Looking Back. Giving Back. (Hint: Los Angeles Show)

When I was in high school, I was pretty busy. I competed in the ‘quiz bowl-type’ TV show we had back home called “Masterminds.” I was a member of the academic decathlon team (I won medals) and photo editor of my yearbook (they still somehow misspelled my name).  Aside from that though, I was a theater nerd too. Not only was I a member but president of the drama club.

I wanted to go to college to study theater but my family had no money. I hoped and prayed I’d get any assistance via scholarships, grants, etc….

One of the only pics I have of me during my theater nerd days. With my mom.

One of the only pics I have of me during my theater nerd days. With my mom.

It’s weird.  When you’re in that position, the one where you know that you’re on your own because your family can’t afford to give you one cent to pay for school, high school can be stressful. At least it was to me…because everything I did felt like it mattered so much.

I was heavily involved in the theater program. I always thought it was my way to get into college. I figured that if I was good enough, I’d get a theater scholarship. I’d get a number of scholarships that hopefully would add up to an amount that would allow me to get the education I wanted.

My high school in Texas competed in the one-act play competition. Basically, we put on a short, condensed version of a play and compete against other schools. If we won, we’d advance with the hopes that we could maybe get to the state level.

My high school drama teachers (Mr. Robert Gomez and Ms. Ofelia Gonzalez) put a lot of work into the drama program. Ms. Gonzalez and I ended up traveling together a lot during my high school years because I’d go compete at nationals in the summer or to state in theater and she was my chaperone. My teachers would look for plays that seemed to be a good fit with us students for the one act competition and I remember every year, always having to patiently wait for them to unveil to find out what play we were going to do.

I used to read a lot of plays when I was in high school because I just loved theater so much. I used to average about three plays a week…sometimes even more.  I was always trying to find Latino playwrights because I wanted to see if I could find plays written by people like me….and that is how I found a play called Real Women have Curves. That is how I found Josefina Lopez.

I grew up in a border town in south Texas. I was millions of miles away from Broadway, from Hollywood. From anything.  I loved her play when I first read it mostly because she wrote how people I knew spoke. Her play had Spanish in it, the story was about immigration; it had themes I recognized. The play kinda gave me hope that if she existed, then others existed like her that lived through similar things like I did and wrote about them. I write about her to set up the excitement I had when months later my teachers announce that the last play I will be part of before I graduate high school was written by Josefina Lopez. A play called Unconquered Spirits, telling the story of the Latino urban legend of La Llorona. It told a story of how La Llorona came to be, a story about the spirit of this Latina that travels through times from the 16th Century to the 1930s. I loved it.

I was cast as the lead of the play, which I loved because it told the story of this incredibly strong Mexican woman. I thought it was the perfect play to say goodbye to my high school years, before I headed off to college and then the real world…I kept thinking to myself, “If this is the kind of play you get to do in high school…imagine what you’ll get to perform when you’re out of school and in the real world?” (Only a decade later did I realize that as a Latina, I would get brought in for more maids in TV/movies. I remember thinking, “Did I peak in high school?”)

We competed with Unconquered Spirits in the one-act play and we won several rounds with my winning Best Actress in all of them. This play, those awards helped me get a partial theater scholarship (the school I decided to go to didn’t offer full theater scholarships-yay!).

This play was really important to me. It was the first time I had performed something written by a Latina.  I was already doing another Latino play called The Boiler Room written by Reuben Gonzalez for my solo stuff. It’s a fantastic play that tells the story of a Latino family that lives in the basement of a building in Spanish Harlem. Unconquered Spirits was different. Josefina wrote about strong women and by performing her play, I found myself to feel like I was a strong woman.

Years later, I dropped out of college due to family obligations. My mom was starting to get sick…and also, I just couldn’t afford it so I moved back home. I still had this thing in me that said I should act but I found myself back in my border town, still millions of miles away from anything having to do with theater, or really anything tied to performing.

