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Theater with a Latin Twist Thrives in the South Bronx

by Alex Abu Ata
The Mariachi Academy performing after "Viva Pinocho!" at Teatro Pregones - Photo by Alex Abu Ata

The Mariachi Academy performing after "Viva Pinocho!" at Teatro Pregones - Photo by Alex Abu Ata

A large prop of Uncle Sam with glowing red eyes appears above the stage.  In a booming, deep voice, the threatening figure reprimands a wooden puppet for not working enough. “Go back to work!” orders the voice, making children and adults in the audience laugh. The scene is part of “Viva Pinocho!” (Pinocchio´s name in Spanish), a musical and puppet show that premiered last Friday at Teatro Pregones in the South Bronx. In an original twist of the children´s tale, Pinocchio is Mexican and immigrates to the United States to earn money instead of going to school. The musical uses puppets, special effects and colorful props to tell a Latino version of the traditional tale. Instead of the fairy in the original story, there's the Lady of Guadalupe, a 16th-century icon of the Virgin Mary. Pinocchio is re-named Pino Nacho (“pino” is pine in Spanish, and Nacho is the contraction of the name Ignacio), which is shortened to “Pinocho.” The plot unfolds in a mix of English and Spanish, reflecting the local community. "Our audience lives and understands each other in many languages,” said Jorge Merced, 44, an associate artistic director. The poverty-stricken South Bronx seems an unlikely soil for nurturing theater, but Teatro Pregones has defied the odds for three decades by rooting its productions in Puerto Rican and Latino culture. Its goal is to reach an audience that is often ignored. The formula is clearly a hit with the locals. Pregones celebrated its 30th anniversary last month with a musical entitled “Aloha Boricua,” inspired by a short story by the late Puerto Rican writer Manuel Ramos Otero. The show was so successful that tickets sold out early, so Pregones plans to bring it back next spring. The theater group's origins were much more humble, even by the standards of the South Bronx. In 1979, a group of young Puerto Rican actors living in New York decided to produce plays inspired by artists from their homeland. The result was “La Collecion, 100 Anos de Teatro Puertorriqueno 1878-1978” (“The Collection, 100 Years of Puerto Rican Theater 1878-1978”).  At first, the shows were performed in an Off-Broadway theatre provided by the husband of one of the actresses. In 1982, the Bronx Council of the Arts offered the group an office in an abandoned school in the Bronx, and Pregones settled for good in the borough. Between 1986 and 1994, the group worked in St. Ann’s Episcopal Church. Despite this continuous struggle, Pregones grew and finally found a permanent home on Walton Avenue in 2005. With donations from individuals and non-profits like the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, Pregones built a 130-seat theatre. The group now includes eight full-time professional artists and a dozen designers, technicians and artists on contract, and has received numerous awards and recognitions for its important cultural role in the borough. “We’re very happy, our neighbors are very happy, and the community is very happy,” said Alvan Colon Lespier, another artistic associate director at Pregones. “It’s a joy to be able to do this.” Pregones has performed in 37 states, 18 countries and more than 400 cities. “We've become ambassadors of the Bronx,” said Lespier. The group’s aim is to show people that the Bronx is not the dreadful area that most think, explains Lespier. But even in the U.S., Pregones has been an ambassador of Latino culture. Fifteen years ago, recalls Lespier, the group was the first Latino group to perform in Whitesburg, KY. “They had never seen a Puerto Rican live, in the flesh,” said Lespier with a chuckle. Lespier, 61, has been with the company for 26 years. During his first years with the group, in addition to taking care of the technical parts, Lespier performed in some of the plays—but he doesn’t miss acting. He is now in charge of the productions, and supervises all the productions showed at Pregones, whether theirs or the production of another company. Pregones often works in collaboration with other Latin American cultural groups. In addition to its 50 original plays, Pregones presented over 100 visiting companies over 30 years, and has performed in other Latino theatres as well. “We try to support each other,” said Jorge Castilla, the production manager and assistant to the artistic director of Teatro Sea, a Latino children's theater group and the creators of "Viva Pinocho." The production was written, produced and performed by Manuel Antonio Moran, the founder and director of Teatro Sea. The stories may evoke laughter from the audience, but they also carry a serious message.  “We’re touching a lot of social and political stuff, but in a fun way,” said Castilla, 40. In “Viva Pinocho!,” the mischievous puppet follows the advice of a coyote and immigrates to the United States. “I saw similarities between Pinocchio, who runs away from home, and Latino immigrants, who seek a better life in the U.S.,” said Moran, who started thinking about the story three years ago. In the musical, Pinocho crosses a Mexican border heavily guarded by American authorities before being hired in a circus as puppet and working under the watchful eye of Uncle Sam. The story is inspired by the experiences of immigrants, who lose their cultural identity after leaving their country, explains Moran. “I try to be as respectful as possible, but also to motivate dialogue,” he said. In the end, Pinocho understands that the American authorities are simply doing their jobs and following the rules, and saves them from drowning. The audience clearly identifies with the theme. Vicente Roman, who came to watch the musical with his wife and three children, learned about Pregones through a newspaper ad. Roman, 38, arrived in this country 16 years ago, and had to work two jobs at once in order to support his family. “Life is too expensive in the U.S.,” he said. Like Pinocho, Roman’s dream of obtaining a better life was replaced by the harsh reality of economic struggle and difficult integration that immigrants typically face; he now works as a driver and lives in Brooklyn. But, at least for one night, Roman’s family can forget about these difficulties and enjoy the musical. Snacks and drinks are served in the lobby, which is decorated with Puerto Rican photographs and the many awards that the group received over the years. While waiting for the musical to begin, children run around, impatient to see the show. The audience, predominantly Hispanic, is a tight-knit community: many spectators know and greet each other and the theater staff as they arrive. Daniela, 7, Roman’s youngest daughter, is excited to see the musical, even though she doesn’t remember the story of Pinocchio. There's a another draw: her 11-year-old sister Ana will be on stage with the Mariachi Academy of New York, which has been invited to perform at Pregones after the musical. Like Teatro Sea, the Mariachi Academy, now in its seventh year, often collaborates with other Latino groups, explains Jorge Martinez, 39, a member of the board of directors of the academy. Ramon Ponce, the director, appears minutes before the musical begins. After Pinocho’s adventures, Ponce and a dozen children, all wearing traditional Mariachi costumes, appear on the stage forming a single line and play “Canta y no llores,” a famous Mexican song. The audience, familiar with the song, sings and claps along. After the musical, the audience streams out . The children are excited about the story, and recall their favorite moment. “I like when Pinocho goes to the other side,” says Daniela, beaming. But Daniela doesn’t realize the “other side” was the country she is now living in, where her father works hard as part of a minority. Oblivious to the political implications, Daniela will go home with the memories of Pinocho’s new adventures, and a happy-ending: how Pinocho returns to Mexico, and becomes a real boy.

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