Historic Theater Gives a Stage to Communities Facing Gentrification
|By Elijah Fosl and Genevieve Kotz|
At the age of 12, Chris Sánchez didn’t speak a word of Spanish.
He also didn’t have a relationship with his own Latino heritage, according to his theater teachers.
All this changed when Chris Sánchez got involved with the Gala Hispanic Theatre in Washington, D.C. What started as a casual interest grew into a full-blown passion, thanks to the theater’s Paso Nuevo Youth Program.
Now, at the age of 19, Sánchez has become an accomplished playwright, actor, stagehand and engineer. This year, he went with his peers to the White House to receive an award from Michelle Obama on behalf of the program that launched his creative career.
“Once I got involved with Paso Nuevo, I fell in love with theater,” Sánchez said.
The program, which provides low-income and at-risk Latino youth a space to delve into the performing arts, is one of the many ways that the Gala Theatre keeps culture alive in the District.
Hugo and Rebecca Medrano founded the theater in 1976 as a platform to share and promote the Latino arts. Almost 40 years later, it has staged over 200 productions and has become a cultural icon for people all over the DMV area.
“Gala is the exact fit of a theater that started as a need of the community, but still responds to all the changing demographics,” Rebecca Medrano said.
It has changed locations many times over the decades, but today Gala finds itself on the front lines of the array of issues that fall under the banner of “gentrification.” It presides over 14th Street Northwest, a hotspot for the debate over cultural ownership of historically black or Latino neighborhoods.
Gala co-founder Rebecca Medrano discusses the unexpected economic benefits of having a theater on the block.
One of the youth program’s founders, Quique Aviles, came from El Salvador to Washington in the ’80s, when the city was riveted by racial conflict.
Aviles, who uses his identity as the source of his own work as an actor, says the program empowers young people in these communities to find a voice in a changing environment that is not their own.
“You have to be able to use your voice, to speak up, to say what you need to say about your own situation and your own reality,” Aviles urges. “You have to do it with a sense of dignity. We teach the kids that we don’t owe anything to anybody.”
Paso Nuevo has given Latino and Hispanic citizens a space to learn about their own cultural identity within the growing tide of gentrification, regardless of background or age.
Abel Lopez, the theatre’s associate producing director, has been with the theatre for almost 30 years. But before he joined, he said he didn’t know his own culture as a second-generation child to Mexican immigrants.
Abel Lopez tells his own story of how Gala gave him and his cultural identity a voice.
“In the U.S. educational system, we’re not taught a lot about the Latino cultures,” Lopez said. “I grew up knowing Miller and Shakespeare and Chekhov, not Márquez.”
Lopez said that older Latinos can figure out their identity through Gala. Both he and Aviles both see one of Gala’s main goals as giving young people the tools to combat perceptions imposed upon them by others.
“All the things that are being said about us, that we’re criminals, that we’re rapists, that’s being thrown around,” Aviles says. “And we say to the kids, ‘Look at you, you’re not a rapist, you’re not a criminal.’ That’s one of our objectives, to teach and instill pride.”
As the neighborhood around it has changed, however, so has Gala. Lopez explains that the once nearly all-Latino youth program has become 50 percent black in the past few years. Whereas he says he experienced tremendous Latino versus black racism growing up, Aviles has seen the program’s shift as a learning and connecting experience.
Sánchez has been a part of this experience and agrees it has brought a welcome dynamism to the program.
“Once we started bringing in people from other cultures, we actually got to see the other side,” Sánchez recalls. “We got to experience and witness different life stories, not only those that are Hispanic.”
Lopez explained that while the plays are usually presented in Spanish, it is not to exclude people, but rather to share an important part of the Latino culture with others—language.
“In the cast, you have African American actors who don’t speak Spanish, you have Afro Latinos who don’t speak English, and you have white Latinos who speak either,” Lopez said. “That kind of Gala experience is both on stage and in the audience.”
Language, Lopez continued, is cultural and maintaining the work in the original language is a large part of the theater’s mission. For those who who don’t speak Spanish, Gala’s plays are accompanied with English translations unless otherwise advertised.
The practice of translation and subtitling has become a central pillar of the theater itself.
According to Medrano, Gala has experimented with many subtitling techniques and have become world-renowned, creating their own translations and even commissioning translations for others.
The theater is working hard to stay rooted as it adjusts to gentrification, determined to keep their plays in mainly Spanish. No matter how much the theater and its neighborhood evolve, Medrano insists the original intent of the theater will be kept alive.
Medrano talks about one of the original plays performed at the Gala Theatre about HIV-positive Latina women and their stories.
Although tensions involving race and identity continue to rise across the city, the Gala Theatre stands steady as a beacon for those looking for expression.
For Sánchez and many other kids, Gala and its Paso Nuevo program can bring them in touch with their identities and introduce them to a new passion. Just two years ago, Sánchez spent a summer in Spain working on a production in Madrid, an opportunity he says Medrano gave him out of the blue.
About the future of Gala, Sánchez has only a few confident words.
“Well hopefully, I’ll be running the place,” he said, chuckling.
Its founders and its students both see Gala not only as an outlet for civic engagement, but also as a creative space in which people can find a voice and community regardless of their background.
“The arts can stay above class, race and the divisiveness that that produces,” Medrano declared. “The experience is unifying.”