COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: Bringing Latino Tradition to the Theater - An Interview with Jose Luis Valenzuela


Born in the U.S. and raised in Mexico until the age of 21, Jose Luis Valenzuela got his first taste of acting in school productions in Mexico. Eventually, he returned to the U.S. to pursue a graduate program in social studies. But the acting bug bit deep, and Jose soon began his professional acting career in Chicano Theater in 1970. He moved to Los Angeles in 1984 and became a founding member of the Latino Theater Lab.

In 1984, he was invited by Los Angeles Theater Center founding members Bill Bushnell and Duane White to their new theater in the former Security Pacific National Bank building – which by then had been converted by the City into a theater space as part of a plan to revitalize downtown Los Angeles. In 1986, the company finally presented its first full production, a play about immigration called La Victima. In 1995, the Latino Theater Lab changed its name to the Latino Theater Company and has been operating as a non-profit ever since. In 1995, Jose Luis Valenzuela also became their first artistic director, a role he has had for the past 25 years. Over the years, multi-talented Jose has been an actor, director, and producer. Jose took time from his busy schedule to interview in April 2020.


Cast of "La Victima" - Photo by Jintak Han

Tell us more about the Latino Theater Company. What is your mission? How big a group are you? 

Jose Luis Valenzuela: The actual company is small. Six members are left from the original group 35 years ago. We have 11 full time people, and we hire part timers as we need them. Our mission is to bring people from different cultures together to make the world better and aid in mutual understanding. We produce the entire season. Now we have lots of departments. We have educational programs, theater productions, and a writing festival in the summer. Mostly, we produce new plays.

We have a 20-year lease with the City. It expires in 2026, and we hope to get a long extension then. We pay $1 a year, but we do all the maintenance. It costs us $350,000 just to open the doors, and that’s not counting repairs. That’s just for the basics. To some extent, we depend on ticket sales, so you can imagine how the theater shut-down in March affected us.

Cast of "Dementia" - Photo by Christopher Ash

When did you close the theater due to COVID-19? Were you in the middle of a run?

JLV:  We shut down on March 14. We were rehearsing La Victima, a play we first did in 1986. We brought back the original version about immigration because it remains as relevant today as it did in the 1970s. We were going to tour local high schools and colleges with a free presentation. We planned to open our new season on April 16. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

Marta Carrasco in "Perra De Nadie" - Photo by David Ruano

Over the past weeks, how has COVID-19 impacted your theater?

JLV:  We had to postpone our 2020 season and cancel entirely our presentation of two companies which were going to come from Spain. Barcelona’s Marta Carrassco was supposed to present two plays in repertory (Perra de Nadie and Jo, Dona, a Lili Elbe). Kulunka Teatro was supposed to return with their Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle award-winning production of Andre and Dorine.

It’s been very difficult financially. Even if our rent is low, we need to keep up the building. That’s really expensive. We’re also trying to hold on to our staff, but that’s hard to do under these circumstances. Now our hourly employees are without jobs.

"Andre & Dorine" - Photo by Gonzalo Jerez and Manuel D.

Are you doing anything right now to keep your live theater going? Streaming? Having virtual meetings? Planning for your next show when you reopen? Auditioning?

JLV:  We’re having a lot of virtual staff meetings. All the full time employees are working remotely from home and still on salary. At this point, I don’t know when we will re-open; but we’re all set up to begin as soon as we can. Hopefully, that will be in the fall. We would like to open on August 29, 2020, with a play called August 29. It’s about a journalist in LA who was killed in 1970. The play marks a 50-year celebration, a City and County remembrance. We have the director and designers, and we’re supposed to be auditioning right now – but we’re not because everything is up in the air.

We want to put shows on the internet, and we’re trying to stream a play we did before – but it’s complicated because of the union. We’re putting things on our Facebook website. Beginning next week, we want to have conversations about a play; it will be streamed live and available for people from the website. Maybe we can show a little bit of a show, and people can read the script before the live stream. We plan to send emails to everyone telling them how to get into the scripts and some video scenes. We’d like to do whole shows, but we can’t afford all the costs that would entail.

Esperanza America in "The Mother of Henry" - Photo by Andrew Vasquez

What do you think will be the impact of COVID-19 on live theater in general in Los Angeles? Do you foresee any permanent changes?

JLV:   It’s really hard to say. Right now, most people are watching television and films and using the internet while quarantined in their homes. I wonder what will happen in this society if the shut-down lasts a long time. But I think we’ll find a way through it. There’s something about people looking at humans doing things and having intellectual conversations face-to-face. Somehow, people are attracted to being with other people. We are social beings, and theater offers dialog with each other on an intimate level. I think people will always find that important and appealing.

Sam Golzari, Esperanza America, Olivia Cristina Delgado, Ella Saldana North, Julio Macias, Kenneth Miles, and Ellington Lopez in "A Mexican Trilogy" - Photo by Grettel Cortes Photography

What do you need right now to keep going forward? What would you like from the theater public?

JLV:  The public should know that we are planning to open as soon as they tell us it’s safe. We need people to come to the theater when we have the opening.  We are going to need people to support us.

What are some of your future plans?

JLV:  When we’re allowed to reopen, we’re planning on presenting several shows. I already mentioned “August 29.” We’re also planning on Sleep with the Angels, a story about a young boy with Mexican parents who’s trying to decide his gender. Another show we want to do is The Last Angry Brown Hat. It’s about the Mexican Brown Berets in the 1970s; that’s a Mexican group a lot like the Black Panthers. We also have Ravine on our agenda. The play tells what happens when the city decides to build Dodgers Stadium and forces the Mexicans living in that area to re-locate. We’re also working on La Virgen de Guadalupe, Dios Inantzin, our annual Christmas play.

