By Toni Tresca
Su Teatro is more than just a theater; it’s “a cultural hub for the entire community,” says executive director Tony Garcia. The organization began as a class at the University of Colorado at Denver in 1972 and is the third-oldest Chicano theater in the country.
Today, Su Teatro offers year-round programming, including four original mainstage theater productions, a film festival, a music festival, Word- Fest, touring shows, and the Cultural Arts Education Institute. And now, thanks to a successful fundraising campaign that allowed supporters to name and claim a seat for $1,000, the organization has been able to pay off its $780,000 mortgage on the Denver Civic Theater.
This is a historic moment for the company, which will allow the organization to continue operating on the Westside for many years to come. When Garcia first saw the group perform in the spring of 1972, he was immediately drawn to their mission.
“It was remarkable to see a performance by people who looked like me, telling stories in a bilingual manner about characters I knew from my culture,” Garcia said.
After seeing the classes’ performances, he transferred to the University of Colorado Denver to join the student-run theater company.
“Su Teatro was founded to advocate for social justice,” Garcia said. “Some things simply transcend political discourse. The stage enables us to offer critical analysis to society’s most pressing political issues.”
Su Teatro produced politically charged plays and skits to support activism and civil rights causes throughout the 1970s. The group began producing full-length original plays in the 1980s that celebrated the cultural heritage of Chicanos, Mexicanos, and Latinos in the Americas and sought to demystify those cultures’ identities. Despite their artistic success, Su Teatro was a mobile theater company with no permanent home.
“As I was carrying set pieces up the stairs of a theater we were renting, I began thinking about how stupid it was that we were paying to perform our original shows in other people’s spaces,” Garcia said.
Garcia looked for a space until 1989 when the organization bought the historic Elyria School and transformed it into El Centro Su Teatro, a multidisciplinary cultural arts center.
“It was awful how ignored and rundown that area was at the time,” Garcia said. “The neighbors were interested but wanted to know what they were going to do for their community and their kids. So, that was the beginning of our youth programs and the start of our efforts to highlight the disparities in Elyria and other Chicano communities.”
For 22 years, Su Teatro brought international attention and artists to Elyria.
“I had gotten the space designated as a historical landmark, which meant we could make minimal changes to the building,” Garcia said. “And we had grown to the point where we needed a larger stage, more seats, more space for educational classes, and bigger offices.”
After a six-year search, Su Teatro purchased the Denver Civic Theatre on the Westside in October 2010. Su Teatro has grown into a community center, and it is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary. Su Teatro’s current marketing coordinator, Marialuisa Meza-Burgos, exemplifies the theater’s programs and outreach efforts.
“I’m from Pueblo, and I first saw Su Teatro when they came to my middle school,” Meza- Burgos said. “I thought what they were doing was so inspiring, so when I moved to Denver for college, I sought them out and have been with them ever since.”
She did a work-study internship with Su Teatro, where she learned about arts administration and what goes into running a successful theater. Meza-Burgos has worked with Su Teatro for the past 10 years and said she is honored to be doing such important work.
“Our stories are less heard on a mainstream level,” Meza-Burgos says. “So, we have to fight to have our voices heard. I like how we have been able to respond to important social issues through storytelling and songs that would otherwise be untold.”
Despite gentrification and displacement in the Denver metro area, as well as COVID-19, Su Teatro has emerged in a stronger financial position than ever before, all while caring for the community around them.
The organization was able to keep its entire staff employed throughout the pandemic, establish a fund for members who were struggling, secure an annual budget of $1 million, and raise the money to pay off their mortgage.
To celebrate paying off the building, Su Teatro invites supporters to join them for a ceremonial mortgage burning at 4 p.m. on Jan. 27 at 721 Santa Fe Drive in the southside parking lot of their building. After the ceremony, patrons will enter the building to toast the community while enjoying food, drinks, and music to celebrate the theater’s success