Students Learn Chicano History By Writing Plays

Theater arts program reaches 10-year anniversary; comes full circle to where the program first began.

By Gloria Angelina Castillo, EGP Staff Writer

Eighteen year-old Diana Ortega wasn’t even born when high school students spilled out into the streets of East Los Angeles to demand quality education at the height of the Chicano Movement and the history-making 1968 “Walk Outs.”

But last week she was one of several local high school students who took to the stage for the reading of three short plays focused on the lives of three of the movements’ activists. 

Professional actors interpreted the majority of the play’s roles, but students also performed and told the audience about their experiences in the program. EGP photo by Valerie Mia Juarez

Students at Monterey High School, a continuation school in East Los Angeles, wrote the plays during a semester-long playwriting class. Seven students, handpicked by their principal, wrote “2011 Meets 1968,” a series of one-act plays based on interviews with participants in the 1968 Walk Outs.  For many of them, the experience was eye-opening if not cathartic.

“I didn’t think I was going to get anything out of this. I though it would be like talking to old people about things I didn’t care about, but the truth is I don’t want this to end,” Ortega told the audience at Plaza de la Raza’s Margo Albert Theater on March 3. 

The young playwrights were assigned to interview journalist Luis Torres, artist Ofelia Esparza and educator Paula Crisostomo —three individuals whose lives were transformed as they fought discrimination and for parity in education for East Los Angeles students.

The “Through the Ages” class is a dialogue between different generations but it is also a literacy program. “The goal is to make them better readers, writers, communicators and collaborators, while engaging them in their own history,” Theresa Chavez, artistic director of “About Productions” told EGP. The “Through The Ages” class is part of About Productions’ Young Theaterworks program.  

Chavez notes that the program has only been executed at continuation high schools where the students are struggling in some fashion. The schools’ schedule lends itself perfectly to the program while helping students who need it the most, and have little access to art. 

“It engages them, keeps them in school, it increases their reenrollment, the days they are in school. And because it’s their storytelling… They feel connected to it, they feel engaged, and committed to it,” she said. “It’s a transformation in terms of their own academic work but also in terms of their voicing, both literally and figuratively.”

Eneida Ortega, 16, agrees that the class takes commitment. She said students had to meet writing deadlines “so that our mentors could check it and revise it.” 

Nineteen-year-old Oscar Lechuga said students did not want to miss the class because “we only get to see each other twice a week for four hours,” and missing meant they were letting down their team.

 “2011 Meets 1968” was inspired by their previous play, “By the Hand of the Father,” which explored the writers’ personal histories, according Chavez. 

“We asked the students to go back to their own families or whoever they might be who could tell them where they came from, what their history might be, how they came to the states or how they specifically got to L.A.,” Chavez told EGP. 

The theater company’s next project “Evangeline, The Queen of Make-Believe,” also relates to “2011 Meets 1968.” 

“Each [high school] session is slightly different, it just depends partially on what we are working on professionally because we like to make a bridge between what we are doing content wise and what they are going to explore. So that when they come to the theater to see our work that we are doing, there’s even a deeper connection and we can engage them in that work as well,” Chavez said.

Students said that writing about the activists really affected them.

“Ofelia [Esparza] has inspired me to never give up and be proud of who I am because that’s what is important in life,” sixteen-year-old Melissa Sanchez told the audience.

The short play “About…Ofelia Esparza” recounts the artist’s experience with discrimination in the years leading up to the walk outs, which she participated in with her children. 

“I’m 77 and I have had a good life. At times it has been hard being a Chicana. Some times you have to speak out and you have to stand your ground to be who you are,” the students wrote.  

Click on this photo to view the videos.

Sanchez, Lechuga and Ortega wrote “About..Paula Crisostomo,” an honor student who helped organize the 1968 Walk Outs.

“What are you worried about Paula? The only pi you should be worried about is the pie you’re going to cook…You’re not going to graduate, you’ll be pregnant by summer,” the students wrote that Crisostomo’s geometry teacher told her.

 “I expected to have a boring conversation I didn’t expect her story to be so interesting, she had many challenges that shows how much of a strong person she is,” Sanchez said. 

“The truth is she is one of my role models because she really helped la Raza and just looking into her eyes I could tell that she has experienced what I have in my life,” added Lechuga. 

It was a new experience for the students to have their work displayed publicly.

“We do our assignment and no one ever notices us except the teacher,” Ortega told EGP. “It’s a great experience to go through something I would never have courage to do on our own.”

Virginia Garcia, 16, described the entire experience as simply “inspiring.”

Learning about the past is empowering because “that’s the only way to know where to go from there,” Esparza said, noting that it was a little strange to see her character portrayed. 

“Where we are today is great, but there’s more to do” she said, noting that many of the original walk out participants went on to become doctors and lawyers, and “they’re the main part of change.” 

The “desprecio” (disdain) and discrimination of Mexican-American and Latinos continues to happen but “…you need to be strong to know what your history and respect your own background, not be ashamed,” Esparza said. 

Journalist Luis Torres, a writer for his school newspaper at the time of the walk outs said the 1960s was an exciting but turbulent time for his generation.

“It was very moving for me to see these students translate those experiences into a different context for a contemporary audience. I enjoyed talking to them; enjoyed meeting them… appreciated the spark in their eyes,” Torres told EGP. 

The students confessed that they didn’t know anything about the walk outs before they began the class—they hadn’t even watched the 2006 film Walkout, directed by Edward James Olmos. Their own parents are immigrants, so they did not have first-hand experience with the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles. However, some of them did have experience protesting in pro-immigration reform marches in recent years and say the “Through the Ages” program has helped them feel more confident and capable. 

While the program had its first run at Monterey in 2001, the program travels to different schools, said Rose Portillo, program director of “Through the Ages” Young Theaterworks. 

“2011 Meets 1968” was written by Eneida Ortega, Benjamin Villareal, Virginia Garcia, Jorge Leal, Oscar Lechuga, Diana Ortega, and Michelle Sanchez; under the guidance of mentors Marco Rodriguez, Tomás Benítez and Daniel Chacón; the scripts were performed by Marissa Herrera, Xavi Moreno, Roberto Alcaraz, Laurel Ollestein, Daniel Chacón, Tomás Benítez and Rose Portillo. 

Through the Ages” is a non-profit program that is currently funded by the California Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. ‘About…Productions’ is supported in part by the California Community Foundation, City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, Los Angeles County Commission, The Pasadena Cultural Affairs Department, and private donations. 

Valerie Mia Juarez contributed to this story.

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March 10, 2011  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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