So you can see that we have lots of plans and want to grow and bring our message to every Angelino. In the meantime, we’ll keep planning and hoping for the end of the pandemic.


This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.



La Virgen in Los Angeles - 17 Years And Counting- A Conversation with Playwright Evelina Fernandez

Lauded playwright Evelina Fernandez's gorgeous and long-running annual play pageant La Virgen de Guadalupe, Dio Inantzin (Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Mother of God), will perform at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Downtown Los Angeles for the 17th year on December 6 & 7, at 7:30pm. As she and the team prepare to present the show again this year, I had to find out more about the production, its history, and a few tid bits on this year's presentation.

RQM: This is your 17th year - congratulations on such a long-running and successful run of this special event. Let's go back to the beginning - how did La Virgen get started?

EF: Thanks so much! We, the Latino Theater Company, first produced La Virgen at the Million Dollar Theater in 1991 right after the closing of the original LATC where we were in residence as the Latino Theater Lab and we later performed it at St. Alphonsus Church in East L.A. For those early productions we used El Teatro Campesino's version "La Virgen del Tepeyac" by Luis Valdez. Fast forward to 2002 when Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral was almost completed and our Artistic Director, Jose Luis Valenzuela, thought it would be wonderful to perform "La Virgen" there. The first response from the Cathedral staff was a "no." But, in November they changed their mind and we scrambled to make it happen, not wanting to pass up the opportunity. Campesino's script wasn't available so we decided to write our own adaptation with our own original music and we called it, La Virgen de Guadalupe, Dios Inantzin (Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Mother of God) and we've been doing it ever since.

RQM: One of the things that excites me about the show is that it gives voice to indigenous peoples and celebrates their role in the mythos and ethos of the Virgen story. What research was involved with developing that aspect of the show?

EF: There are many versions of this story. But, the genesis of all of them is the Nican Mopohua, the Nahuatl narrative of the four apparitions of La Virgen de Guadalupe to Saint Juan Diego in 1531. I chose to embrace a new translation, "Tonantzin Guadalupe," by Miguel Leon Portilla (2000) which is a secular recounting of the Nican Mopohua that emphasizes Nahua culture and spirituality, unlike previous translations. I also read any and all scripts of the story that I could get my hands on, from the very religious to the very comical.

RQM: Has the show changed and evolved over the years? If so, how?

EF: Absolutely! The first year we performed at the Cathedral we had hand-held microphones and hand-held lights that began to lose power in the middle of the show. We have added new elements over the years like handmade indigenous costumes and music and dance solos that have grown organically from the participants. The story is the story, but the telling of it has grown and developed into the beautiful production you see today. Several years ago we added english supertitles to make the show more accessible for non-Spanish speakers and, most recently, we've added video projections and new sets that are designed as Mexican folk shadow boxes for the Virgin's apparitions. In addition, the script has changed over the years as I include new rhythms, suggestions and improvisations by the actors, many of whom have performed in the show for 17 years.

RQM: Theatre and religion have long lived hand in hand - back to the Egyptians, the Greeks, and later the Catholic mystery plays. What is the collaborative relationship like with the Cathedral?

EF: From the beginning the collaboration with the Cathedral has been one of mutual respect and support. The first years we performed, Cardinal Mahoney played a key role in introducing the play and the relationship between theater, music and cathedrals throughout history as gathering places to enjoy the arts. The new and open attitude of the Cathedral, the access to all to be on the altar and even sit in the Cardinal's chair made it easy for us to put up the play there. Even now, audiences are surprised that the Aztec dances take place on the altar and even consider it subversive (in the positive sense). After 17 years of working together, we have developed a "system", per se, of offering this holiday gift to all Angelenos and especially to poor and working people who cannot afford to take their families to other holiday offerings in the City.

RQM: I imagine this show attracts both traditional theatre goers as well as those who don't normally attend traditional theatre productions. What's the take away for you as a playwright to write a piece that speaks so broadly and widely to people?

EF: I always say that this is my favorite show because of the community in the play and the people who attend. Many of the participants, actors and community, have been part of the show since the beginning and doing the play is part of their holiday tradition. Yes, it's a play, but for our community, it is so much more. La Virgen de Guadalupe has long been a symbol of social justice for our community because she is the Virgin that looks like us. It's a story of hope and perseverance, but it is also story about racism, classism and the abuse of the indigenous people in Mexico after the conquest. It represents triumph for the underdog and the eventual reconciliation of the indigenous and European which represents who we are now as Mestizos. It's also wonderful to have this pageant attended and lauded by traditional theatre goers because I believe it promotes dignity and understanding of Mexican indigenous culture.

RQM: I've been told we have a new Virgin this year. Tell us a little about her and her work.

EF: Esperanza America has covered for Suzanna Guzman in the past. She's been in many of the Latino Theater Company productions at our theater, the LATC ; "A Mexican Trilogy" and, most recently, she played La Virgen in "The Mother of Henry." She's been in our productions of La Virgen since she was 5 years old. This year Suzanna had a conflict with the dates and so Esperanza is going on for her again. She has a beautiful voice and is a lovely actor. Oh, and she happens to be my and Jose Luis's daughter!