMU with a minor in Convergence Journalism. Nick wrote the show “How to be Black” which was produced for the SMU’s campus.