EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Latino USA.
HOUSTON — The Alley Theatre’s production of Quixote Nuevo by Octavio Solis, starring Emilio Delgado from “Sesame Street,” features an all-Latino cast, a Latino music designer and vocal and dialect coach Robert Ramirez. This is clearly a big deal, but a deeper understanding of Community Cultural Capital reveals what a profound impact this play can have on Houston’s Latino community.
I define Cultural Capital as assets, skills, and knowledge we possess and can invest in empowering ourselves and our Community. This can include writing, visual art, community organizing skills, networks, being bilingual.
Of course, most folks believe speaking Spanish, English, and Spanglish is valuable, but in the case of Robert Martinez—it’s a career. He is the best at it because he understands the nuances between the accents of Mexicanos, Tejanos, and Chicanos.
Knowledge of our history is another example of Community Cultural Capital. If you know Texas history, you understand why it is so powerful that Robert’s job is to truly convey how our community speaks on a stage in Houston where our elders were once punished for speaking Spanish in school and where there were once “No Mexicans Allowed” signs.
Experiencing the play drives these messages home in many ways. However, we also want to bring that knowledge to all of our community members even if they can’t attend the play, and the Alley Theatre agrees with us.
So Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say and The Alley Theatre, under the leadership of their new artistic director Rob Melrose, have partnered to create what I believe is one of the most authentic community engagement campaigns in the nation.
This involves rolling out the red carpet for our community at the theater and taking the theater to the community now and well into the future.
Our knowledge of our Community’s interests, values, and concerns helped shape what could have simply become any other marketing or outreach campaign. We combined school visits with visits to community centers, a book signing for playwright Octavio Solis to read from his book Retablos, Q&A’s with the cast and Latina director KJ Sanchez, as well as extensive interviews and coverage of the play on the Nuestra Palabra Radio Show, among additional events. We want as many people as possible to be inspired by and learn from these leading artists and intellectuals.
Of course, we also want this to continue past February 9, when the show run ends.
Currently, many large, mainstream arts organizations have launched campaigns for Latino Outreach. This includes hiring Latino curators, Latino outreach managers, creating Latino Advisory Boards, some of which I am proud to sit on. These are good strides, but that is not enough. If it took an organization their entire existence to cultivate their base audience, they shouldn’t think they can develop a “Latino audience” in just one season or even five.
A true collaboration involves profoundly working with established Latino arts organizations and leaders through a true exchange of Cultural Capital from the planning stage to fruition with a plan for future activities so that the larger group, Latino Art groups, and the community thrive together. In the past, that was not always the case.
The Alley Theatre accelerated its Latino community engagement by collaborating with Nuestra Palabra (NP) in pursuing the second phase of an “Our Town” grant through the National Endowment for the Arts. This collaboration is a potent example of a fair exchange of Community Cultural Capital. NP was involved in the brainstorming of the project, the writing of the application, the budgeting, and many other facets. If the grant is funded, NP and other Latino organizations will be deeply involved in conducting the project as well.
Here is one powerful possible result. This will create six fellowships of $20,000 each for Houston Latino artists in several genres to create art throughout the city.
We will also provide workshops for other arts organizations to understand how to engage in a fair exchange of Cultural Capital with our Community, artist, nonprofits, and collectives. This will also include creating a booklet on the topic.
This is what true collaboration looks like—Latino community involvement from beginning to end. It is exciting to take this leap with The Alley Theatre. This also addresses some of the former unfair practices of larger organizations receiving mega grants for Latino outreach, devising the project on their own, then only engaging with the Latino Art community once the project has been shaped and funded and giving Latino arts groups only a pittance of the funding. In the past, we have felt as if we were handed crumbs to create something that does not genuinely benefit our Community.
Of course, when audiences experience Quixote Nuevo in person, they will be thrilled and inspired. They may have no idea about all of this happening behind the scenes. But, we know how much work and dedication it takes to cultivate the art and heart of our Community, and we plan to keep celebrating our Community’s Art and Culture long into the future. Who will join us?