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Latino theater in limelight

Once a long shot, the FITLA festival turns 5, and it's broadening its reach and aspirations.

October 28, 2006|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

When the International Latino Theatre Festival of Los Angeles began in 2002, it was an ambitious, low-budget operation dependent on the kindness of strangers and countless volunteer hours.

Five years later, the festival (known by its Spanish-language acronym, FITLA) is still an ambitious, low-budget outfit that relies on sweat equity to cover its costs. But there's a difference.

FITLA started out as a long shot in a city where theater for many years existed in the film industry's long shadow. Top-drawer Spanish-language stage works were particularly hard to find, despite the region's vast Latino population.

Those conditions posed a steep challenge to FITLA's mission of bringing quality troupes and solo performers from throughout the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking worlds to L.A. audiences, such as Malayerba of Ecuador and Peru's superb Yuyachkani ensemble, which has presented two signature works, "Antigone" and "Santiago," in Los Angeles.

"We thought we would last many years, but we had no idea how long we'd last," says Esther Maria Hernandez, who was born and raised in Cuba and is a founding board member of FITLA and professor of theater and Spanish at Claremont McKenna College.

Gradually, however, the festival has boosted its odds of long-term survival by gaining sponsorship from the likes of Target Stores, the James Irvine Foundation, Ralph's Food 4 Less and Washington Mutual, as well as support from the California Arts Council and the National Performance Network. Meanwhile, its aspirations have continued to grow, even as FITLA recently has weathered the loss of some key artistic personnel, including former executive director William Flores, who resigned to pursue other projects.

Perhaps most significantly, this year's edition, which runs through Nov. 18, shows how FITLA has extended its reach beyond Southern California Latinos to a variety of L.A. audiences and venues. For example, the 2006 festival will close with the Los Angeles premiere of "The Fifth Commandment" (Nov. 16-18) at REDCAT in downtown Los Angeles. In the performance piece, Costa Rican American artist Elia Arce and two locally recruited U.S. Marine veterans will use theater, music, film and video to examine the conflict between personal morality and the brutal imperatives of wartime.

FITLA also is partnering with Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica for a return engagement of "La oscura raiz" ("Dark Root") by the Mexican body-movement ensemble Teatro Linea de Sombra. Earlier this fall, as part of FITLA's "Mexico en Los Angeles" initiative, performances were held at two smaller venues in L.A., the 24th Street Theatre and the MET Theatre.

Jesus Castanos-Chima, a Los Angeles actor ("Quinceanera") and director who will direct the play "El jardin de los reyes" ("The Garden of the Kings"), says that the 24th Street Theatre, which is located in a heavily Latino-ized neighborhood near USC, has sought to expand its Spanish-speaking audience over the years.

Castanos-Chima says "El jardin," which will be performed by Project TLAUAS of the Autonomous University of Sinaloa in northwestern Mexico, simultaneously speaks to Mexican immigrants' nostalgia for their homeland while also addressing the traumas that have afflicted their country: civil war, drug-related violence and domestic strife.

This has been "a critical year" for FITLA, Castanos-Chima says, as it had to cope with personnel and structural changes. Some even feared that the festival might be canceled. But "new blood" and energy have come into the organization, he asserts. "I think the people have redoubled their effort," he says, citing more sponsorships and an increased investment in publicizing the festival to give it more of a personality and identity.

FITLA, he believes, gradually has raised the level of cultural awareness among L.A.'s Latino community, which historically has included large numbers of immigrants with little formal education or exposure to the arts outside their native communities. "I think one of the premises of theater is to educate," he says.

In keeping with that goal, FITLA attempts to present a spectrum of theatrical styles, from conceptual and experimental pieces to the full-blown pageantry of "El oro de la revolucion mexicana" ("The Gold of the Mexican Revolution"), which will be performed by another Sinaloan company, TATUAS, at Rancho El Farallon in El Monte. The spectacle, complete with horsemen, sword battles and flaming torches, re-creates a Sinaloan tradition in which performers re-create events from the Mexican Revolution on the banks of the Culiacan river in the state of Sinaloa.

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