You're not going to believe this, but Alberto Justiniano says the inspiration for Teatro del Pueblo's political theater festival came from Ireland. He was there on a fellowship program right after the 2000 presidential elections.
"I was in a pub in Wicklow and I was embarrassed by people who knew more than me about politics, Latin American politics and U.S. politics," says Justiniano. "They even knew the electoral votes."
Justiniano returned to St. Paul with a sense of both shame and determination. At Teatro del Pueblo, where he is artistic director, he created the political theater festival, which is now in its fifth year. Each night of the festival a person can see three different short works. Some are in English, some mix in Spanish, and some are entirely in Spanish with English surtitles.
Justiniano says Teatro del Pueblo bases its theater on the Latin American political theater of the 1950s, '60s and '70s.
"One of the cases that come to mind was in Chile, during the Pinochet regime," says Justiniano, "where the insurgency used political theater and underground theater to communicate and keep their spirits alive."
Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship considered culture and personal expression forms of terrorism. But one theater group called Ictus was so popular that Pinochet let it continue. Ictus satirized Pinochet, and inspired laughter in citizens who otherwise lived in fear and despair. Pinochet tried to break the actors' spirits by killing their families and friends, but they kept performing.
Teatro del Pueblo's political theater festival focuses on the role of women in Latin American politics. In one show, the widow of a political revolutionary agonizes as her son follows in the footsteps of his father. In Echoes from the New World, two girls stumble across their grandmother's old trunk which takes them on a whirlwind tour of Latin American history.
To tell these stories, Teatro del Pueblo is drawing on elements of Theater of the Opressed, a participatory form of theater established in the 1970s by Brazilian director and activist Augusto Boal. It also draws inspiration from El Teatro Campesino, the cultural wing of the United Farm Workers' union. Under Cesar Chavez, El Teatro Campesino took popular theater on the road to migrant workers in the bean fields of California's central valley.
"What it did was it brought theater to the community," says Justiniano. "It was social theater, and it dealt with the issues of justice and other things they were dealing with at the time."
Justiniano says the Latino community of the Twin Cities is growing fast, and many of the immigrants are coming from countries in the midst of political upheaval. But Justiniano says most Minnesotans have no sense of the world these immigrants have left behind.
"I think it's important for us to be that portal to the rest of the country, or in this case, Minnesotans," says Justiniano," so they can see Latin America through our eyes."
Justiniano says in the past about two-thirds of his audience has been Caucasian. This year, he's hoping to draw a more diverse crowd.
For the first time, Teatro del Pueblo has joined forces with the University of Minnesota to host two theater groups: Teatro La Mascara from Colombia and Avinon Teatro from Peru. He hopes the different Latino communities will learn each other's stories.
Diana Dominguez directs Echoes from the New World. She says the members of Teatro del Pueblo are learning a lot about latino history as they work.
"When I started working on this show I was amazed at all the things I didn't know had happened. All of the historical events, contents, figures, facts, people," says Dominguez. "Going through public schools, I felt a disservice that I had not been made to know the truth about certain events."
Dominguez says she hopes audiences will come away entertained by the plays in the festival, and be inspired to learn more about their neighbors to the south. And even their neighbors right here in the Twin Cities.