Teatro Latino remembered as its founder battles cancer

A newspaper clipping with a photo of people with masks.
Veronica Mendez looks through an album of memorabilia from Teatro Latino, which was founded by her mother Ana Maria Mendez in the 1980s.
Nicole Neri | MPR News

Editor’s note: Ana Maria Mendez died Monday. She was 74.

Veronica Mendez Moore sat, legs crossed, on the sofa in her living room, turning the pages of a green binder that holds newspaper clippings, play bills and descriptions of plays. 

More than that, the binder holds her mother’s legacy.

Ana Maria Mendez was a founding member of Teatro Latino. The theater company debuted its first production in Minneapolis in September 1981 and staged its last play nearly two decades later. Their productions were at the Pillsbury House. And as Mendez battles terminal cancer, her daughter wants to make sure everything her mother accomplished is remembered.

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As Mendez Moore flips through the binder, memories of the plays and actors come flooding back.

“This is when they performed in Cuernavaca,” Mendez Moore said, pointing to a page in the binder.

A woman smiles as she looks through a scrapbook.
"What she’s left for me, leaving for me, is just that sense of, let things be beautiful, let things be fun, let things be alive,” Mendez Moore says of her mother, the backbone of Teatro Latino.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

Mendez was, by all accounts, the backbone of Teatro Latino from its very first production.

The theater brought together a diverse group of Latinos from Peruvians to Mexicans to Puerto Ricans.

“The plays and theater was all about showing what Latino identity meant in Minnesota,” Mendez Moore said.

From the beginning, the plays were bilingual. The vision of the theater troupe, including Mendez’s, was to create a space for Latinos where they could come and see their experience being acted out publicly, Mendez Moore said.

“That was hard to do because of the size of the population. But the audience was still not as Latino as I think, ultimately, they would have hoped it would be,” Mendez Moore said. “But it just feels so clear that they built the foundation for that to be true.”

The plays performed by the theater company had a political or ideological theme. The very first play dealt with family separation — an issue that 40 years later still resonates.

Among other plays performed were “Quien Sabe Quien Soy?” and “The Melting Plot.” 

“Quien Sabe Quien Soy?” dealt with the identity issues many Latinos face — not American enough in the United States, but at the same time not Mexican enough or Puerto Rican enough. It would go on to become an award-winning production.

“The Melting Plot” dealt with the plight of children who were abducted and brought to the U.S. from Latin America.

Lizz Cruz Petersen joined Teatro Latino soon after moving to the Twin Cities from New Jersey in 1984. Mendez’s love and commitment to Teatro Latino went beyond the productions, Cruz Petersen said.

“She was definitely instrumental in bringing that awareness to me and to everyone else,” Cruz Petersen said.

And Cruz Peterson said Mendez always made sure the cast was taken care of.

“After rehearsals we would go somewhere to get something to eat. You know, it was like, ‘OK, we need to eat. We need to talk about this. We need to engage in a more social level.’ Because when we had the rehearsals, they were intense,” Cruz Petersen said.

A wall with shelves filled with glass bottles.
Ana Maria Mendez's collection of small glass bottles and lanterns displayed in her daughter Veronica Mendez's home.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

On a personal level, Mendez had a huge impact on Cruz Petersen and her future work.

“Every aspect of the theater was important for her — from the inception of the play and rehearsals all the way through the actual production. There was that respect for that script, respect for each other, the respect for the director, respect for the audience in the community,” Cruz Petersen said.

Those things stayed with Cruz Peterson, and she uses them in her work as a professor and writer who works specifically with the Latino community and with women and gender issues.

Virginia McFerran met Ana Maria Mendez when she joined Teatro Latino in 1983, and their friendship has endured for nearly four decades.

“I was just there to study. I was doing research,” McFerran said. “And it turns into kind of a 40-year side road. It’s like the Robert Frost poem, about two roads diverged. All of a sudden you’re on the path less traveled by. It just changed my life. And Ana has changed my life.”

Mendez was part of Teatro Latino from the beginning and was there until the end, McFerran said.

“The whole journey became a labor of love. It was more than just working on a play, producing a show,” McFerran said.

As she talks about what she sees as her mom’s legacy, Veronica Mendez Moore’s eyes fill with tears. A single tear wells over and slides down her cheek.

A woman sits at a table.
Veronica Mendez in her home.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

“My mom was very clear about all injustices and exploitation that happened in the world, but she was always a very big believer in not taking ourselves in life so seriously,” Mendez Moore said.  

That meant having fun, being creative and artistic and taking risks to do those things, she said.

“That’s what’s been sitting with me as I think about my mom, and what she’s done in her life. And what she’s left for me, leaving for me, is just that sense of, let things be beautiful, let things be fun, let things be alive,” Mendez Moore said. “Yes, we need to care about the gravity of everything that’s happening in the world, but we can’t let it stop us from having joy.”

Vicki Adame covers Minnesota’s Latino communities for MPR News via Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues and communities.