I don’t want to write about my path again because I’ve blogged about it before. I’ll sum it up for those of you that haven’t read about it yet. I lost my mom when I was twenty-one. I fell into a deep depression and drank a lot. I got a DUI. I learned my lesson and started doing stand up as a way to express what I was feeling about losing my mom and also because I was tired of waiting to have opportunities come my way. I figured that if I was going to get anywhere, I was going to have to try to create the opportunities myself.

Twelve years after my mom passed away and I started doing stand up, I got my own TV show. The TV show in a way was kind of a love letter to my mom.  I guess that’s why it always made me mad when some people called the mother character a ‘stereotype.’ It wasn’t a stereotype…it was really a tribute to the person my mom really was. The show was set in a real time in my life…the time right before my mom died. A lot of people don’t know that. The show takes places leading up to my mom’s death. I thought it was important to tell my story and show that life can be filled with laughter even in the saddest times.

My show premiered on ABC on October 10, 2014. In the month leading up to it, the network had me doing screenings of the pilot episode at different places so that people could get a sneak peek. On one of those screenings (that took place at ABC) I met Josefina Lopez, the woman whose play (Unconquered Spirits) I had done years ago and pretty much opened my eyes to strong Latina playwrights. I can’t tell you how weird it felt to know that I was screening the pilot for my own TV show in front of a woman whose work I had become a fan of when I was in high school.

We’ve become friends since then, Josefina and I. She lives in Boyle Heights. Boyle Heights is the area of LA that I go to when I’m homesick for south Texas. It’s where I can get an elote, a fuzzy tiger blanket, a St. Jude statue…you know, the necessities.

So now we’re at the point of my blog where I talk about the point of writing it. Right now, when we’re in the middle of talking about diversity, or the lack of it in the entertainment world, I think it’s important to know what people like Josefina have been doing for the advancement of Latinos in theater.  Josefina has a theater in Boyle Heights called Casa 0101. Not only does the theater put on shows throughout the year, it also teaches classes to kids and adults that want to learn more about different aspects of theater from movement to writing to performing. The classes are donation-based. You give what you can. They don’t turn away people because they don’t have money to pay…the goal of the theater is teach you if you have a desire to learn.

So here’s the deal. I’m doing a stand up show at Casa 0101 on March 17. It’s a fundraiser. I’m doing the show for free but the theater is selling tickets for $25. The goal is to sell the tickets and use all the money to help pay for the space and everything that is needed to help cover its costs.  It’s a small space so only around 100 tickets will be sold. Like I said, all the money raised that night will go towards the theater.

I told Josefina I wanted to do a fundraiser for the theater because of a couple things. The neighborhood the theater is located in reminds me of MY neighborhood in south Texas and I remember how hard it was for me to stay inspired at times because when you don’t have access to any kind of theater, it’s easy for some of us to give up on our dream of performing. And I hate that. I want people that grew up like I did to feel like they have the chance to dream and go after what they want to pursue. I want the neighborhood kids that are growing up like I did to know that if THEY want to do it, they can. They should have access to classes, to get the opportunity to learn and not have to worry about money being a barrier.

I also really believe that when we’re lucky enough to get an opportunity, it’s your duty to turn around and see what you can do to give back.  None of this is a competition; it’s about breaking down a door and holding it so others can come in as well. It’s about giving back when you can and trying to help wherever you can. I want to give back to Josefina Lopez. In a way, I feel like I have to. Her play came into my life at such an important moment, I want to pay her back for writing a story that allowed me to win awards in high school and in a way, help me get into college.

So, I invite you to come and hang out with me for the night. It should be fun. I’m bringing a couple comic friends so it’ll be a great night of stand up…and if anyone has any questions they’d like to ask me about ANYTHING, maybe I’ll do answer some after the show. Ha.

I hope to see some of you there. This is a thank you to Josefina for being a strong Latina voice in the theater world. Her voice is so loud and so strong…that years ago, it reached a girl in south Texas that lived a million miles away from everything.

If you’re in the area on March 17th, come on out and help support this great, little theater.

Remember: In order for us to aspire, we need to have something to dream towards. For ticket info, click on the pic below: