Growing up we always heard this Spanish proverb, “Querer es poder.” (To want to, is to be able to.) My power lies in celebrating my intersecting identities. To be more specific, the steps which have helped me celebrate my intersecting identities are: making the stories you share relatable; allowing up and coming, young and new artists to showcase their talent; making shows/experiences free or as affordable as possible; and being fearless and unapologetic.
When I first moved out to Western Massachusetts I realized quickly that there was a budding arts community. Specifically, in regard to theater arts, all of the shows and showcases being put forward were stories featuring white European-centric actors/characters and their struggles and strife. Where were the Black/Latinx characters? The ones that weren’t treated racially and/or stereotyped? Where were the fully developed main characters of color that had full depth and breadth? Then came “In the Heights” and the “Lin-Volution” (Lin-Manuel Miranda) of the arts began. That show changed my outlook and perspective on what the arts should look like—they should reflect and relate to the people you are trying to reach.
I live in Holyoke, MA. Holyoke has the highest population percentage of Puerto Ricans in the US, at nearly 50%. However, the plays and musicals being produced only showed the stories that related to the white community. Because of this, no one from the Latinx community would attend. This is what spurred my vision for the Palante Theater company. I wanted to bring shows to the community which would highlight the struggle, sacrifices, and similarities that many Latinx individuals, like myself, experience every day. Even the ironic twist of using an all people of color cast can create a new context or conversation on a traditionally oppressive topic, period, or show.
Another idea came from the fact that up and coming artists are the best and brightest when it comes to creating material that is relatable. This is largely because they are on the front lines, experiencing oppression, sadness, joy, untainted love, and a fresh perspective on the issues that affect us daily. Palante Theater started a film festival featuring films which highlight the plight of the issues in Puerto Rico. Films about the financial crisis, and the impact of the hurricane on young girls.
Our theater provides fee-free space for any young, college, or upcoming artist with full technical support. This helps young artists build credibility and in many cases is the place where they will stage or showcase for the first time. It’s these artists who are willing to tackle and showcase the truth of the world. As I write this blog post I am meeting with a local artist collective producing a show called “What is art?” They went to the local gateway arts center asking to use their space to create the work, and they were told they had to pay a high rental price and provide extra liability and other insurances. Our conversation was simple: “If you want to do it, how do we make it happen for you?”
Speaking of prices and costs, it is imperative that all shows and experiences are affordable. With the idea that our ticket prices be no more than double that of a movie ticket (currently $11.25), our tickets are no more than $25 per person. Tickets are always free for any youth under the age of 18. This affordability is critical to changing the arts. If we try to make art and what we are producing somehow equal what our expenses are, then we are losing the idea that art was invented to distract the masses from the everyday pains of their lives. Today’s art has become an elitist treat. Tickets for concerts, musicals, or museums and galleries top $50, $500, or $1,500 per person. We have lost the core of who and what art is intended for.
The most profound moment this past summer at our theater was when we brought the cast from the Urban Theater Company of Chicago to Holyoke to perform Carmen Rivera’s “La Gringa.” One of the middle school girls saw a character, a Puerto Rican cousin, who had full, dark, curly hair just like hers. She told her teacher, “Look, she’s like me. I like this show!” Imagine if we had to charge her an admission fee and she couldn’t afford it.
When I began this journey, a leader of a theater organization told me that I had to be careful. They said that by showcasing or focusing only on Black/Latinx artists, I would alienate and turn off white audiences. These white audiences were the ones who supposedly had discretionary income and would provide the revenue needed to continue the work I wanted to do. Instead of getting angry, I said I thought that what we had to offer would, and should, attract those who want to hear, listen, and learn about a culture that is underrepresented in our community. I told them I would not be swayed. Palante and the art that we would offer would be unabashed in showcasing who we were as a community. In our first year we sold out an entire weekend run of a play, and our film festival saw hundreds of individuals flocking to our screenings. Had I buckled or backed down, I would have let fear and nerves stifle the authenticity of what makes Palante Theater Company unique.